Shimeji Ryusaki Kanazawa: Deemed “Florence Nightingale of Hawaii” for WWII Actions

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BY DOROTHEA DEE BUCKINGHAM- I was about to interview Shimeji Ryusaki Kanazawa; before I even met her, I suffered from hero worship.

During World War II Shim functioned as liaison between the Japanese civilian population and the U.S. military. She inspected the living conditions of the Japanese POWs, of the internees in the Hawaii camps, and she accompanied Japanese families on their Trans-Pacific sail to internment camps on the Mainland. For the work she did during the war years, Shim has been called the “Florence Nightingale of Hawaii.”


The sun was intense the morning I visited Shim Kanazawa. I walked from the University of Hawaii, through Manoa, past the university president’s residence to Oahu Avenue. The streets in the college hill area where she lives are broad sweeping avenues, richly lined with shower trees, royal palms and tall hedges of bougainvillea. Some of these Manoa homes are called “bungalows.” There are expanded Craftsman cottages, Georgian and Victorian homes with hipped gables, double-hung windows and homes that are grand compilations of add-ons over the years, mixing nooks, crannies, screened porches and triple garages.

Walking through the neighborhood, it’s easy to conjure days when horse-drawn carriages rode passed the graceful homes of the Castle, Cook, Gulick and Atherton families. These days, those same streets are jammed with University of Hawaii students’ cars. Every inch is taken up and there are other signs of the student traffic. Bare muddy paths have been carved out by students burdened down with laptops and backpacks. Amidst the students are the local joggers, dog walker and young mothers in single-file pushing baby strollers.

Shim Kanazawa’s house is graced with trees, shrubs and blossoming vines. The entry is a gated white archway that was covered with stephanotis. As I closed the gate behind me and walked up the sloping front yard, I spotted Shim in her front window—we waved at each other then she met me at the door.

Shim opened the door. Her eyes were piercing and her manner was regal. I followed her through the living room to the dining room, past photos of her family, former governors of Hawaii and presidents of the United States. It took me a few minutes to realize she was using a walker to maneuver. Her age and her slight stoop are masked by the strength of her presence—her body is irrelevant to who she is.

We settled at the dining table.  Shim was ready for me. She had portfolios of documents, newspaper clippings and photographs stacked in chronological order. Her documents were orderly, but our conversation started haphazardly. I had walked two miles in the heat to get to her house, and once seated and ready to work,  I began to sweat. Inconspicuously and elegantly, Shim served me ice water and set tissues on the table.

I told her I was interested in her activity during the war and that I had seen a photograph taken of her in 1943. I explained that in the picture she wore a tailored business suit, a fashionable hat and a flower corsage. As soon as I began my description, she pulled a photo out of a manila folder and handed it to me.  “This one?” she asked.

There it was—a close-up of a young woman, not yet twenty-seven years old. Her hat was at a definite angle, her dress was understated; it was dark, with cloth covered buttons and at her collar was pinned a white orchid corsage.  This was the photo of the young woman I wanted to know about.

I looked at Shim then back at the photograph, it was hard to reconcile these two faces as being the same woman. Shim Kanazawa was 90 years old. (year of interview: 2005)  Her hair, pulled back off her face, is raven black. Age has wrinkled her skin, broadened her nose, and she now wears fine-framed eyeglasses. But the fullness of her lips, the width of her smile, and the peak of the chin of her heart-shaped face still showed through.

Since the late 1950’s, Shim Kanazawa has worked as an advocate for youth and for the aged. She has served as the Chair of the Hawaii Commission on Aging, the Chair of the Policy Advisory Board for Elderly Affairs, Chair of the White House Council on Aging in Hawaii, and was appointed to the National Advisory Committee on Aging by Presidents Carter, Regan and Clinton. Her list of achievements read like a litany; any single accomplishment could be considered a lifetime contribution. But it was not that part of her life I wanted to focus on. I wanted to know about the “country girl from Kamuela” who became the Administrative Secretary to the Swedish-Vice Council during World War II. Shim’s appointment to that post was an act of serendipity.

I asked her if it was true that the Vice-Consul hired her without meeting her. “Yes,” she answered. “He hired me based on the recommendation of a friend of his.”

