Turning tragedy to hope

LIHU‘E — The parents of three sons who died tragic deaths have made it their life’s mission to teach others about the importance of unconditional love and of creating nurturing environments.

Alexander and Jane Nakatani of Kahului are the co-founders of Honor Thy Children, an organization that explores human and self-denigration, the process of diminishing people on the basis of their characteristics, and without consideration of conduct or behavior. They teach how attitudes shape behavior toward others because of race, ethnicity, gender, age, origin, religion, physical or mental disability, economic and social class, sexual orientation or other distinguishable traits.

“No cultural or ethnic group is safe from the process of human denigration and that is the thrust of these stories and experiences,” said Alexander.

The Nakatanis led a state-sponsored workshop for caregivers and educators Aug. 25 at Queen Lili‘uokalani Children’s Center in Lihu‘e. They tailored their presentation on the topic of bullying and of improving the standing of disenfranchised groups in the context of health and wellness.

“Because we had this experience it has personally evolved into public education,” Alexander Nakatani said.

The workshop taught how inward manifestations of self-denigration include depression and withdrawal, under-achievement and high-risk behavior that diminishes life skills. Bullying is one result and the long-term repercussions lead to disenfranchisement, and even war and genocide, they said.

The Nakatanis teach that the eradication of denigration is unattainable and part of the human condition. The goal is to have an institutional approach to better understanding and managing the experiences of our own lives to improve our ability to accept human diversity.

The goals are especially difficult during a time of survival when two working parents hold down multiple jobs, and the pressure only allows the environment for denigration to flourish. They point out that secondary education has shifted toward occupational development and is no longer about humanizing the individual.

“Physical education, music and art was the first wave and now they are going after cutting social sciences and there is no appreciation for the history of human spirit and soul,” Alexander said.

The couple emphasized the importance of early childhood learning and that emotional attachment is developed by age 2. They said emotional intelligence follows with a child learning empathy, happiness, hopefulness and resiliency. The social development is shaped by their teen years with higher capacities of self-awareness, empathy and trust through interaction with others.

The Nakatanis relate their experience in the 1997 book “Honor Thy Children” by author Molly Fumia. The Francisco Léon video “Honor Thy Children” followed and a feature documentary is in the works.

The message from Alex is that if parents pay more attention to who their children are, rather than what they expect them to be, then the communications lines stay open and they look to them for guidance instead of outside the home.

The Nakatanis lived on the Mainland’s west coast for 35 years. Their three sons — Guy, Glen and Greg — all died tragically as young men full of potential. Their parents carry forth a message that their family and community upbringing had a role in their respective fates.

“Our sons were at risk as racial minorities and because of their sexuality, and this led to high risk behaviors,” Alexander said. “Other children may abuse alcohol and drugs or get involved in abusive relationships, or decide that it is too difficult to compete or improve themselves academically and think themselves less than whole and put themselves at risk.”

The eldest son Glen was born in 1961 and they now recognize he was gay during his middle teens. He was attending high school, community college and working a part-time job by age 15, and left home after parental disapproval of so many extracurricular activities.

After living with grandparents in Hawai‘i for a short time, he served in the U.S. Air Force and studied for his master’s degree in engineering at UC San Diego. He returned home after 12 years when he tested HIV positive in 1988 and died at age 29 in 1990.

Alexander said he felt dishonored when Greg left and that expressing this openly only destroyed the trust he had with his remaining sons.

The middle son Greg was born in 1963, and Alexander said he was quick to stand up for his rights. He felt that in encouraging Greg to fight, in combination with anger and identity issues, may have made him fearless and not exercise good judgment.

Greg was shot and killed during an argument outside a restaurant in 1986. The killer was never brought to justice.

Their third son, Guy, was born in 1967, and recognized he was gay in high school. The strong gymnast contracted HIV in his early 20s.

Guy spoke at schools to more than 40,000 students on the topic of HIV/AIDS. He wanted to help dispel the stereotypes and misinformation around in the early 1990s. His last talks were given from a wheelchair just weeks before he died in 1994 at age 27.

Alexander said his sons were raised at a time when a wider barrier existed across ethnic lines with resistance to the acceptance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender individuals in society. Their mission now is to speak on their behalf to groups about the process of creating dynamic links between young people.

“I always believed that the GLBT community is the last minority group trying to bring some degree of acceptance, justice and freedom,” he said.

Jane said her generation was raised not to show feelings or to bring shame on the family. She was educated as a teacher and raised to separate herself from her ethnic identity and to become mainstream.

She said these attitudes made her resent other immigrant groups and although not always verbalized they were apparent. Her sons had identity issues as well and she felt they developed similar attitudes.

Alexander said that looking back it is clear this was a continuation of their denial of culture and experience and a “whitewashing of kids in California.” He said the family journey is important in understanding the nature of denigration.

The concept was realized, Alexander said, after believing that his own conditioning played a part in his own parenting and that it was in part responsible for the choices his sons made that led to their tragic deaths.

He said it is important to recognize and articulate the impact that the formative years have on the present day family. Its influence is demonstrated in the messages conveyed to children with regard to expected behavior, conduct and ambition.

Alexander’s father was a community leader, store owner and kendo teacher. Although he was not on the Mainland, authorities detained him after Pearl Harbor and he spent the duration of the war on Sand Island. “He never talked about it,” he said.

The Japanese language school was shut down during the war years and Nakatani said his cultural values were diminished and never fully appreciated. He said the overt and subtle stereotypes of his own culture will perpetuate to the next generation unless awareness improves.

His own experience was growing up with a sense of shame that clouded his parent’s generation based on their experience as Japanese Americans during wartime. This influenced his values of “don’t rock the boat” and “go to Mainland because there is nothing in Hawai‘i for you.”

At the same time, Nakatani considers himself the “unconscious beneficiary” of the post-war identity thanks to the Japanese American Citizens League and the Nisei veterans.

“That awareness came later in life and was not part of American history,” he said.

• Tom LaVenture, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 224) or by emailing tlaventure@ thegardenisland.com.

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