Last week, the museum lost a longtime docent and an all-around bright light to be around. Born in 1940, Sonoko Ota passed away while in hospice care last Tuesday morning.
Her face is a familiar one. On most Tuesday mornings at 10am, Ota could be found at the front entrance of the museum, ready to show Japanese speakers around.
Originally from Japan and having lived in Hawaiʻi for the past four decades, it wasn’t until the 1990s that Ota finally paid a visit to the museum. And it wasn’t until the 2009 exhibition Hokusai’s 36 Views of Mt. Fuji that she joined the museum as a docent. While always having an interest in art, she didn’t think to actually indulge herself in it until retirement, proving that it’s never too late to explore a new passion.
“The closer I got to retirement the more I realized that I wanted to spend more time surrounded by art,” Ota told the museum in 2015. “Then after retiring in 2002 I began taking art courses at local colleges, and I’ve never looked back.”
She wasn’t kidding about that. We can thank Ota for being a key player in increasing the museum’s engagement with resident and visiting Japanese. (The museum now hosts as many Japanese language tours as there are English language tours.) Working closely with the museum’s former director of communications Lesa Griffith, Ota connected the museum with Japanese-language media like the radio station KZOO and the Hawaiʻi Hochi Newspaper.
“She was a really special person, and her bright energy will be missed around here,” museum volunteer coordinator Janna Plant said.
Her passion for Japanese language and culture extended beyond the museum too. She was also a teacher at the Manoa Japanese Language School for children, and also audited Japanese history classes at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.
When not at the museum, Ota enjoyed swimming in the ocean, drawing, painting and singing in a choir. Each year she submitted an art piece for the docents’ annual exhibition called Eye of the Beholder.
Ota’s legacy will live on through everyone who continues to benefit from her hard work and passion for the arts. And on Tuesdays at 10am, her smiling face will truly be missed.