NJAHS celebrates preservation of history

The National Japanese American Historical Society held its annual fundraising dinner with a night of awards, hula and a raffle March 29 at the Hotel Kabuki in San Francisco’s Japantown. Some 170 people attended the event emceed by Anny Hong of KRON 4 and George Kiriyama, formerly of NBC Bay Area.

The evening, celebrated under the theme “Crosscurrents: Preserving history through change,” focused on those who have supported NJAHS’ “extraordinary contributions to preserve our history, while embracing change.”

This year’s event honored Sen. Daniel Kahikina Akaka with a lifetime achievement award and community awards for Karl Matsushita of the Japanese American National Library, and Sandy Mori and Bob Hamaguchi of the Japantown Task Force and the Japanese Bilingual and Bicultural Program at Rosa Parks Elementary School.

NJAHS board members and staff, 2013 San Francisco Cherry Blossom Festival queen court princesses Michiko Marie Maggi and Jamie Sachiko Martyn, veterans and other community members attended the event. J-Town Hui and Halau Ka Liko Pua O Kalaniakea provided the evening’s music and entertainment.

Keeping a Record
Matsushita, executive director of the Japanese American National Library, accepted his award for his 45 years of work with the library, one of the largest collections of Japanese American literature in the United States boasting some 40,000 books and records of the Japanese American Citizens League, the Japanese American Redress Movement and writing and documents from World War II American concentration camps.

“Basically, this library got started from the San Francisco State’s ethnic studies strike,” Matsushita said during his introductory video. During the 1968 strike, Matsushita was a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley and was asked to develop a curriculum for Japanese American history alongside Tetsuden Kashima and Jim Hirabayashi. “The reason for that is, students who started the movement … were primarily undergrads, they had no idea what the curriculum was.”

According to Matsushita, the strike created the Center for Japanese American Studies to implement the curriculum, and out of the Center, the library was developed in 1969.

“We’re the only ethnic community based library in the country… the reason for that is, it’s very difficult to raise money,” he said. Matsushita said organizations such as his would normally be funded by a larger parent organization, whereas the JANL subsists on its own through fundraising and its patrons. “How we manage, to be honest, I don’t know how we survived all these years … people keep telling me, ‘you’re the one organization that shouldn’t exist.’” Matsushita said the only reason his organization has survived so long is the support of people who wished to preserve the literature the collection houses.

The library also houses extensive documents on redress and the JACL. Matsushita said since their formation predated the redress movement, their collection is “one of the most complete.” They are further supplemented by donations of Japanese writing from the Issei and Nisei and through Matsushita’s contacts from when he worked at a used book dealer.

Matsushita’s work has garnered him a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission of the National Archives, one of the most prestigious grants in the field.

Matsushita told those at the dinner, “cultural heritage is a part of our soul.” He thanked his benefactors, especially The Henri and Tomoye Takahashi Charitable Foundation, for helping him continue the library. “Many of us who are directors, who try to preserve the Japanese American heritage, face many challenges. We have to work full time to raise money and we have to work full time to implement programs. We put in 60 to 80 hours per week,” he said. “We keep on working because there are people who care about Japanese American culture.”

Planning for Japantown
NJAHS recognized the Japantown Task Force through Mori, its board president, and Hamaguchi, its executive director, for bringing together San Francisco Japantown’s community to protect and bolster its future.

Mori said the nonprofit Task Force has its roots in a 52-person group of businesses, residents, community benefit organizations and other community members in the ethnic enclave that was formed in 1999. The organization, formally established in 2001 from the ad-hoc group, is now run by three staff members, including Hamaguchi, and headed by a board of eight community stakeholders. It has spent more than a decade helping to craft three iterations of a plan that became the Japantown Economic Cultural Heritage and Economic Sustainability Strategy, a document recognized by the San Francisco Planning Department and Board of Supervisors that addresses Japantown’s future needs and concerns.

“(The plan) basically supports the idea of maintaining Japantown,” Mori said in the introductory video. She said her organization must consider Japantown’s community benefit organizations, the long-time family businesses and the growing number of Shin-Issei immigrants who arrived in the United States after the war.

“The plan itself would give the community a voice to zoning and planning the neighborhood. People had to set their differences aside in order to get that done,” Hamaguchi said.

Aside from the JCHESS, the Task Force also conducts the Japantown Economic Development and Marketing Program to help the some 200 businesses located within the ethnic enclave, Hamaguchi said. According to Hamaguchi, the organization has worked to create new branding materials such as banners and signage and is working to plant more cherry blossom trees in and around Japantown.

While economic development is important, Hamaguchi said he recognizes the importance of Japantown’s community-oriented resources.

“Our JCHESS document emphasizes the fact we want to maintain a neighborhood character and not create a commercial ‘Disneyland,’” he said. “Our youth are very much in need of having a Japantown. … Whether it’s just to come and eat, whether they come to shop, or whether it’s to come take a taiko drumming class, it’s an opportunity to come to one place to experience all of those things.”

“This really is an issue of collaboration,” Mori said in accepting the award. “We have to communicate with (the various stakeholders in Japantown) to have a voice in city hall. It’s not always unified, but we have to have a voice.

