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Hawaii’s World

By A.A. Smyser

Tuesday, December 12, 2000

Hawaii’s ‘Living Treasures’

HONPA Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii began in 1976 to identify people it called "Living Treasures," a local adaptation of something done by government in Japan.

Now the mission has published a handsome tabletop-sized book, "Living Treasures of Hawaii." It has single-page biographies and photos of 123 honorees in the first 25 years of the program.

It is my proudest honor to be among them, since Bishop Chikai Yosemori writes that their commonality is that they have "made a significant contribution to the spirit of multiculturalism that prevails in Hawaii today."

Former Bishop Yoshiaki Fujitani founded the program on the suggestion of Paul Yamanaka, an insurance executive, who knew something about the more official program in Japan. Yamanaka particularly wanted to recognize a modest man whose contributions to the community he felt were generally unrecognized.

This man was Charles Kenn, a kahuna with an awesome knowledge of Hawaiiana, "to whom academics and scholars came to learn first-hand about Hawaiian practices, outlooks and culture." Those he helped became far better known than Kenn. Yamanaka wanted to somehow correct this.

Others had declined to sponsor the Living Treasures program but Bishop Fujitani, a Nisei World War II combat GI, felt: "It's a good cultural match."

It grew from a Japanese idea substantially changed to fit Hawaii. The honor is accorded regardless of other recognition, ethnicity, religion, wealth or near-poverty. "Treasures" is written by Scott C.S. Stone, a Big Island-based author, funded by foundation and private gifts. Island Heritage printed 5,000 copies.

They are available for a single-copy price of $22.95, including mailing from Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii, 1727 Pali Highway, Honolulu 96813. The phone and fax respectively are 808-522-9200 and 808-522-9209.

The first honoree, Kenn, in 1976, was the grandson of Fukumura Toyokichi, one of the first Japanese immigrants to Hawaii in 1868.

Kenn's father changed the family name in 1916 from Toyokichi to Kenn. What a perfect fit for the first award -- a scholar of Japanese descent who had become a major authority on Hawaiiana!

In future years the recognitions were as many as 11 or again as low as one. I was one of six in 1999.

BEST-known honorees include Bumpei Akaji, the metal sculptor, the Rev. Abraham Akaka of Kawaiahao Church, musician Irmgard Farden Aluli, educator Gladys A. Brandt, businessman and community leader Kenneth F. Brown, artist Jean Charlot, missionary descendant and contributor to many causes Samuel S.A. Cooke, architect Vladimir Ossipoff, musician Philip "Gabby" Pahanui, Hawaiian-English dictionary author Mary Kawena Pukui and navigator Nainoa Thompson.

The book comes out at the beginning of a millennium but looks back 25 years.

Its introduction comments, "The great danger of our times is that technology will outpace our humanity, that we will become so technically oriented we will lose the passion we have for those values that we have enshrined in our human hearts.

"It is in this context that the Living Treasures of Hawaii have been and will be of greatest importance, for they are reminders of our humanity -- our history and culture, our faiths, our relationships with others, even the mundane, subtle dramas of our everyday lives."

A.A. Smyser is the contributing editor
and former editor of the the Star-Bulletin
His column runs Tuesday and Thursday.

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