Limelight – Richard Murakami
By Sean McIntyre – Gulf Islands Driftwood
reprinted by permission
Richard Murakami has a poem by Mother Theresa hanging on the wall of his Rainbow Road garage.
It speaks of hard work, modesty and dealing with adversity.
The words pretty much sum up Murakami’s philosophy and character.
Perseverance helped him rebuild his life on the island after the federal government seized Japanese-Canadian owned assets during the Second World War.
Kindness and generosity have encouraged him to help other islanders overcome hardships of their own.
And success has helped him become a member of the island’s business elite.
Of course, Murakami is way too modest to tell you any of that himself.
The panel of judges for this year’s Salt Spring Island Chamber of Commerce Business Awards, however, aren’t as predisposed to let the good deeds go unnoticed.
During a gala event at Salt Spring’s Harbour House Hotel last month, the chamber awarded Murakami with the Citizen of the Year Award.
The distinguished prize is among nine awards provided to island individuals and businesses in recognition of their contributions to various facets of island life.
The Citizen of the Year honour is given to the islander in recognition of his or her personal contributions on Salt Spring Island through volunteerism, building community spirit, advocacy and showing a continuing interest in the wellbeing of the island and its residents.
Fellow nominees for this year’s award included such well-known islanders as Jeff Outerbridge, Bob Oudenaarden, Sue Mouat, Mafalda Hoogerdyk, Darin Craig, Harry Burton, Jim Spencer, Dorothy Cutting and George Sipos.
In an interview at his garage a few days after the awards ceremony, Murakami said he was shocked when he learned that he had received the award.
“Basically I just try to be as community minded as I can,” he said. “I’m sure there’s lots of other people who could’ve gotten it.”
There’s that modesty again.
Winning this year’s award is the latest event in what has been a fairly eventful couple of years for Murakami.
Earlier in 2009, he was on hand for the official opening of the Heiwa Peace Park, a Japanese-style garden across from ArtSpring.
During the summer, Murakami and his sister Rose were invited to meet the emperor and empress of Japan at Government House in Victoria.
All this has taken place as Murakami continues to recover from a serious respiratory illness following a workplace accident in the spring.
Perhaps the greatest contribution Murakami has made during the past few years was the donation of land that cleared the way for the island’s first significant affordable housing project.
Murakami Gardens on Rainbow Road represents the positive things that can be accomplished when individuals and government officials put their minds to something.
For Richard and Rose, it just felt like the natural way to thank islanders who helped them get re-established on the island following the Second World War.
“Our goal was to provide a quality, safe place to live for families and for people who could contribute to the positive welfare of Salt Spring Island,” he said.
Murakami Gardens is but one among a series of community initiatives that include sponsoring sports teams, donating funds to student sports and supporting school fundraising campaigns.
As for what lies ahead for Murakami now that he’s received the Citizen of the Year Award, “It’s business as usual,” he said.
Richard Murakami was born on Salt Spring Island in July, 1940. From the age of one to age nine he lived first at Hastings Park and then sugar beet farms in Alberta. His family returned to Salt Spring in 1954 despite the enduring racism they encountered there. He graduated from high school in 1958 and received his bachelors degree from UBC in 1963. After working in Vancouver for a while he returned to Salt Spring Island to help his aging parents and eventually started an auto repair business, which thrived despite constant threats and harassment. During the decades that he has been in business, Richard has encountered hundreds of people who were in need of help. He understood how it felt to be poor and homeless so he provided trailers and cars on his property for them to live in. Many peoples’ cars were kept running because he provided service for free to those who did not have the funds to pay. His desire to help the homeless culminated in the donation of a property worth 1.2 million dollars to build housing for Salt Spring Island citizens with low incomes. With his sister Rose, they set the stage for the recently-opened Murakami Gardens, a twenty-seven unit affordable housing complex. He continues to donate to worthy causes such as to the Royal Canadian Legion, to an annual scholarship in his parent’s memory to a deserving graduating student, to the Lady Minto Hospital Foundation and to the Japanese Garden Society. The Heiwa Japanese Garden is being created in Ganges, the main centre on the Island to honour the memory of Japanese Canadians who once lived and contributed so greatly to Salt Spring Island. Richard willingly continues to be his brothers’/sisters’ keeper by quietly helping the disadvantaged and dispossessed every day. Richard has generously and gladly given back many-fold to a community that once rejected him and his family.