Shizuko Akamine is Myrtle’s mother’s sister; one of nine siblings born in 1922 of Shosei and Kamato Higa in the town of Olaa (now known as Keaau) on the Big Island of Hawaii. Then, Olaa was a small sugar plantation town but the village families were outside the plantation security umbrella.
Then, Okinawans were a minority that faced discrimination within the larger Japanese community. Shosei Higa ran a shoe making and repair business and was a church and community leader. Shizuko was her brother Joe’s helper and they ran the family’s laundry business. Although she was still well below driving age and without a license, she delivered laundry through the camps. In her senior year at Hilo High School, she only needed to attend three classes so she could leave early to help with the laundry. She graduated in 1940 just before World War II began and that changed everything.
When the war broke out, Seitoku Akamine became a part of the original 100th Battalion (select). All Japanese already in the U.S. Army were considered potential saboteurs so they were placed into this unit. This was at the time of the infamous presidential executive order that forced over 120,000 ethnic Japanese mainly along the West Coast into relocation camps in spite of many being citizens. The ruse that they were put into the barbed wire camps for their protection is ridiculous as the guns were facing toward the camp to keep prisoners in rather that outward to protect them.
Although most soldiers from Hawaii did not have relatives in the camps, those from the mainland fought for their country while their families were in the camps! The rivalry between the Hawaii soldiers and the mainland-born Japanese disappeared when the unit visited the relocation camps and they melded into a cohesive unit.
The 100th Battalion is known as the Purple Heart Battalion as they suffered the greatest percentage of casualties during the war. They fought with the spirit of warriors who needed to prove their loyalty. They were sent into tough situations including the rescue to the “Texas Lost Battalion” who had advanced too far and were surrounded by the enemy. Several other units had tried to rescue them but failed. The 100th succeeded but suffered more casualties than the number they rescued.
Seitoku was wounded in Italy and after a year in the hospital recovering, he returned to Hilo in 1945 with a permanent disability. He initially was assigned to the Army’s Hilo message center and was introduced to Shizuko by his best friend who lived across from the laundry. They married a year later in Olaa with another reception in Seitoku’s family’s home in Honokaa which was then a bumpy, curvy four-hour ride away.
These were hectic years as Seitoku began work for Hawaii Transportation and Transport, they purchased a home and children Martha, Kurt, and Alison, grew up. The laundry closed, brother Joe was offered a position in the post-war Japan occupational economy, and the Higa family moved from Olaa to Hilo. Shizuko began as a bank bookkeeper, and after moving to Finance Factors, got steady promotions until 1980 when she “retired” as the assistant manager of the Hilo branch.
She was still very active in the community and enrolled in the University of Hawaii at Hilo under the spousal GI Bill. She didn’t complete as former customers and friends urged her to get into the insurance business. She obtained an insurance agent license and again achieved numerous achievement awards until her second “retirement” in 1996 at the age of 74.
Shizuko held numerous positions in various professional organizations, for Hilo Hongawanji, and especially in Okinawan cultural groups. She was the first woman president of Hui Okinawa, was appointed a commissioner for the 80th Okinawan Immigration Celebration, and represented the Big Island on the Okinawan Center’s board. She participated in Okinawan cultural activities including dance and continues to teach the Okinawan koto each week to interested students at no charge. In a small town like Hilo, Shizuko seemed to know everyone and I’m sure almost everyone knows Shizuko!
SHIZUKO’S FUKU-BONSAI CONTRIBUTION
When we were dating in Honolulu, Myrtle often invited me to join family get-togethers being held for visiting family, mostly from Hilo on the Big Island. So one by one I met her “Hilo aunties.” But each time it was someone different and I learned that there were nine siblings on her mother’s side and nine on her father’s! It was a major shock as I grew up knowing of only a few relatives that were never close. So I married into a huge well regarded family and it’s been wonderful!
When we decided to move to the Big Island in 1972, I stayed with the Akamines and they became my second family. I borrowed their car as I searched for the right property and when I found one, they knew the realtor who helped me. Seitoku was a marvelous storyteller and through them I got to appreciate and became steeped into Big Island culture and values. I learned that many of the leaders of the community were veterans of the 100th, 442nd, and MIS and I scored some points when they learned I had completed a stint with the 100th Battalion – 442nd Infantry Reserve that carries on their famous name and standards of citizenship.
