by Katherine Kama‘ema‘e Smith
cover & feature photography by Brian Suda

The traditions and language of the original Japanese immigrants to Hawai‘i in the late 1800s survived because they taught their children to venerate and value the culture of the homeland. In over six subsequent generations of American Japanese, no single organization has nurtured language and culture more than Mo‘ili‘ili Community Center on O‘ahu. In addition to supporting a thriving Japanese Language School for children, the center opens its doors five days a week to 300 to 500 senior members who come to participate in a wide array of arts, activities, educational programs and adult day care. This private nonprofit organization is the traditional bedrock of Mo‘ili‘ili families.

Executive Director Nadine Nishioka told Generations Magazine about the 115-year history of the center. In the 1890s, children of plantation worker families in Mo‘ili‘ili attended Japanese language school in the private home of Kihachi Kashi-wabara. Mo‘ili‘ili was a large marshland area at the bottom of Manoa Valley, behind Ala Wai (then a river) and Waikiki Beach flats. Lands adjacent to the many ponds and Kapaakea Springs were cultivated with rice, lotus and various vegetables. Along the dirt trails of this farming community were small shops and businesses, and wood-framed houses. Beside the homesteads, small plumes of smoke rose from wood stoves used for ofuros and cookhouses. Customs, foods, religious beliefs and common interests knit the residents of Mo‘ili‘ili into a harmonious community.

The Center’s Heritage

In the late 1800’s, when the sugar barons of Hawai‘i wanted to expand their plantations, they recruited farm workers and engineers from Japan. The men came first and soon brought in their wives. Freedom and work opportunities in Hawai‘i offered hope to young Japanese from a homeland ravaged by decades of war with China. Chinese invaders outlawed the practice of Japanese cultural traditions and Japanese language, so schools and temples were important features of a new life in Hawai‘i. For Japanese immigrants, plantation camps promised a second chance for success. In Mo‘ili‘ili, the community drew together and in 1928, purchased the language house and land that became the community center.

During WWII, the Mo‘ili‘ili community founded a formal council association. At that time, mainland Issei and Nisei were being interned in war camps, but in Hawai‘i, the Nisei first joined the civilian volunteer brigade and later entered the U.S. Army. The council was a hub for the community to gather and support one another. After the war, in 1945, they were awarded an official charter, and 20 years later, in 1965, this private nonprofit organization was formally named “Mo‘ili‘ili Community Center.”



The Center Today

The business model for today’s center is simple and very successful. “Our members pay an annual membership fee that covers our overhead, salaries and operating expense,” said Nadine. “Next year, the fee will go up to $40 from $35 per person,” said Nadine. “Some seniors add a cash gift with their membership because they can afford it and they appreciate the benefits they are receiving here. For some seniors, the fee seems high but it all works out. We never turn away any seniors who may have difficulty paying the fee.” Professional planners say that successful community programs are designed and resourced at the grassroots level. Nadine agrees. She places the success of the center squarely on its members. “Our seniors know the programs they want and we just listen to them,” said Nadine. “They want mahjong, and they want it early in the day when they are alert and have a better chance of winning. They organize the games and find the prizes. Senior center staff members make sure the room is ready and oversee their plans. Mahjong starts at 7:30 am, and is so popular that our seniors are lined up and waiting in front of the door at 7 am.”

“Whenever MCC members have an idea for an activity or event, they make a plan and find the resources to put on the program,” said Nadine.

“We provide the space and scheduling and our members ensure the program or event’s success.”

One of the most popular weekly sessions is Rhythm & Life held every morning. This award-winning Japanese exercise and stretching program is designed for elders and choreographed to Japanese music. Rhythm & Life invites both actively mobile seniors (standing) and less mobile seniors (seated) to better fitness and improved blood circulation. The packed room is filled with intently engaged and happy faces as the participants work out to the beats of various rhythms and tunes. Other active options include outcome-based exercise, Zumba, classic tai chi and a special tai chi class for seniors with im-paired balance who want to rehabilitate themselves. This one is important for preventing falls. “I think one beauty of our center is that seniors who have lost a spouse or no longer live in their old neighborhoods may come here and socialize while they participate in healthy activities for body, mind and soul,” said Nadine. “We offer physical exercise, mental stimulation and ways to learn and participate, but socializing combats isolation and loneliness. Members have the opportunity to spend happy times with people who share memories of earlier times and traditional values.”

