Shimeji Ryusaki Kanazawa: 1915-2014Invaluable devotion to Hawaii's families spanned decadesBy Leila Fujimori
Shimeji Ryusaki Kanazawa, lauded for her 60-plus years of work for the elderly and youth, also is arguably Hawaii's most unsung World War II hero.
Two months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, amid anti-Japanese sentiments and fears within the Japanese community, Kanazawa, then a 26-year-old self-described "country girl" from Waimea, Hawaii island, was tapped to serve Japanese citizens in Hawaii as executive secretary to the Swedish vice consul, who had assumed the Japanese Consulate's duties during the war.
"I dedicated my efforts to doing the best I could for families torn apart by the war — finding work for wives whose husbands had been interned, providing comfort to the elderly who shared their anguish with me, and accompanying families to internment camps to be with their husbands and fathers," she said in a 2008 interview with Mary Bitterman.
Kanazawa died April 7 of natural causes in Honolulu at age 98.
"When we reflect on the second war, we so often think about the great heroes of the 100th Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team," said longtime friend Bitterman. "I've thought of her as a representative of that generation, but on the women's side, who was doing some incredible things. I think she stands as a real hero of what was called the greatest generation."
Born Dec. 29, 1915, Kanazawa was the eldest of 11 children of Torazo and Saki Ryusaki, an auto mechanic and a picture bride from Shizuoka, from whom she learned Japanese. After graduating from Hilo High School in 1939, she worked as a secretary at Kohala High and Elementary School, and served as acting vice principal.
In February 1942, the Japanese consul was under house arrest, and neutral Sweden's vice consul in Hawaii, Gustaf Olson, assumed his duties, handling matters concerning Japanese nationals, the Japanese Consulate's website says.
He was looking for someone to run the consulate who could also minister to the needs of the Japanese community.
"She must speak Japanese, but more important to me is that I find a girl with a Red Cross heart," Olson told his friend Eldon Morrell.
Morrell, director of the Vocational Division at the Department of Public Instruction, recommended Kanazawa, who had just been appointed division secretary in Honolulu. She had the "combination of heart and commitment," he said.
Kanazawa was hired, sight unseen, and performed a range of duties.
She assisted Olson in inspecting ships transporting Japanese prisoners of war en route to the mainland to ensure living conditions followed the requirements of the Geneva Convention, as well as inspecting detention camps at Honouliuli and Sand Island to ensure detainees were treated properly.
When neighbor island families arrived in Honolulu awaiting ships to mainland internment camps, she supplied them with food and winter clothes bought with her own money, wrote Dorothea Dee Buckingham in 2010 for the Hawaii Reporter. She often stood at funerals and weddings for Japanese who were not permitted to travel to the neighbor islands, and assisted in the translation and preparation of official documents.
Bitterman said: "She was entrusted with top military secrets and had permission to travel among the islands in a manner unavailable to any other person of Japanese ancestry."
She added, "She had a very difficult, very challenging job dealing with people who were really so saddened. The issei were frightened and didn't know what was happening. Families were being torn asunder.
"She brought grace and compassion and a commitment to doing everything in her power to help people, and she was adored," Bitterman said. "People would just be so moved to meet her because they had heard about her and her goodness and how she extended herself to make life bearable."
For her wartime efforts, Kanazawa was awarded an American Red Cross certificate for "meritorious performance during World War II" and rewarded with a 37-state trip paid by the U.S. military, the Swedish government and the American Red Cross.
Upon her return to Honolulu, she met and married Kinji Kanazawa.
She accompanied him to Boston, where he attended Boston College Law School. There she attended the Chamberlain School of Retailing.
They returned to Honolulu, where her husband established his law practice, and she worked in retail, then for the Department of Education in cooperative retail training.
The couple had two children, and once they were in preschool, she embarked on a career in volunteer work, starting with her appointment to the Commission on Children and Youth by Gov. William Quinn.
After eight years, Kanazawa shifted her focus to the elderly when Gov. John Burns appointed her in 1963 to the Commission on Aging. She maintained that focus for more than five decades until her death.
Twenty-five years ago, she conceived the idea for and co-founded Project Dana, based on the Buddhist precept of selfless giving. The volunteer program provides services for the frail elderly so they can continue to live at home and relief for their caregivers.
The project, begun in the Hawaii Buddhist community, developed into an interfaith program that has spread to California and Japan.
Her son, Sidney, said what also inspired his mother to do for others was her sister Emiko's compassion for everyone else before her death at the age of 12.
The idea that "life could end at any time, and you needed to do as much as you can," explained why she was always in a rush to get things done ahead of time, he said.
For Sidney Kanazawa, the greatest lesson learned from his mother was how she treated others.
"My mother made no distinction between blood relatives and friends," he said. "They were all family."
Her many true friends, who have kept in close contact, are her legacy, he said.
"She always seemed to see the good side of people and did a fantastic job of keeping family together," he said. "She truly had no enemies, and made friends with everyone, including those who opposed her …making friends on different sides of the political spectrum."
He added, "That's why people gathered around her, because they could feel it. She loved and respected everyone. She found that there was a common human spirit. Everyone needed guidance and compassion and everybody needed love."
Kanazawa is also survived by daughter Joni Young; two grandchildren, Kurt and Madeleine Kanazawa; sisters Hideko Maruyama and Fukue Yamamoto; and brothers Morris Inko Ryusaki and Dill Mutsuto Ryusaki.
Services for Kanazawa will be held 6 p.m. May 5 at the Honpa Hongwanji Mission. Visitation is at 5 p.m.
Shimeji Kanazawa: At age 26, she was hired by the Swedish consul in Hawaii to act as a liaison with Japanese nationals during World War II
Shimeji Kanazawa, seated, was honored in 2013 for her decades of work advancing policies and programs that enhance the lives, safety and welfare of Hawaii’s elders and their caregivers during a ceremony in Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s office. Kanazawa died April 7 at age 98.
Our deepest condolences to the family and friends of the deceased