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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, March 10, 2003

Japan hometown clubs a dying breed

By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer

One hundred years ago, 13 immigrants from Japan created a microcosm of their hometown — a gathering place in Hawai'i where they could feel, at least briefly, in familiar surroundings.

Kelly Langeslay, 7, a student at Roy Sakuma Ukulele studios, waits offstage to perform for the Hawaii Yuu Cho Jinkai. The group celebrated its centennial on Friday at the Natsunoya Tea House in 'Alewa Heights.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

People from the town of Yuu in southern Japan's Yamaguchi prefecture formed the Hawai'i Yuu Cho Jinkai, one of many such clubs in Hawai'i that helped ease the transition to a new world.

In years past, big picnics marked by identifying banners were common sights at Ala Moana Beach Park. The Yuu group still holds a picnic on the Sunday after Father's Day at its traditional spot just 'ewa of McCoy Pavilion, as well as a New Year's party. But few other clubs have survived, said president Erik Takai.

It's tough for the clubs to attract younger members, Takai said. "But if you look around, we have five generations represented here," he said at yesterday's centennial celebration at Natsunoya Tea House in 'Alewa Heights.

Associations such as these provided social occasions for family leisure hours and financial support in times of need. Among their chief obligations has been helping bereaved families. At some Japanese funerals, offerings from a hometown association can still be seen among the memorial gifts.

Takai noted that one of the club's charter purposes seems to have grown in recent years: promoting friendly relations with the residents of Yuu, a town of about 9,500 just outside the city of Iwakuni.

Town officials and club members have traded visits across the Pacific, though last week's entourage from Japan probably was the largest. Thirty-four residents of Yuu, including mayor Toshimitsu Makimoto, arrived in time for Friday's celebratory resolution on the House floor. Gov. Linda Lingle also declared March 9, 2003, Yuu Cho Jinkai Day.

It doesn't hurt that Takai's son is state Rep. K. Mark Takai, D-34th (Pearl City, Newtown, Royal Summit). But his father believes the group's endurance among the once-thriving cultural institutions draws a spotlight on its own.

"Our group is one of the few that's still remaining," Takai said. "Somehow the governor realized ... this is something worth celebrating."

The longevity of some club members is recognized onstage at the Hawaii Yuu Cho Jinkai celebration as Chevas Wong performs. The group's longevity was applauded at the Legislature on Friday.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

The event included a memorial blessing for deceased members and tributes to the longest-lived, plus entertainment by 'ukulele masters Herb "Ohta-san" Ohta, Herb Ohta Jr. and Roy and Kathy Sakuma, descendants of the club's original members.

Though Ohta-san's maternal grandfather was among the founders, and he himself had met the mayor of Yuu on previous concert trips, he joined the club only a few months ago.

"I think it's a dying thing," he said. "If they keep joining only old people, it's not going to last."

Hajime Shinjo, a native of Yuu who studied at the University of Washington 30 years ago, married a Hilo-born woman and moved with her to the Big Island, said declining Japanese language skills contribute to younger generations' loss of interest in their roots.

And it may be the end of an era, he said. "There's going to be no more Yuu-cho in a couple years. It's going to be part of Iwakuni."

Speaking of his contemporaries, Rep. Takai said younger Japanese are "so far removed from that generation. It's necessary for people my age to go back to see where they're from."

A few years ago, members pitched in to erect a granite sculpture in the town of Yuu to maintain the link. And Rep. Takai took his own roots tour last summer with his wife, whose family also comes from Yamaguchi prefecture.

The elder Takai believes efforts at keeping the culture alive already have paid off.

"It is a challenge," he said. "But we've been able to bring enough young people in to survive 100 years."

Reach Vicki Viotti at vviotti@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8053.

Correction: Natsunoya Tea House is in 'Alewa Heights. Its location was wrong in a previous version of this story.