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Professor pieces together history of Hawaii town 75 years after deadly tsunami


April 1, 2021, marks the 75th anniversary of a 1946 tsunami that killed more than 150 people in Hilo, Hawaii, after waves as high as 55 feet were triggered by a massive earthquake in the Aleutian Islands. The thriving Japanese business district of Shinmachi was destroyed, along with its history. After visiting the area more than five years ago, Heather Fryer, Ph.D., Creighton University’s director for American Studies, created a documentary to put the pieces of the small town’s history back together.

Shinmachi: Stronger Than a Tsunami retells the story of the tsunami and how families salvaged what they could to rebuild only to have the district wiped out again by another deadly tsunami in 1960. Fryer, who also is the Fr. Henry W. Casper, SJ Professor of History at Creighton, began developing the film in 2014 after driving by a park in which stood a wooden sign that read “Site of Shinmachi.” Seeing no nearby buildings, her curiosity piqued, she began asking questions.

After the community of Shinmachi was twice destroyed by tsunamis, records of the town’s existence became difficult to find. A phone call from Fryer led to a meeting with Kenneth Kazuto Kameoka, an individual who had grown up near Shinmachi. Kameoka began mapping where Shinmachi businesses and families were located, gathering stories, photos and even artifacts. The film archives stories about the community taken from first-hand sources and their families and reflects the resilience of the survivors in keeping the spirit of Shinmachi alive today.

“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,” said Fryer.

While producing the documentary and writing a book about Shinmachi, Fryer took a year-long sabbatical to live in Maui and complete the project. The documentary will air on PBS Hawaii on the 75th Anniversary of the first tsunami. There also will be a special virtual premiere, Tuesday, March 23, 2021, at 7 p.m. CDT. Following the premiere, there will be a Q&A with Fryer, Lynn Beittel, director of production and editor, and Ramon Goya, a survivor of the Shinmachi tsunami.

Registration for the free virtual screening is available on Eventbrite through Monday, March 22, at 7 p.m. CDT. The film also can be viewed at after its April 1 premiere on PBS Hawaii.


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