Issue 17.3: June/July 2014

The Centenarian Shrine


Story by George Tanabe
Photos by Olivier Koning

The story of the Wakamiya Inari Shrine goes back to 1914 , when Rev. Yoshio Akizaki, a Shinto priest from Japan, oversaw its construction in the Honolulu neighborhood of Kaka‘ako. It was moved a few years later to the city’s South King Street, where it served a large number of Japanese immigrants seeking the blessings of Inari, the Shinto god of agriculture and prosperity. As the years passed, however, generations of acculturated Japanese-Americans lost interest in the old customs, especially Shinto, which had been associated with the Japanese imperialism of World War II. In 1979 the shrine, which was by then largely bereft of members, was sold to the McCully Bicycle and Sporting Goods store and slated for demolition.

Concerned about the impending loss of an architectural gem loaded with historical significance, Beverly Keever, Gail Okawa and Mike Molloy, all of whom worked within the University of Hawai‘i system, organized a small committee to save it. “It was a huge, huge deal,” says Okawa as she describes the group’s extensive efforts to raise funds and solicit public support to save the shrine. Even then-Governor George Ariyoshi got involved in arranging for the shrine to be moved across O‘ahu and placed in a new historical park that was planned for Waipahu, Hawaii’s Plantation Village. Today, safely sheltered in a quiet grove of trees in the park, the preserved shrine retains its dated elegance: Its curved roof gently sweeps down toward visitors, inviting them in. But though saved from the bulldozers, it still faces the challenges of age: It is, after all, a hundred years old this year. Two years ago its roof had to be replaced at great cost and effort. The building itself no longer functions as a Shinto shrine—its god Inari has been transferred to the Izumo Shrine in Chinatown—but as it celebrates its centennial birthday it has taken on a new life as a signifier of the past and the present. “It stands for what makes Hawai‘i special,” says Keever, “a place where various religious and ethnic groups live in harmony.”

“It’s an emblem of change,” says Okawa. “In its original location it was frequented primarily by Japanese, but now people from all over the world visit it.”