Hilo is a conservative town whose doors opened wide once it became known that I was the “Akamine’s nephew who was moving to build a nursery in Kurtistown.” Tsukasa Inoue built my home and become a close bonsai friend. They vouched for Hiroshi Ikeda who was another member of the 100th Battalion who was also wounded. We were able to purchase 12 acres of prime land and build our home and nursery in Kurtistown. We got great help and encouragement from both the Higa and Kiyabu families and the nursery prospered from the start!
Twelve years later the nursery had expanded and had a number of employees. The 1980 International Bonsai Congress thrust Hawaii into international prominence and as a major writer, leader, and the only bonsai professional; I had developed a strong national reputation. By the early 1980’s, Fuku-Bonsai was already shipping nationally and even to Canada and Europe. The Big Island caught bonsai fever and a huge amount of time was committed to growing the bonsai community. But when it became apparent the daughter Joni and son Tad were not inclined to take over, we considered succession alternatives.
Nursery marketing had already tapped into the visitor industry and the idea of creating an international bonsai center began to make sense as the Big Island needed attractions to compliment the visitor industry that was already expanding and following the growth cycle of Waikiki and Maui that followed Hawaiian statehood in 1959. Ideally the center should be in West Hawaii in the center of Big Island tourism. The project was a large enough to justify building a broad-based corporation and the Akamines were amongst the first to commit to become stockholders.
The initial stock offering provided the down payment to purchase 12 acres and we secured an 18-month private loan. Additional stock offerings paid down the loan and as the initial loan expired, five stockholder families (including the Akamines) became the first Fuku-Bonsai private lender group. A second private lender group allowed purchase of the adjoining 5 acres to secure the entire former quarry perimeter.
In 1986, the non-profit Mid-Pacific Bonsai Foundation was formed to be the public guardian of memorial bonsai and artifacts being donated into the Hawaii State Bonsai Repository at Fuku-Bonsai, to handle bonsai educational activities, and to be the liaison with the community. The Akamines were amongst the founding members.
We continued with additional stock offerings, in-house construction, and building bonsai interest until we finally obtain financing to complete the center. Good planning, hard work, and community support build a great center. But it was doomed to fail due to the nursery plants becoming stunted or killed by defective Benlate contaminated with weed killers.
In 1990, the center had a soft opening and a grand opening in 1992. But in 1994, we were forced to seek Chapter 11 Bankruptcy protection and the center closed. A few months later the Benlate product liability settlement was reached but it took until 1996 to retire all creditors 100% plus interest (including private lenders) and to cancel the bankruptcy.
Life is not fair and how Fuku-Bonsai survived, rebuilt, and is now emerging into a bright new future is a testament to the character and commitment of its leaders, staff, stockholders and associates.
The Akamines were steadfast in their support. The corporation enjoyed 4 initial years of remarkable success followed by 23 years of struggle for survival! As we struggled to retrench to the Kurtistown nursery, the Benlate residual contamination prevented growing our former profitable crops and it was necessary to invent totally new products and develop a new business structure. The strongest supporters formed another private lender group and this kept the corporation alive until the 2007 DuPont Fraud settlement allowed retiring all private loans.
The family has been supportive and after Myrtle’s dad got a stroke and became bedridden, her mom needed to go to dialysis three times each week. Shizuko picked up mom to take her and I’d pick her up. The family got closer and a few years later mom, then dad passed away. Kurt Akamine got ill and passed away and uncle Seitoku followed. Through thick and thin, the family supported each other, grieved, and celebrated triumphs together.
So it was great to celebrate Shizuko’s 90th birthday with friends and family. The slide show featured a remarkable very active family with many achievements and contributions to the community. Each of us were asked to write and share a story about Shizuko. Shizu is a wonderfully complex ball of energy; the dynamo, leader, decider-in-chief, nucleus and catalyst, role model and guide, the confidant, protector of family, and friend! She’s simply a one-of-a-kind; a wonderful blend of talents, philosophy, history, culture, and every other facet that makes her unique. In Shizu, it really all came together in a special way and we’re all very grateful and celebrate that! HAPPY BIRTHDAY!