Keeping the spirit of Shinmachi alive through new PBS documentary

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April 1, 2021 marks the 75th anniversary of the 1946 tsunami that killed more than 150 people in Hawaiʻi. Waves as high as 55 feet were triggered by a massive earthquake in the Aleutian Islands. A thriving Japanese business district in Hilo called Shinmachi, or “new town,” was destroyed.

Shinmachi: Stronger Than a Tsunami retells the story of the tsunami that destroyed the town and how families salvaged what they could to rebuild only to have the district wiped out again by another deadly tsunami in 1960. The new documentary is premiering on April 1, 2021 at 9 p.m. on PBS Hawaiʻi Presents.

Filmmaker Heather Fryer developed the film after visiting Hilo in 2014. She drove by a park with a wooden sign that read “Site of Shinmachi.” But with no nearby buildings, her curiosity peaked and she started asking around. A phone call led to a meeting with Kenneth Kazuto Kameoka, an individual who had grown up near Shinmachi.

Kameoka had been collecting stories, mapping where Shinmachi businesses and families were located, gathering photos, and even had artifacts.

“Mr. Kameoka invited me to meet his friends — at Burger King — to learn about how Shinmachi’s Japanese immigrant families faced hardship with determination, humility, hard work, adaptiveness, and a devotion to the common good that Hilo’s elders wanted their children and grandchildren to know about,” Fryer says. “They feared, at their advanced age, that this knowledge was about to be lost. The more stories I heard about the family businesses, temples, sports teams, and stories of daily life in Shinmachi, the more I wanted to hear.”

Fryer traveled to Hilo at least once a year over the next four years to conduct some archival research, but mostly to spend time with Mr. Kameoka and his friends. The film reflects the resilience of the survivors in keeping the spirit of Shinmachi alive today.

“Since making this film, I share this lesson with everyone I meet: whoever you are, wherever you are, you and your family’s life story are part of history,” she says. “I want to encourage everyone to ask the elder people in their lives about what their growing up years were like, what their town or city was like, what their favorite food was and how they made it, anything at all — because these ‘little memories’ are the pieces of much bigger histories that help us see our present day circumstances with a new clarity and sense of connection to the time and place we are living in.”

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