Cornerstone. Crowning piece. Heart and soul.
For the better part of three decades, that is how many envisioned what is now the Education Center at the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center on Maui.
The Education Center opened April 13, 2013, and in its first 12 months of operation began meeting those expectations by sharing the story of the Nisei soldiers with more than 1,300 visitors through its programs and resources.
That first year also saw a number of personnel changes at NVMC. It said aloha to executive director Bobby Hill, hired two people to staff the Education Center last summer and accepted the resignation of longtime board secretary Leonard Oka at the annual board meeting in March.
Then, 10 days after the one-year anniversary of the Education Center’s opening came the passing of board member Stanley Izumigawa, a 100th Infantry Battalion veteran.
The departure of Oka and the passing of Izumigawa leaves a void.
Oka founded the nation’s first organization of sons and daughters of Nisei veterans. It was this group that laid the foundation for what would become the NVMC. Izumigawa’s varied support of the NVMC included financial gifts and hands-on participation in its activities.
Though these are big losses for the board, “the organization is in good shape, and we’re not in an emergency mode” to fill the voids, said Brian Moto, the board member who led the fundraising campaign to complete the Education Center and, thus, the NVMC campus.
“We have time to identify the best kind of candidates” for board membership, and also to examine the talents and other attributes a person can bring to the board, Moto said.
Fellow board member David Fukuda agreed, noting that NVMC had a financial reserve and positive cash flow in the year following the completion of the Education Center.
Keeping meticulous track of the money going into and out of the NVMC since 1994 was Wayne Maeda, who ended two decades as board treasurer this past March.
“To handle that through the time, with all the major money . . . was a major undertaking,” Fukuda said.
“When I get there before 6 o’clock and I see a car in the parking lot, I know that would be him (Maeda), signing the checks, getting things ready (before heading to work at First Hawaiian Bank). Real dedicated,” said Fukuda, a retiree who helps maintain the center grounds twice a week.
Maeda’s decision to continue serving on the board “will be vital to us because he has that long history, Fukuda said.
Oka was succeeded as board secretary by Beryl Bal and Paul Mizoguchi succeeded Maeda as treasurer. For now, the executive directorship remains vacant. Moto anticipates the board will take up the matter of a replacement soon.
Meanwhile, day-to-day operation of the Education Center is in the hands of Kyle Watanabe, who was named historical preservation and education program coordinator last July, with Melanie Agrabante overseeing the NVMC office. Both are part-time, paid staffers.
Agrabante herself has a long history with the NVMC. She helped organize the archival collection as a volunteer when it was in temporary quarters in Kahului. She also is a professional photographer who lends that talent to the NVMC.
Watanabe was involved in the Sons and Daughters group from its early days in the 1980s. As an NVMC volunteer, he managed the original donor database and chaired the Individual Donations Committee in the 1990s.
THE “HEART AND SOUL”
The Education Center is a 4,200-square-foot building housing memorabilia, oral histories, documents, books, audio and video recordings, and other objects related to the Americans of Japanese ancestry who served in Europe, the Pacific and Asia during World War II. Also housed within the Education Center is the NVMC office.
The center is described as the “cornerstone” of the NVMC because of its collection and because it is there that educational programs, including outreach efforts, are refined or developed.
The entire collection is stored in a climate-controlled archive. But before an object or document is even placed in the archive, it is frozen to cleanse it of bugs and other troublemakers. In the first year alone, 95 percent of the materials — artifacts, documents, photographs, etc. — that had been collected over the years and after the Education Center’s opening, had undergone the freezing procedure before being placed in the archives.
The largest area, a meeting and workroom, features permanent and rotating displays created by the NVMC. It can also host visiting exhibits, educational programs and other events.
Some 30 years of planning, fundraising and construction went into the development of the entire NVMC campus, which was built in two phases.
Phase One, which houses Kansha Preschool and the Maui Adult Day Care Centers’ Ocean View facility, opened in July 2006. The Ocean View facility is for high-to-moderate-functioning elders with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease or related dementias, people with physical impairments, and those needing support and socialization.
As envisioned from the outset, there is interaction between the preschool children and the adults.
Intergenerational and educational programs are part of the NVMC’s effort to fulfill its mission to “perpetuate the legacy of these Nisei veterans by nurturing the community’s youth, supporting care and respect for the community’s elderly and promoting an understanding about the history, values and culture of the Japanese-American soldiers which contributed to their heroic military accomplishments as well as their continued contributions to the community and nation.”
“I think we are serving the mission,” Kyle Watanabe said of the programs, exhibits and other resources at the Education Center. Response from the public has been “very, very favorable,” he added.