It happened that in February 1942, a protocol signed by the Consul-General of Japan and Gustaf W. Olson, Vice-Consul of Sweden, decreed that the Swedish Government would handle matters concerning Japanese citizens living in the Territory of Hawaii. This duty was “Protecting Power” over all Japanese citizens, included those being held in internment camps and Japanese prisoners of war. The scope of responsibilities for that duty taxed the staff of the consulate to an extreme.

Added to that was the fact that Gustaf Olson was also the administrator for Queen’s Hospital and an assistant in the emergency medical plan for the territory. Olson quickly realized he couldn’t give adequate time to his consulate duties and needed an assistant. He sought out his friend Eldon Morrell, Director of Vocational Education and told him he was looking for “a girl who could speak English and Japanese, who could work with the Japanese population, but most of all she has to have a Red Cross heart.”

Morrell told Olson he had just the girl—Shim Ryusaki. Morrell told Olson, “She’s a country girl who came to Honolulu only a few months ago, and she has the heart, the intelligence and the commitment for the job.” With Morell’s endorsement, Olson hired Shim Ryusaki without ever meeting her.

When I asked Shim if she truly was “a country girl,” she assured me she certainly was.  She said, “I was the eldest of eleven children—eleven of us, two years apart.  There wasn’t a day that went by in twenty years that my mother didn’t wash diapers. In the winter, it was cold in Kamuela and she would take us children and would drive to the beach at Kawaihai and hang the diapers to dry on the kiawe trees.”  Shim smiled. “My mother was a wise and frugal person. She worked from early morning until late night making tofu, aburage, konnayu, manju and senbei. 1 She grew vegetables and kept chickens and pigs so we always had plenty of food and if there was any burden in providing for us, she and my father never let us children know about it.

“My father was a jack of all trades. He was a plantation worker in the poi fields, a wild-horse rider at the Parker Ranch, a cook. He ran a movie theatre, he had a taxi cab and, he was a self-trained auto mechanic and operated an auto repair garage. He was a very interesting man who enjoyed people. He was gregarious and made friends easily. When I was growing up, there were no hotels or restaurants in or around Kamuela, so if a car broke down on the roads from Kona or Honokaa, my father would invite the driver and passengers to home to eat with us while the car was repaired—even the entertainers were invited.”

Shim remarked that her parents treated each of their eleven children as if he or she were an only child. They all felt that they were treated specially. She continued her story, “My parents sent me to school and gave me an education and I know they suffered, but they never made me aware of it. After sixth grade, I went to school in Hilo where I boarded at the Waianaku Jodo Mission.” It was while she was in Hilo that Shim’s twelve-year old sister, Emiko was dying of pneumonia and she returned home in time to help with the ritual cleansing to prepare her sister for death. Emiko’s death deeply impacted Shim. “My sister’s death increased my awareness of life’s impermanence and the importance of doing one’s best for others each precious, unrepeatable day.”  Emiko acceptance of death, and her dying words (left unspoken by Shim) charged the family with caring for others.

After graduated from Hilo High School in 1934, Shim was immediately hired as a school secretary at Kohala High and Elementary School where she also taught a course in office training and filled in as vice-principal.  She remained there until August 1941, when she moved to Oahu and worked at the Vocational Education Division of the Department of Public Instruction.

Four months after she moved to Oahu, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor; it was during the school department’s Christmas break.  On the morning of December 7, 1941, Shim and her brother Toratsugu were visiting the Yohio family on Waiolo Street. She remembers, “My brother Toratsugu was in the army. It was early in the morning when the next door neighbor, Mrs. Chun, came over and told us there was a war on and that the Japanese attacked. We thought she was fooling us. But then we went outside and I saw the Japanese emblem on the planes and I knew it was true. My brother immediately took his rifle and left for Schofield Barracks. He didn’t leave the base for over a week… during the war he served with the 100th Battalion.”

Cpl. Toratsugu Ryusaki and Sgt. Masao Uehara working on the motor of a 6x6 Army truck. 1943. U.S. Army Photo. SC180025 Toratsugu was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant and served with the 442nd Infantry Battalion.

