Supporters of the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center on Maui hope to have it built by next Memorial Day. Executive Director Barbara Watanabe shows a model of the center.

Nisei center inches
toward reality

For nearly two decades, a wind-swept bluff on the waterfront between Kahului and Wailuku on Maui has remained bare each Memorial Day except for an aging red, white and blue sign marking the location of a museum designed to honor the achievements of Japanese Americans who fought in World War II.

The 2.02-acre property was donated to the Maui Sons and Daughters of Nisei Veterans by Alexander & Baldwin in 1987 and was supposed to house a museum, archive center, meeting hall and nonprofit offices. Its purpose was to showcase photographs and other memorabilia honoring the exploits of the 100th Battalion and the 442 Regimental Combat Team, one of the most decorated Army units in World War II and whose members were mainly Japanese-American volunteers.

Now supporters of the center believe that their dream will finally become a reality this summer. They hope that by next year's Memorial Day observance, the vacant lot will be the home of Maui's first intergenerational center.

Hiroshi Arisumi, the center's president, said timing is important.

"A lot of the guys are gone," said Arisumi, who served in 442nd RCT as a member of the 232nd Combat Engineers. "We want to get this done soon so the rest of the veterans can see what this is all about."

Leonard Oka, who was one of the founders of the Maui Sons and Daughters of Nisei veterans in 1982, said the concept for the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center has evolved over the decades. He said he grew to realize that other veterans from the 100th Battalion and the Military Intelligence Service whose members served as interpreters in the Pacific campaign needed to be included and that a museum or archival center alone could not be financially feasible.

Barbara Watanabe, the center's executive director, noted that "museums are so expensive -- not only to build, but also to operate."

That became apparent last March when construction bids came in nearly $1 million above the projected $2.8 million for the two-story structure.

That forced Watanabe and the center's unpaid, 12-member board of directors to review the plans. "We needed tenants and a way to sustain the center," she said.

She said that review late last fall resulted in modifying the plan for a community center, which was developed into the planning of Maui's first intergenerational center -- a preschool and an adult day-care facility.

"This would mean that seniors, who are able, will be able to mentor the younger generation," said Watanabe, a Baldwin High School graduate whose father, Mitsuo, was a member of the 442nd RCT's anti-tank company.

"It keeps alive the values of the center that should be passed on to future generations: 'okage sama de' and 'kodomo no tame.'"

The Japanese phrase "okage sama de" means "we are grateful for your sacrifice and for what we are and have today," and "kodomo no tame" means "for the sake of the children."

By midsummer, Watanabe said, the center hopes to break ground on a one-story facility that will house a preschool able to accommodate 15 children ages 3 and 4. By the end of the year, the center plans to begin construction on the second wing of the facility, a senior day-care center for 53 people.

Like Arisumi, who is 82, many of the veterans of World War II are aging and in need of programs and facilities. Maui's 75-and-older population has tripled over the past 10 years and is the fastest growing of the senior population, Watanabe said.

Watanabe still needs to raise more than $1 million to complete the funding for phase one of the center. So far, the center has been able to raise $1 million from the state Legislature. Maui County came up with another $500,000, and Castle & Cooke donated another $200,000. On July 19, Sansei Restaurant in Kihei will be hosting a benefit dinner with all proceeds going to the center.

More than $1 million has been spent on engineering, site planning and design, archeological studies, grading of the site and construction of two large retaining walls on the upper and lower boundaries of the site.

Center backers also had to address another problem last year when bones were uncovered, indicating that part of the site had been a native Hawaiian burial area.

The final phase, which is dependent on funding, will be started in four or five years and will house the center's archives and a possible research center. Until then, Oka said, his group has leased office space in Wailuku, where its library of books, tapes and oral histories on the experiences of the nisei soldiers are available to the public.

Donations may be sent to the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center, P.O. Box 216, Kahului, HI 96732.


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