There still is much to do, however. The collection must still be processed and catalogued, and procedures for presenting programs created by NVMC or outside parties need to be refined. Additionally, the NVMC is seeing opportunities to do things beyond what had been imagined before the center was completed.
For so many years, Moto noted, the NVMC was “preoccupied” with financing, construction and other matters related to getting the campus built.
Meanwhile, the archives had several temporary homes, among them an ‘ohana unit owned by the widow of a 442nd Regimental Combat Team veteran; an office in Wailuku owned by 100th Battalion veteran Miles Shiroma; and a Kahului office space provided by Arisumi Brothers Inc., a construction company co-founded by NVMC board president Hiroshi Arisumi.
Now, “for the first time . . . there is an office on site. Now the NVMC, as an organization, has a home,” Moto said. That allows “for the collection of artifacts, documents, books, tapes . . . to finally move into and be stored in a high-quality facility.”
This “home” also is a venue for events, and a place from which to look forward.
“Now, for the first time, not only can we host these things, we can plan for the future,” he said. “Without that home — which, by the way, is quite nice, very nice — we didn’t have the freedom” or the facility to plan for the future. “And now we do.”
In its first 12 months, according to Moto, the Education Center:
- Hosted meetings — some modest, others more so. For example, U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono used the center to listen to veterans’ concerns — “other veterans, not just our Nisei veterans,” Moto noted. Among Hirono’s current assignments is the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
- Staged or hosted exhibits that exposed visitors to different aspects of the Nisei veteran experience.
A permanent exhibit that provides an overview of the Nisei soldier was in place when the Education Center opened. Since then, the NVMC has developed other displays, including one on the Military Intelligence Service.
It hosted its first visiting exhibit, photographer Brian Y. Sato’s “GOKURÖSAMA: Hawai‘i Nikkei Nisei,” late last year.
A second visiting exhibit, historian Eric Saul’s “Go For Broke: Japanese American Soldiers Fighting on Two Fronts,” showed from May through mid-June. The exhibit came to the Valley Isle after a showing at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles and at three venues on O‘ahu.
This fall, NVMC plans to present “Hawai‘i Internment Story,” using elements of past Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i exhibits complemented by displays that focus on Maui. Students from King Kekaulike High School’s AVID program and Japanese Club are assisting with the exhibit.
Other first-year Education Center activities as gleaned from Watanabe’s monthly reports to the board include:
- Sharing resources about the Nisei veterans with sixth- and 10th-graders at Kamehameha Schools Maui, including “show-and-tell sessions” by Valerie Matsunaga, Floyd Nagoshi and Glenn Shishido, whose fathers were Nisei soldiers.
- Hosting groups such as Cub Scout Pack 68, who heard from NVMC board president Arisumi, a 442nd veteran who served with the 232nd Combat Engineers Company.
- Coordinating the presentation of oral history transcripts to veterans or their survivors at the NVMC annual dinner last November.
- Creating a project sheet to facilitate the consideration of, planning for and presentation of programs.
- Watanabe said the NVMC appreciates its supporters’ time, money and donations. “We need to let them know that we appreciate everything they have been doing.”
A TIMELESS “AMERICAN STORY”
“When we launched our capital campaign [in 2011, to build the Education Center], we made it clear that we wanted to inform and transform people in our community, particularly young people,” about the veterans’ virtues — strength, courage, humility, perseverance, service — in order “to create future heroes,” Moto said.
“The center is not only about the past. At some point, all the Nisei veterans will be gone. Even the sons and daughters will be gone,” Moto said.
But the young can keep learning from the veterans, “regardless of their ethnic background,” and they can become leaders and “transform their own communities,” he said.
And thus there is much more work ahead for the center.
One of Moto’s personal goals is for the AJA soldier to be remembered in the same way as the Revolutionary War soldiers who crossed the Delaware River with Gen. George Washington, or those who fought at Gettysburg, “or the way Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders are remembered in history.”
“It would be a good and appropriate thing for the AJA soldier to be similarly remembered — as an American story. Not just as a Japanese American story, though that is important, or as a Hawai‘i story, though that is important, but as an American story, and one that all Americans can take pride in,” he said.
Many students learn about the crossing of the Delaware, “but do they know about the AJA soldier in Italy? Do they know how they overcame discrimination?” Moto asked.
“We’re not there yet,” he concluded.
The Nisei Veterans Memorial Center is located in Wailuku at 1 Go For Broke Place (on Kahului Beach Road as it transitions between Kahului and Wailuku). The Education Center is open weekdays from noon to 4 p.m. — call ahead to schedule a visit (808) 244-NVMC (6862), or send email to email@example.com.