This benefit was certainly obvious to Generations staffers, who saw members chatting before and after yoga class and senior Zumba.

A display of the impressive artwork and handicrafts produced by MCC members proudly hangs in the center. It demonstrates the wonderful skills seniors can learn here. Traditional kumihimo is the art of braiding cords and ribbons. In ancient times, the samurai braided decorative laces for their armor; today, ties on haori jackets or obi kimono sashes are often crafted with kumihimo. When combined with beading, kumihimo art produces intricate and elegant bracelets. and festive dancing to enka music. Each year, Japanese teachers bring different traditional arts and crafts.

Art classes abound, with origami, shodo calligraphy and festive dancing to enka music. Each year, Japanese teachers bring different traditional arts and crafts.

Japanese Language at the Center

Language is the foundation of culture, and today, children are still learning Japanese at Mo‘ili‘ili. The intensely interactive program includes plays and performances that delight the whole family. The original mission of passing on the Japanese language to the next generation was a budding flower of the old Mo‘ili‘ili community. Today, the branches of that flowering plant produce a bouquet of family-based activities, arts and expressions. A few of the directors on the center’s board actually attended Japanese language classes at MCC when they were in grade school!

Today, K-5 children attend Japanese after-school classes every weekday and practice speaking Japanese with their parents, who learned it in the same facility. The whole family is able to speak Japanese with the grandparents. While many MCC programs are geared to elders, the center itself is oriented to fulfill the needs of  the entire family, interacting across age groups as they do at home.

The Teens in Action program gives young volunteers in seventh grade or higher an opportunity to work as aids in the many children’s programs at MCC: After-school A+, Early Morning Care, and programs for school intercession, holidays and summer break.

Senior Programs at the Center

Cultural and community outreach events of MCC are all organized, planned and resourced by staff and member volunteers. Everyone pulls together to make the center a vibrant place where members can be proud of all they accomplish. Their volunteer work results in fun, satisfaction and benefits the community.

“Our members love singing karaoke, and performing both ‘auana hula and Japanese dance; when they learn a dance well, they like to perform it at homes for the elderly,” said Nadine.

“They recently organized performances at various senior daycare centers and nursing homes. We provide the transportation, they make their own costumes, and delight in bringing beauty and enjoyment to the other elders.” Another community service for which MCC recently became a partner is a version of Meals on Wheels. Instead of delivering meals to seniors’ homes, MCC drivers go out and bring elderly to the MCC dining hall for a hot meal. Coming to the center gives them the opportunity for socialization and conversation in a safe, happy environment. The new program is working very well. Nadine regrets that MCC does not have more space and staff for their very popular Kupuna Support Program. This adult daycare program is for frail as well as not-so-frail seniors who can use the restroom with very little assistance. They participate in a number of fun, healthy activities geared to stimulate their minds, bodies and souls. Palolo Chinese Home Catering provides a healthy lunch, which is included in the Kupuna Support Program fee — $55 a day.

“We always have a waiting list,” said Nadine. “The need for good adult care is so great that families are willing to be ‘on call’ for an opening of just one or two days when one of our regular clients is sick or traveling.”

By the end of Generation Magazine’s tour of MCC, it was clear that we could fill two issues with program details and still not cover every offering at this wonderful community center—transportation and escort services, excursions, counseling, special events and more.

Become a Center Member

If you are over 60 and live in Honolulu between Ward Avenue and Hawai‘i Kai, you are within the city area serviced by Mo‘ili‘ili Community Center. However, MCC also welcomes participants from all areas of O‘ahu. To learn more about the organization and its many programs, please visit

This year, Mo‘ili‘ili Community Center is celebrating 115 years as a place of learning, health and enrichment. For many generations, the center has served families and created family ties throughout a broad community. MCC’s important work continues due to the generosity of many donors, grants and the Aloha United Way. If you wish to help them with a cash donation, remember that all donations to MCC support the programs, not the administration. Donations are tax deductible and every dollar helps the beneficiaries of the center.

2535 S King St., Honolulu HI 96826 Hours: M–F 8 am to 5 pm
808-955-1555  |  Fax: 808-945-7033 |  |