Editor’s Note: The following piece by Jenni Kuida, a tribute to former Manzanar Committee member Grace Harada, was originally published in January 2002, in the Rafu Shimpo. She posted a link to her story on Facebook on January 18, commemorating the tenth anniversary of Harada’s passing. We thought it would be a fitting tribute to publish it here as well.
You might not have ever met Grace Harada. But if you’ve been to an Obon at Senshin Buddhist Temple or the Manzanar Pilgrimage in the last thirty years, chances are, you have surely seen her. She was the petite Nisei woman dancing Bon Odori in the inner circle, leading Sansei like me, trying to follow along in the outer circle. I would always seek her out when stumbling through the moves, because I knew that if I followed her, I’d be ok.
Sadly, she passed away on January 18 at age 76. Only one week earlier, she suffered from a massive stroke and slipped into a coma. Just like that. At the memorial service for Grace at Senshin Buddhist Temple, Reverend Mas Kodani spoke fondly of Grace, using the words “gracious” and “graceful” to describe Grace. He talked about how Grace loved to dance. She lived her life doing what she loved to do. She found true joy in dancing, and in teaching dance to others.
She did not perform for money or fame, but she danced for the community, for her daughters, her grandchildren, and her two great grandchildren. She danced for the pure love of it. Rev. Mas’ advice was to find what you love and do it. Accept that you’ll make mistakes along the way, but to find your joy in life. Like Grace did.
People like Grace are true gems in the community. She wasn’t a high profile person. But she was a leader by example. Through Grace’s love of Bon Odori, she shared her knowledge of Japanese folk dance with literally thousands of people on the last Saturday of every April at Manzanar, and each summer throughout the obon season. She even helped create new Japanese American dances at Senshin. I can’t imagine how many people have danced with, beside and behind Grace, following her graceful feet and arm movements.
Grace was one of my favorite people on the Manzanar Committee. I started volunteering with the Manzanar Committee about six years ago, but Grace has been with the Committee since its beginning. I think she only missed the pilgrimage once, when she was having problems with her knees. She was that dedicated.
What I liked most about Grace was her cheerful spirit and her deep compassion concern for others. After Sue Embrey, Manzanar Committee Chairperson, stopped driving recently, Grace would always make sure that Sue had a ride. I also remember her speaking more than once about how easy her life had been, compared to the struggles that her parents and other Issei faced living in America.
Every year at the Manzanar Pilgrimage, we would end the day with the traditional tanko bushi, honoring the 10,000 former internees who lived at Manzanar. Grace would always be out there, whether it was in the extreme desert heat, or the bitter cold wind, wearing her turquoise blue yukata jacket, head tilted, fingers together, demonstrating the movements, and showing us what to do.
I have seen pilgrimage first timers join in the tanko bushi without hesitation. I think it was Grace’s generous nature and her smiling face, that put people at ease. She had a way of making it look so easy, accessible, and fun.
A lesson for us Sansei, Yonsei, and Gosei is to learn all we can from the wisdom keepers like Grace, who hold knowledge about these Japanese and Japanese American cultural traditions. Because without them, these traditions and cultural practices will die with them. Grace was a role model to young people, but she was not alone.
There are hundreds of every day people like her, volunteering their time, sharing their knowledge at every turn, from their own inner circles. Whether they are dancing at obon, helping to maintain or build their community centers, telling children about their wartime camp experiences, or continuing to fight for redress, we have many gems in the Japanese American community. Gems who are unrecognized for their efforts, but do so because it is what they love to do.
Finally, Grace’s sudden passing is a reminder to us all that we should not take friends and family for granted. We should treat people with kindness and honesty, as Grace did. I don’t know who will lead the tanko bushi at the pilgrimage this year, and that makes me a little sad.
But I know that as we commemorate the 60th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066 in 2002, that she would want someone to take her place, to teach a new generation of dancers and pilgrims. I also know that Grace will be dancing at Manzanar in spirit, gracious and graceful.
Sansei activist Jenni Kuida, a former secretary and webmaster for the Manzanar Committee, writes from Culver City, California.
The views expressed in this story are those of the author, and are not necessarily those of the Manzanar Committee.
LEAD PHOTO: From left: Jenni Kuida, Grace Harada and Sue Kunitomi Embrey.
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