Cpl. Toratsugu Ryusaki and Sgt. Masao Uehara working on the motor of a 6×6 Army truck. 1943. U.S. Army Photo. SC180025 Toratsugu was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant and served with the 442nd Infantry Battalion. CONFIRM THIS.

Shim recalls that she had on her best blue crepe chine dress that morning. “I wore the same dress for at least one or two days. I remember Mr. Yoshio told us to stay in the hallway because it was the safest part of the house. The only other part of the house we went into was the kitchen for food.”

When I asked her if Mr. Yoshio was interrogated by the F.B.I., she answered that he was not. She explained, “He was an engineer with the U.S. Engineers at the time.” And when I asked about the Ryusaki family, she said that as far as she knows, no one in her family was questioned.

However, within two days of the attack, the FBI did question and detain 370 Japanese, 98 Germans and 14 Italians. The original interrogation/detention center was at the Immigration Station at Fort Armstrong. In March of 1942, those internees were moved to the Sand Island Detention Center. It was the responsibility of the vice-consul to visit these detention centers, as well as those holding Japanese prisoners of war and to assure that they were meeting the stipulations of the Geneva Convention. But, Gustaf Olson’s role at Queen’s Hospital became all-consuming, and as a result, Shim’s role expanded. Soon Olson’s appearances at the consul were reduced to rushed visits when he reviewed Shim’s work and signed documents. It was she who became the de facto liaison between the Japanese civilian population and the military and was given full diplomatic courtesies. It was she who visited the detention centers and the prisoners of war.

The internment of the Japanese, the devastation of the attack, and the projected image of the Japanese in Allies propaganda unleashed latent distrust of the Japanese living in the territory. Shim recalls, “It was a difficult time… especially for the interned Japanese and their families… even their closest Japanese friends seemed to have completely forsaken them…They were stunned…wives of husbands who were interned were shunned to the point of women crossing the street just to not have to speak to them…Many women were left with businesses formerly operated by their husbands and they were suddenly forced to operate businesses themselves. Then there were other, less fortunate than these, who had no source of income to depend on and who were in destitute circumstances.”

It was often difficult for Shim to convince these women to accept aid from the United States government. “So I told them that if they were in Japan, the government would give them aid, and that helped them accept it.”

For others there was a fear attached to the aid.  In Okaga Sama De there are stories of some Japanese women being afraid to accept government help, suspecting that the list of recipients could be used for internment or worse. “The Japanese…lived in fear during the early war days that they might be the next to be interned. Many had suitcases packed ready to leave home at a moment’s notice.2

Shim arranged for some of the wives of interned husbands to earn money. “I contacted an acquaintance of mine, Helen Suzuki who owned an Aloha Shirt company and asked if she would hire some of these women to do piecework at home. They did small jobs—just a straight seam, or attach a sleeve to the shirt…. Most of them didn’t know how to sew at first, so it would have been impossible for them to assemble an entire shirt.”

When I asked her about a typical day she said there were none. “Every day was different. I could be called to the waterfront, the Military Intelligence office, the Honouliuli internment camp3 or to someone’s home. But in some ways it was always the same. There was always so much crying on my shoulder. They would tell me, ‘My son is in the Army and my husband is interned. I don’t know what to do! I can’t even ask my friends because I cross the street rather than talk to them. It’s not safe. Someone might see and cast a doubt on them, too.’ How often I heard the same story. And I would end up crying, too.

“People were so afraid; the Japanese wouldn’t speak Japanese in public. I was riding the bus when a Japanese woman asked for directions in Japanese. She was an older woman. No one answered her—I spoke up. Everyone stared at me.  It was such a fearful time that no one else had dared help her.

“It’s hard to imagine it now. Their fear made people destroyed what they held most dear—priceless scrolls, family pictures, even money—whatever would link them to Japan. They even changed their names to try to hide their identity. That sometimes made it hard for me to find people.”4

I mentioned I heard a story that it was difficult for her to find of an internee’s girlfriend because of a name change. “No, it was a different problem.” She smiled as she told the story. “An internee who was being shipped out to a mainland relocation center in a matter of hours called me; he wanted to marry his girl friend before he left. You see, no one was told when they were being shipped out. All ship movements were classified information. When I tried to locate his girl friend, I found three girls with the same name. I finally found the right one in Kalihi.”

