Saturday, January 2, 1999

Japanese Chamber
of Commerce to
celebrate 100 years

The group, representing companies
based in Hawaii and Japan, works
with the state to promote growth

By Susan Kreifels


Moved by the plight of 6,000 Japanese immigrants who lost their homes in the Chinatown fire of 1900, the Honolulu Japanese Merchants Association was born to help the families survive their misfortunes.

The group now is known as the Honolulu Japanese Chamber of Commerce, and as it prepares to celebrate its centennial in the year 2000, member businesses face another challenge -- perhaps not as dramatic, but just as daunting, if not more so.

Both Hawaii and Japan head for the new millennium having suffered failing economies for most of the 1990s.

By working with the state to be more aggressive in promoting growth, chamber President Ronald Ushijima hopes to at least "enter the new century seeing some positive growth, at least a better light at the end of the tunnel."

Wayne Miyao, centennial project chairman, said the chamber will use this year to organize a yearlong celebration. With 800 members representing Hawaii- and Japan-based companies, plans include joint projects with sister chambers in Hiroshima and Fukui, Japan, as well as a community project "to give back to the community."

Miyao said the chamber's last decade included holding forums and seminars here and in Japan to educate the Japanese about tourism, and at the same time to encourage increased tourism to Hawaii.

Most recently, the chamber held a tourism seminar in Hiroshima in November. "We focused on helping their economy to move from a manufacturing economy to reviewing opportunities for tourism in their prefecture," Miyao said.

The Hiroshima and Honolulu chambers together helped promote a direct flight between their cities, Miyao said. Japan Airlines started a weekly flight in April, and since has added a second.

Ushijima said the chamber has worked closely with the state government to promote the islands as an education and health-care center, and to focus on high tech and communications.

Both Miyao and Ushijima said chamber organizations are even more important in bad economies.

"We're definitely all facing the same economic challenges," Miyao said.

The group started with 37 Japanese merchants. They organized the Honolulu Nippon Jin Shonin Doshikai (Honolulu Japanese Merchants Association) on March 12, 1900, to respond to the crisis that arose out of the Honolulu Chinatown fire two months earlier.

The fire was deliberately set by health officials in an attempt to control an outbreak of the deadly bubonic plague. It raged out of control, though, fanned by brisk winds.

The merchant organization quickly moved into action, helping Japanese victims file claims with the government, find shelter and obtain food and supplies,

Beyond economic development, the chamber also was a major organizer of the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii in the late 1980s.

"We enjoy our role in the 'melting pot of the Pacific,' " Ushijima said. "As we enter the 21st century, we look forward to collectively meeting the challenges to improve our business climate and the quality of life in our state."

For more information or to volunteer, call 949-5531.

E-mail to City Desk

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