Soto Mission of Hawaii Hosts Ministers’ Children from Japan

Jodie Chiemi Ching
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

Photo of Byodo-in at the Valley of the Temples in Käne‘ohe, which was another stop on the students’ itinerary.
Byodo-in at the Valley of the Temples in Käne‘ohe was another stop on the students’ itinerary.

Hawai‘i’s Japanese American community has come a long way since 1903 when Soto Zen priests first arrived in the Islands to provide spiritual support to the immigrants working under harsh conditions on the sugar plantations. When World War II broke out, the community again turned to their Soto Zen temple. In the more than a century since the first immigrants arrived, the Soto Mission of Hawaii has continued to support its members and the community.

Photo of the students after a mass at St. Augustine by the Sea Catholic Church in Waikïkï.
The students observed a mass at St. Augustine by the Sea Catholic Church in Waikïkï.

“In order for the temple, even today, to survive, [it] needs to serve, not only the members, but also the community,” explained Bishop Shugen Komagata of the Soto Mission of Hawaii. “If the temple is not functional and beneficial for the community, then we don’t need the temple,” he continued.

But Soto Mission of Hawai‘i’s influence also extends beyond the local community. Last December, the mission partnered with Soto Zen International in hosting five students whose fathers are Soto Zen ministers — three boys and two girls. The students came from different parts of Japan. The program is known as SZI Kaigai Totei Kenshu (SZI Overseas Ministers’ Children’s Workshop).

The students were accompanied by the Rev. Kenji Oyama, vice abbot of the Seiryuji Soto Zen Temple in Yamagata Prefecture. He served as the group’s leader and chaperone in Hawai‘i. It was a homecoming of sorts for the 42-year-old Oyama, who was born in Hawai‘i and lived in Waipahu until 1989. During his freshman year in high school, his father, the Rev. Yodo Oyama, then-resident minister of the Taiyoji Soto Zen Temple in Waipahu, returned to Japan to lead a Soto Zen temple in Chiba ken. Rev. The elder Rev. Oyama is now a minister in Akita Prefecture.

After completing high school in Japan, Kenji Oyama enrolled at the University of Hawai‘i. He returned to Japan after graduating and began training at the Sojiji Head Monastery to follow in the footsteps of his father. In 2001, he married the daughter of the minister of the Seiryuji temple in Yamagata. He and his wife settled in Pä‘ia, Maui, where he was appointed minister of the Mantokuji Soto Zen Temple in 2003. After 10 years of working with the Pacific Ocean at their back door, the Oyamas returned to Japan in 2013 so he could begin preparing to succeed his father-in-law at Seiryuji.

The five students were 15-year-old boys Yuta Tamiya from Niigata Prefecture and Keietsu Fukushima from Saitama Ken (prefecture), and Tesshu Kameno, 16, from Kanagawa. The two girls were 16-year-old Rei Asai from Aichi Prefecture and Fuko Ikeda, 12, from Yamagata.

Their five days on O‘ahu were packed with visits to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl, Diamond Head, ‘Iolani Palace, Hawaii’s Plantation Village, Dole Plantation, the North Shore, the Palolo Zen Center and various Soto Mission temples on O‘ahu. It turns out that Japanese teens aren’t all that different from most local teens when it comes to food — they enjoyed diving into burgers and fries at Burger King. “Malasadas are my favorite,” said Tesshu.

In an effort to enrich their experience in Hawai‘i, they observed Catholic mass at St. Augustine by the Sea, attended a few Christmas parties, viewed the Honolulu City Lights display and Christmas lights displays in Kapolei and hanging out at the beach. When asked what about Hawai‘i left an impression on them, or what surprised them most, they responded shyly, but with beaming eyes and heartwarming smiles.

The youngest of the students, Fuko Ikeda, was awed by what she saw all around her. “Nature is so beautiful and abundant in Hawai‘i,” she said.

Until this visit, Tesshu’s exposure to American culture was primarily through American television and movies. “I was surprised that we take off shoes in the house,” he said, laughing.

Keietsu observed the differences between Buddhism, Catholicism and Christianity. “In (western religious) church, they sing songs, which feels happy; there are no songs in Buddhism.”

Recalling his visit to Hawaii’s Plantation Village in Waipahu, Yuta Tamiya said he was impressed with the “cooperation among various countries and the importance of community.”

The three boys said they would probably follow in their father’s footsteps and become ministers. Probably, but they are still considering other options for the future.

“I think they are still a little unsure at this point, but I think Keietsu, Tesshu and Yuta all have a feeling of obligation and responsibility to become ministers, because in Japan, it is kind of an expectation that the son would be the successor to the father. It happens a lot in family-run businesses, but it is also true for temples in the last few generations since ministers were allowed to get married and have children,” said Rev. Oyama. “I think they have interest in exploring other fields, too, and so they had mentioned that they would actually like to be able to do another job together with ministry, if possible,” he added. “In cases when the temple has a small membership, it is actually possible to have another job. In fact, some ministers would need to have another job to have enough income to live sufficiently.”

The trip to O‘ahu sparked a possible way of cultivating world peace. Fukushima said that in order for future generations to achieve peace and harmony, we must strive “to know other religions deeply and know each other well so we can give advice and support each other.”

The students returned to their homes in Japan before New Year’s, wrapping up their whirlwind trip to O‘ahu. While it was undoubtedly a fun experience for them, they all returned home changed in one way or another. Whether they will engage in deep contemplation about their future or reflect on the bridge they created during their time here, each student returned home with a special omiyage — the kind of souvenir that remains in your heart forever. With a greater understanding and appreciation for Hawai‘i’s various cultures and religions, Keietsu Fukushima said: “Do not cling to religious views; humans are all the same.”

Jodie Ching is a freelance writer and blogger who also works for her family’s accounting firm in Kaimuki. She has a bachelor’s degree in Japanese from the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa and is a past recipient of the Okinawa Prefectural Government Foundation scholarship.

Photo of Rev. Kenji Oyama and his students in his old hometown, Waipahu
Rev. Kenji Oyama took the visiting students to his old hometown, Waipahu, where they visited with Taiyoji Soto Zen Mission’s current minister, the Rev. Ryosho Kokuzo, and temple members. Kneeling, from left: Carol Oyama, Rev. Kenji Oyama and Keietsu Fukushima. Second row: Lillian Sakamoto, Ryuko Kokuzo (minister’s wife) Rei Asai, Fuko Ikeda, Yuta Tamiya, Tesshu Kameno and Rev. Ryosho Kokuzo. Third row: Rev. Tazawa and Rev. Konno, who were on a short study visit to the Soto Mission of Hawaii while training to become ministers, and Taiyoji member Linda Unten. (Carol Oyama and Rev. Kenji Oyama are not related; however, as a child, she was like an aunty to Oyama and his siblings. In fact, they always referred to her as “Aunty Carol.”)


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