“Is it true bought them a wedding cake?” I asked. “Yes.” She nodded. “I dashed out to buy a ring and a cake and somehow I had the time to tie a big orchid on to a kitchen knife.”

The range of Shim Ryusaki’s tasks ranged from makeshift weddings to finding a locksmith to open the family business’ safe for a woman whose husband had been interned, to boarding and inspecting U.S. ships to insure all Japanese POWs were being treated according to the Geneva. She recalled, “We checked for proper sanitation and recreation, and that medical supplies were sufficient to last until the ship reached the West Coast.”

I asked if there was any sense of animosity between her and the military, and she answered, “I received tremendous support from the top brass. You see, I also assisted them. They needed information about Japanese citizens in Hawaii, particularly biographical information and I made it available to them. I also served the military when an American of Japanese Ancestry soldier wanted to mail money, letters, or gifts to their families in internment camps. And when casualty lists came out, the U.S. Veterans Administration used the consulate to obtain information about the beneficiaries of the deceased soldiers in order to settle the claim…. And on occasion, I accompanied the casualty officer to the internment camp to notify a family of the death of their soldier son.” Then she added, “Most of them were in the 100th Battalion of the 442nd Regiment.

“As far as any sense of animosity, there was none. I was given carte blanche by both the military and the state department. I was treated like a diplomat…. I had preference on all military planes and sometimes I would ‘bump’ majors and colonels…The privileges extended to commercial planes, too. I remember an inter-island flight when I was put on a plane ahead of Mr. Carter, the manager of the Parker Ranch. I saw him in the terminal and he asked me how I was, then when it was time to board, he was told to wait for the next plane so I could get one. You must understand, I grew up in Kamuela, the manager of the ranch was like a feudal lord to me! I went up to him and offered him my seat, but he wouldn’t accept it. He even expressed delight that such a role reversal could happen. He said, ‘It would never happen anywhere else in the world.’

“Still much of what was happening was very bad. One of my jobs was to inspect the conditions the Japanese POWs were held. The Japanese prisoners always wanted to know my last name, but I never told them. I still had family in Shizuoka and I didn’t want to compromise them in any way. I would try to see that they were comfortable and would bring them Japanese food, or extra clothes that I paid for myself…Once there was a Japanese officer imprisoned at Honouliuli who was a golfer, so I took my putter to the camp so he could practice a bit.”

During our conversation, we digressed, talking about the family dogs, her life in Boston and the joys of family. She proudly told me that her husband, Kinji Kanazawa was the first Buddhist to attend Boston College Law School and they still have friends from law school that visit them in Hawaii.

While they lived in Boston, Shim attended Chamberlain School of Fashion. She recalls those days fondly. She said, “…most of the students were ten years younger than I, but amazingly I never felt out of place. They were very good to me in spite of the bitter memories of World War II and I was elected student body president for two years. Miss Muriel M. Cox, director of the school, was extraordinarily nice to me and treated me like the daughter she never had. Right out of Chamberlain, I and was employed by Filenes’s.” The two of us reminisced about Filenes’s basement sales, downtown Boston, the swan boats, the Commons, and the bitter winters.

“You didn’t meet your husband until after the war, is that right?” I asked.

“Yes. I was working with his twin, Kanemi at the Veterans Administration. At first I thought there was only one of them. Then when I met Kinji, I couldn’t tell them apart.” She gestured toward a photograph of the twins on the wall. “They died within four weeks of each other.” (Kinji Kanazawa died on October 8, 2003; his twin, Kanemi, died on November 1, 2003.)

She continued, “When Kinji came in my office so often I thought it was to visit his brother, now I know it was to see me. I had no interest in any serious relationship. I planned to work for the American Embassy in Tokyo. But, instead we fell in love and were married and that’s how I followed him to Boston.”

I told her I read that he was a very low-key man who worked hard to save the Moiliili Community Center from government confiscation during the war. “Yes,” she said. “He donated a lot of his services for the center, and Buddhist temples and any people or organizations that asked him for help. He would tell our son, Sidney, ‘You can’t make money practicing law.’ (Sidney is an attorney practicing on the mainland.) He told our children, ‘Try your best and do it with a good heart.’”

