Sharing the Japanese culture comes naturally to 90-year-old Lillian Yajima. She grew up with a deep sense of gratitude for the first Japanese immigrants who came to Hawaii. "I saw pictures of the shacks that they had to live in. … The work that they had to do must have been unbearable," she said.
Her grandparents worked hard so that her parents could attend both English and Japanese high schools, she explained.
The family stories have stuck with her and help fuel her desire to share the Japanese culture.
The former schoolteacher, who lives in Hawaii Kai, is a past president of the Japanese Women’s Society and now serves as director of the JWS’ Hula Aloha Ladies.
Yajima teaches hula to residents of Hale Pulama Mau care home at Kuakini Medical Center, which has a close connection with the JWS. Among her goals is to inspire other seniors to maintain an active lifestyle like hers. "When they see me dancing hula, they think ‘Hey, she’s old and she can do it,’" Yajima said. "I want to be a good role model for them. They may be in a wheelchair or use a walker, but they can learn the hand motions. They want to be active, too."
Her volunteer work also spans to Byodo-In Temple in Kaneohe, where she leads sessions in Japanese craft-making.
Yajima said she was initially hesitant to teach the craft classes to non-Japanese. "But I figured if people came all the way to Hawaii, I should do it. I teach origami paper-folding or box making," she said.
"Haole people may not like Japanese because of the war, so I hoped this would make a difference. I meet people from all over the world."
For years after the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Yajima said, she abandoned familiar habits. She stopped wearing slippers and speaking Japanese and did not engage in the culture for several years. That long-ago experience also inspires Yajima to share her heritage today. "Hawaii is a melting pot," she said. "It’s wonderful if various ethnic groups push their culture."
Yajima learned her sense of community service at home. "My mother (Alice Noda) was the first president of the Japanese Women’s Society. To date, we have donated $954,000 to Kuakini. We have lots of fundraisers like fashion shows, benefit movies, and sold eco-friendly bags."
The funds have been used to purchase new dining room tables and chairs, blinds and carpeting, new mattresses and refurbished bathrooms at the care home.
Yajima was instrumental in the opening of Hale Pulama Mau, which offers intermediate care and skilled nursing. "The care home originally was only serving men," Yajima explained. In order to integrate women into the new facility, JWS agreed to a partnership commitment and provided a donation of $300,000. Doors opened in April 1980, when Yajima was the JWS president.
One of her first accomplishments as president was to start a gerontology scholarship. "It was a high priority because people were living longer and not enough students were enrolled in studies that help the elderly." Over the years, the scholarship amount was increased from $5,000 to $10,000.
She also set up "friendship teas" to provide refreshments and companionship to the care home’s residents and an "adopt-a-mom" program, so that all residents get special attention on Mother’s Day. JWS members prepare their favorite Japanese dishes and provide entertainment. When residents celebrate a birthday, "birthday angels" present them with gifts.
She also remains active with the United Japanese Society, the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii and the Cherry Blossom Festival. Yajima regularly teaches the Cherry Blossom contestants how to make manju and origami. She also establishes scholarships for them. "I want the girls to continue their interest in culture, but many of them are working or finishing school and can’t afford classes, so I set up scholarships."
Yajima has received numerous awards for her continuous efforts. In 2007 the emperor of Japan awarded her the Fifth Class Order of the Rising Sun for meritorious service.
And she doesn’t plan to stop any time soon. Her can-do attitude has requests pouring in. After all, she can make things happen, like ensuring a successful fundraiser even when recovering at the hospital. "I was moving something heavy and got seven compression fractures on my back. I still needed to help with the fundraiser. The care home really needed new mattresses," she explained. "I managed to sell 600 (Japanese Women’s Society) cookbooks from my sickbed."