With a great deal of laughter and a few tears, more than 200 people gathered at Seattle’s Blaine Memorial United Methodist Church on August 27. They came to help the Nikkei community celebrate three professors—Tetsuden Kashima, Gail Nomura, and Stephen Sumida. The three professors retired from the American Ethnic Studies department at the University of Washington last spring. The program booklet included a list of eight major sponsors, a list of 26 community co-sponsoring individuals and organizations, and a dozen members on the planning committee.
Planning for the celebration began back in April 2016, spearheaded by Bill Tashima of the Seattle Japanese American Citizens League (JACL). “Each of these distinguished scholars have imparted so much knowledge on the study of our Japanese American legacy,” he wrote, “[and] UW and the greater Seattle area is so much the better thanks to these three.” Although the three professors were “somewhat reluctant” to have an event in their honor, they did express wishes for an opportunity to gather with their friends and community. The planning committee grew to include members of the greater Seattle Nikkei community as well as immediate family members of the three professors.
Partygoers were greeted by the sounds of ukulele music, provided by the Blaine Ukulele Group Seattle (“B.U.G.S.”) and accompanied by Elsie Taniguchi’s hula dancing. Sponsoring community members and organizations provided the “light refreshments,” which included pancit bihon, lumpia shanghai, tsukemono, lechon, chicken teriyaki skewers, fresh fruit, and rice. The Blaine church’s army of volunteers welcomed and registered attendees, made sure the buffet lines ran smoothly, cleaned plates, recycled chopsticks and composted food scraps. Toward the end of the program, they distributed slices of two large sheet cakes (guava and salted caramel/chocolate) to everyone.
Harold Taniguchi served as an engaging master of ceremonies for the event program, which opened and closed with musical tributes by the ukulele group. Several people spoke during the “open mic” tributes, including members of the professors’ families. James Kashima, son of Testuden Kashima, praised his father’s ability “to always be there,” and confessed that he didn’t really know much about the impact of his dad’s work until 2008. The event that sparked his realization was The Long Journey Home, organized by the the professors and community members. The event honored Nikkei students at the University of Washington who were incarcerated during World War II, granting them honorary bachelor’s degrees.
“I saw [my dad] was a leader of the community,” the younger Kashima said, “and an agent of change.”
Later in the program Irene Mano, president of the UW Nikkei Alumni Association, displayed a commemorative plaque in honor of the three professors for their work on The Long Journey Home. Emi Suzuki, the daughter of Nomura and Sumida, brought their oldest granddaughter to the microphone and thanked her parents for “connecting the importance of history with the sacrifices of my grandmother, the ancestors, those who came before.” Other speakers recounted memories of dinner parties, travels in Japan, and acting in Asian American plays.
A short video retrospective, narrated by Lori Matsukawa, opened with a message from UW President Ana Mari Cauce. Addressing the three professors, she described this “bittersweet moment”: “You’re not really leaving. You’re retiring from your day jobs, but this is your real job, and it always will be. … This is just a new beginning.”
The video included testimonials and thanks from other members of the community, including Bill Tashima, National Parks Service landscape architect Anna Tamura, Densho executive director Tom Ikeda, Keiro Northwest CEO Jeffrey Hattori, Nisei author Cho Shimizu, community activist Sharon Maeda, and former student Anna Chang (now a clinical psychologist). (The video is available at https://vimeo.com/180674656.)
Near the end of the program, the three professors then had a chance to respond briefly. Kashima cited the historical sea level changes that he has seen in his decades of teaching, changes that the Asian American “and especially the Japanese American community” helped to inaugurate. “Without community support,” he said, “I truly believe that all of [this] would not have happened.”
He listed the Committee on Wartime Relocation hearings, a Presidential proclamation of apology for the wartime incarceration, and the National Parks Service stewardship for four confinement sites. “Thanks to all of you in the community,” he concluded. “I have been playing all this time.”
Nomura expressed her gratitude to the planning committee, including her daughter, and to the community for the event. “We would say that we don’t deserve all of this, but we will honor all of you and your honoring of us.” She concluded with a recurring theme of the afternoon: “We are not retiring from the community. We can all work together to build a more compassionate society of justice.”
Sumida brought the gathering back to laughter several times, beginning with a quip that “his job [was] to make sure [this party moved] away from a three-way memorial service.”
His characteristic talk-story response included memorable allusions to Martin Luther, the founding of the Association for Asian American Studies, and The Tale of Genji. He wanted to retire, as both he and his daughter said, “before I become a senile professor.”
As for me, I must break journalistic “objectivity” here and say that I attended the event in large part as a gesture of gratitude to Steve Sumida, one of my dearest graduate school mentors. I walked up to him at the end of the event, gave him a hug, and thanked him for teaching his students that community feeds us well. As the program booklet reminded us, the the Nikkei community is often bound together by the grateful spirit of “okage sama de,” sometimes loosely translated as, “We are who we are because of you.” This gathering embodied one of the best values of Asian American Studies, and of American Ethnic Studies: feed your community, and your community will feed you well.
For interested parties who may still wish to celebrate the three professors, donations are still being accepted for scholarship funds through the University of Washington. Donations may be made to the UW Nikkei Alumni Association Scholarship Fund (Kashima) and a scholarship at the American Ethnic Studies Department (Nomura/Sumida). Email [email protected] or call (206) 543-5401 for more information.