It was impossible not to hear Vice-Consul Olaf’s request that he needed to find an assistant “with a Red Cross heart” and realize that Shim and Kinji Kanazawa shared the same heart.  I told her I read that her own mother told her that she would never be rich because she spent all her money on other people. Shim confirmed that fact. “But she told me that was ok because people appreciated what I did and they come first and that’s worth more than money.”

Shim spent a considerable amount of her own money to support her clients during the war. When women and children arrived from the Neighbor Islands with neither money nor a place to stay while waiting for ships to the mainland to join their husbands in internment camps, Shim put them up in the consulate building. She said, “We had futon and they slept on the floor.” But she also bought them winter clothes with her own money and supplied them with food she paid for herself. “My parents helped me,” she said. “My mother sent vegetables from Hawaii.”

Shim took out other photographs of herself on the dining room table. We had to move a porcelain soup tureen spread them out. I commented on her hair style in a formal portrait of her. “I had my hair combed everyday.” She smiled. “Recently I met a woman and she asked if I knew how she was, and I did. She was my hairstylist during the war.  With the position I had, I never knew who I was going to meet that day—it could be a general, the mayor or a family being sent to the mainland. I needed to be able to present myself to anyone at any time. Some days I came in and found out I was flying to a neighbor island to represent a family at a wedding or funeral.”

When I asked if she ever attempted to get permission for interned family members to attend funerals, she explained that the travel restrictions were on all Hawaii residents. “If any Japanese family member could not attend Buddhist rites, funerals or weddings and tradition demanded that they be present, if I could, I went in their place, and they saved family pride and were able to exhibit traditional honor.” As she answered, I was reminded of the impact and the importance of Shim being present at her own sister’s death.

And, as if marking a change of topic, Shim folded her hands on the table in front of her and went back to her account of the war. She looked at her hands as she spoke. WHAT DOES HER WEDDING RING LOOK LIKE? DOES SHE WEAR A WEDDING RING? “There were so many duties. When a Japanese citizen came in to the consulate to renounce his citizenship, I had to help them fill out the form, translating for them, and then send the form to Washington D.C. where they were sent to Japan. There were many who did not know how to fill out the forms they were required to. Once, a lawyer challenged me, asking if I were assuming legal responsibilities beyond my qualifications. And I told him I was doing in five minutes what some lawyers were charging destitute people ten dollars.”

I remarked that I assumed lawyer never brought up the topic again. She didn’t answer; she raised her head and looked at me. I believe there was a slight smile beginning to emerge when she continued her narration.  “I had a good staff who supported me,” she said. “Mr. Ozaki was the consulate chauffer. The consulate limousine had a phone in it and a partition between me and the driver. It was difficult for me to become accustomed to what was afforded me. Sometimes, I felt like Lady Astor! Mr. Ozaki, the chauffer was a good man. Sometimes, I asked him to help me translate some of the more difficult kanji.”

I asked what kinds of documents needed translation. “Almost all,” she answered. “The consulate issued family records, births, arrivals, spelling of names in Roman letters, marriages, adoptions, parentages, expatriations from Japanese nationality, filing of application for expatriation from Japanese nationality. Then later in the war, when local employers needed laborers and restrictions against hiring Japanese were relaxed, Japanese-American citizens were required to prove their Hawaii birth, or for proof of their expatriation from Japan in order to qualify for certain types of work in restricted areas.

According to Shim, the consulate assumed the dual role of “angel of mercy” and “employment office.” She said, “We solicited aid from the American Red Cross, we acted as arbitrator in ironing out domestic difficulties, we assisted families in sending food, money, letters and gifts to internment camps and relocation centers on the mainland. All in all, it was not uncommon for us to be swamped from day to day.”

In 1945, the United States government asked Shim Ryusaki to accompany Japanese women and children who were moving to the Crystal City, Texas Internment Camp to be reunited with their husbands and fathers. “I couldn’t tell my mother I was leaving. Ship movements were top secret.

