“When I came in and applied at the museum,” says security officer James Navaja, “the first thing the boss told me was, ‘You look like you’re in shape, but these floors are hard. You might want to get better shoes.’ So I took his advice.” That was in 1983.

Today, Navaja, who is also a talented musician, continues to patrol the stone-paved corridors and hardwood-floored galleries, which after 33 years have come to feel like another home. Ask him what his favorite work of art in the museum collection is and Navaja will take you to the Japan gallery, where three finely crafted Japanese swords, or katanas, hang in a small case.

“One of the things I appreciate about these is that they have a symbolism to why they were made. It’s applicable art that symbolizes power, majesty, keeping things in line, and dividing what is right and what is wrong. And there’s a lot of honor behind them, a lot of keeping the law—a freedom fighting kind of thing. But it’s not just symbolic; it’s an art that came together through science and engineering. There are so many facets to [carrying] them—just like wearing a crown—they have so much meaning.

“With my heritage, too, I can appreciate it because my family does come from a samurai family, and it’s one of the biggest families from Japan, the Mōri family.

“Seeing these swords first come [in 2004] was quite spiritual. I wondered how they got this done. Where did they get the technology for carbon steel? How’d they know how hot to get it in order to get the carbon around the steel so it would be flexible yet strong? It’s just sort of beyond my imagination. They had some guidance for sure.”

The other side of Navaja’s family, which came to Hawai‘i from the Philippines and has old Spanish roots, has some sharp tools in the shed as well—they helped create the eponymous Navaja knife.