Hamaguchi spoke on the future direction of the organization, and said that the Task Force is currently restructuring to create an implementation body for the JCHESS. Mori asked those present to get involved with the process and Hamaguchi said the organization will announce more in the coming months on its new board and mission.

Nurturing a Future Generation
The final community award honoree was the Japanese Bilingual and Bicultural Program at the Rosa Parks Elementary School. Emily Murase, a San Francisco Unified School District board member, said in the introductory film, that JBBP is unique by having native speaking teachers and being located just outside of San Francisco’s Japantown. Prior to moving to the school, the program went through 10 different locations in 20 years before settling in Rosa Parks, a school “on the verge of closing” due to low enrollment, bad test scores and no parent-teacher association. Murase said the dedication JBBP parents had for the program and the larger school helped to stabilize the school.

Murase said the school has a diverse body of students and is on its way to meeting the threshold of the Academic Performance Index and, for the first time, now has a waiting list for admission. “The JBBP is a signature program because there are few public programs that teach the Japanese language and culture in K-12 for free,” she said. Murase said the program residing at the school is “hugely symbolic,” as the school was formerly a gathering place for Japanese American families on their way to the concentration camps during the war.

Deborah Lamascus Hamilton, PTA board member, said many Japanese Americans felt the loss of their culture in the postwar years through assimilation into American culture. The Japanese American community joined forces with a growing number of Shin-Issei families in the city and “fought” the school district to establish the program.

According to the introductory video, half of the students enrolled at Rosa Parks are part of the JBBP, and the families involved with the program have helped Rosa Parks as a whole.

“They have a clear vision. JBBP has influenced everybody,” said Paul Jacobson, the school’s principal. “They know what is important to children, they know how to get children to excel.”

Glynis Nakahara, of the PTA’s advisory board, said in the video that the JBBP is crucial to connecting families to Japantown and reiterated the message when she accepted the award on stage. “The program is playing a crucial role in connecting families and children to Japanese and Japanese American culture, language and heritage,” Nakahara said. “(The students) will protect and serve as the future stewards for Japantown.”

Nakahara and Jacobson accepted the award on stage with second grader Yurika Takahashi.

A Lifetime of Service
The former senator from Hawai‘i was lauded last with a video biography first aired by Hawaii News Now following his retirement last year. He is known as the first senator of Chinese-Native Hawaiian ancestry, as well as an educator and a veteran, according to NJAHS. Akaka began his political career in 1977 as a congressman. After taking the late-Sen. Spark Matsunaga’s seat in 1990, Akaka served as senator for the remainder of his political career.

Akaka, who was born in Honolulu, served in the Pacific Theater during World War II. He suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder during the war, and later, as the chair of the Senate Veteran’s Affairs Committee, played an instrumental part in allocating funding to treat Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with PTSD, the video said. In introducing Akaka Hong added, that he played a key role in securing the Presidential Unit Citations for the Military Intelligence Service members, which normally would not have occurred since the Nisei linguists did not serve together during the war. Additionally, Akaka was a proponent for the 2010 Congressional Gold Medal bill for all Nisei veterans, Hong said. She said he secured money for feasibility studies and preservation efforts for the Angel Island Immigration Station and NJAHS’ Building 640 Military Intelligence Service Historic Learning Center, which opened last year.

Akaka retired last year to spend more time with his family, including his 15 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren. “After we had a family gathering in Hawai‘i, I met many of my great-grandchildren and some of them it was the first time seeing them. Didn’t know their names or who their parents even were,” he said. “I thought it was about time I come home.”

Akaka addressed the dinner attendees with a drawn out “aloha” and recounted why he chose to champion the cause of Japanese Americans and veterans.

Akaka witnessed firsthand the attack on Pearl Harbor as a high school student and the changes Hawai‘i faced as it was placed under martial law. “So many things changed beginning that day. For me too, it changed … From that day on, my life was determined for me.”

Akaka recounted he lived in a diverse community which included a Japanese family whom he “practically lived with.” He said what pained him the most after the attack was what happened to the Japanese family.

“When I was elected to congress I found the opportunity to make changes and to bring about changes,” he said. “I was brought up, if I did anything, I should do it ‘pono’ … In Hawaiian that means justice. So when I thought about my Japanese brothers and sisters, I thought I needed to do things that brought about justice.”

He thanked NJAHS for the honor and personally thanked Judge Bryan Yagi, president of the board for NJAHS, and Rosalyn Tonai, the organization’s executive director. He said he was grateful for the recognition in part because of NJAHS’ esteemed work in projects such as the Building 640, the recently-opened Military Intelligence Service Historic Learning Center at Crissy Field, where Nisei linguists were secretly train before the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

“I’ve been to Building 640. I was really impressed with what I saw,” he said. “I saw that you were putting together a message. That’s what I love. That message for the people of America, the people of the world, to get to know what the Japanese in America went through during that time … I feel what you have done made America a better nation.”

Akaka finished by acknowledging the contribution of not only NJAHS, but the other honorees, and said he hopes for future generations to uphold the work they had collectively created.

The night finished with Akaka singing “Hawaii Aloha” with musical accompaniment by J-Town Hui.

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