The telephone in my office was tapped, I knew it. And part of the reason for that was that I discussed ship movements on the phone. I would be informed when internees would be sailing to the mainland, but I could never say anything. There were times I would be talking to the wife or daughter of a man I knew would be shipped out the following day, but I could never tell them.

“When I left for Crystal City, I didn’t know how long I would be gone. It ended up being a three month trip because the United States government sent me on a 34 state tour to thank me for all the services I provided.

“On the ship, I served as an interpreter and a facilitator. It was a frightening crossing. We were all afraid. The ship had no escort and we knew we were sailing through water where submarines were still lurking. We couldn’t put on a radio and the ship was blacked out. We made is safely to the coast, then on to the camp at Crystal City, Texas with no incidents. But when we arrived at the camp, the restrictions were such that I couldn’t enter; I had to leave the women and children at the gate.”

I asked if she experienced and “difficulty” or racial prejudice during her mainland travels and she said she didn’t. “The only comment anyone made to me about race was a man on a train in Wyoming who told me he knew I couldn’t be a mainland (U.S.) Japanese. He said something like, ‘I don’t know who you are but you don’t walk with your head down.’  Then he asked me if I was Mrs. Chaing Kai Shek.” She smiled. “I had been thought of as Mata Hari before, but never Mrs. Chaing Kai Shek.

“The only other time race was considered was while I was at Fort Mc Coy. It was the day we declared Victory over Europe and the Commandant of the base, told me not to go off the post and I had a sergeant escort.”

When I asked what she was most proud of among her World War II accomplishment, the sum of her answer was simple. “Years later, my mother would meet people who told her that I helped them during the war with this or that and she was so proud.”

In 1990, during an interview about his wife, Kinji Kanazawa remarked about her impact on their children. He said, “I take no credit in raising the kids. I think she gave them the right kind of down-to-earth philosophy and that the progress they make in life is the kind of growth they can make by helping other people.”

For Shim Kanazawa, family, family values, and the Buddhist value of dana have been central forces and focuses of her life. Among her accomplishments is her appointment as the first woman director and chair of the Board of Kuakini Medical Center. She was the first nisei woman on the board of the Aloha United Way. Governor Quinn appointed her as the chairperson of the Life and Law Committee which studied Hawaii laws study affecting family life and youth; it was her work there that spearheaded the creation of the Family Court. She has been lauded by the Hawaii State Senate, the U.S. Congress, the Public Schools Foundation, the George Washington Honor Medal for Individual Achievement, the Freedoms Foundation of Valley Forge, the Moiliili Community Center among many other organizations.

She has been declared a “Living Legacy” by the Honpa Hongwanji Buddhist Mission and has received an honorary doctorate of Humane Letters from the University of Hawaii. Shim Kanazawa’s current passion is Project Dana. (Dana, pronounced “donna,” is a Buddhist concept meaning selfless giving.) Project Dana is an interfaith program that assists the elderly and disabled to live with dignity and independence.  Despite all her accolades and accomplishments, Shim Ryusaki Kanazawa still thinks of herself as “a country girl with a Red Cross heart.”

And as for her accomplishments in life, she credits, her late husband Kinji. “I could never have fulfilled my aspirations and dreams without a true believer and giver in the person of my late husband, Kinji, and without the love and inspiration of our children, Sidney and Joni, our daughter-in-law, Millicent, and our grandchildren, Kurt and Madeleine.

Dorothea “Dee” Buckingham is a retired librarian and author of several books including “My Name is Loa”, a historical novel set on Molokai at the Leprosy Settlement in 1898. Her self-described obsession is researching the daily lives of women living on Oahu during World War II. Have a story to share with her? Reach her at





  1. When I woke up this morning, I looked at the Fitbit App to see how I slept. Looking at the information, I started wondering just how the sleep tracker worked so I headed over to the Fitbit site to see if I could get some more information.

  2. […] Shimeji Ryusaki Kanazawa: Deemed “Florence Nightingale of Hawaii” for WWII Actions – For the work she did during the war years, Shim has been called the “Florence Nightingale of Hawaii … The streets in the college hill area where she lives are broad sweeping avenues, richly lined with shower trees, royal palms and tall hedges … […]

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