The first time I met Lillian Yajima I was 25 years old and knew barely anything about my Japanese heritage.
I was a contestant in the 49th Cherry Blossom Festival — yes, this was more than 10 years ago! — and getting to know more about my mother’s Japanese culture.
As a fourth-generation half-Japanese-American — not even full! — I was pretty removed from that culture. Sure, I took three years of Japanese language in high school, but that did little for me when I first visited Japan in 2001. I could only ask people, “How old are you?” It’s not a helpful phrase.
But as a contestant, I was exposed to a variety of different aspects of a culture that was as foreign to me as my Hungarian heritage. I took up taiko (Japanese drumming) — which I still do — and learned the art behind ikebana (Japanese flower-arranging). I learned Japanese business etiquette — you’d be surprised how different it is! — and the beauty of odori (Japanese dance).
And from Mrs. Yajima, we learned how to make manju and fold origami.
Or so we thought.
What we really learned was something deeper. We learned the importance of listening, of sharing, of respect, of service.
She’s humble and generous, she’s respectful and kind, and she whips up a mean manju.
Not to mention, she’s part of a legacy in Hawaii.
Her husband was chairman of the first Cherry Blossom Festival Queen Contest 63 years ago. Her mother, Alice Noda, was the first U.S. citizen president of the Japanese Women’s Society of Hawaii. Her daughter, Lenny Andrew, was a former CBF queen, festival general chair and president of the Honolulu Japanese Junior Chamber of Commerce; she also served as the executive director of the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii. And Yajima, herself, is still active in JWS, the United Japanese Society, the JCCH and, of course, CBF. (She still teaches origami-folding and manju-making to the contestants every year. It’s always one of their favorite classes.)
Her background as a former schoolteacher is evident when you meet her: all she wants to do is teach you something, whether it’s hula — she’s teaches it to residents of Hale Pulama Mau care home at Kuakini Medican Center — or how to speak her super-secret Yajima language. (I’d discuss it here, but then it wouldn’t be a secret anymore.)
And at 93, she’s still vibrant, still feisty, still full of stories and love.
And she can operate a cell phone. Even my mom has trouble with that!
So to Mrs. Yajima, who’s inspired countless young women — Japanese or not — here’s wishing you another 93 years. Because, truth be told, your legacy will last even longer than that.
Speaking of Cherry Blossom Festival, applications for this coming year is due Aug. 1. If you’re between the ages of 19 and 26, at least 50 percent Japanese and a Hawaii resident, you can apply here.