Writer’s Yonsei Children Instrumental in Building New Bridges of Friendship and Family

Patsy Y. Iwasaki
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

“Please call me Reiko-mama,” replied Reiko Araragi in response to my daughter Kellie’s question: “What should I call you?” So, throughout her two-night, three-day stay in Hiroshima, Kellie called her homestay mother “Reiko-mama.” And a family bond was born.

That was back in 2011 when Kellie was 16 years old and a youth delegate from the East Hawaii Hiroshima Kenjinkai on the 10-day-long International Youth Exchange sponsored by the Hiroshima Prefectural Government.

Photo of Jairus looking after his “little brother” Shogo at an outing.
Jairus looks after his “little brother” Shogo at an outing.

Every year for at least the last decade (and likely more), the program has invited students ages 15 to 18 from Hiroshima kenjinkai (prefectural clubs) in Hawai‘i, the U.S. mainland, Mexico and South America to enrich their understanding of their ancestral roots through a variety of educational experiences and a homestay. The Hiroshima Prefectural Government and program coordinators invest in the youth, hoping the exchange will encourage and foster vibrant relations between the overseas kenjinkai and Hiroshima into the next generation and beyond.

According to the Japanese Overseas Migration Museum, approximately 776,304 Japanese nationals immigrated to North, Central and South America before the 1924 U.S. Immigration Act, which halted immigration from Japan. The majority of these emigrants — 109,893 — were from Hiroshima Prefecture. Today, there are over 3 million Nikkei (persons of Japanese ancestry living outside of Japan) worldwide. The majority of them — 1.6 million — settled in Brazil, with 1,304,286 living in the United States.

Of the 220,000 Japanese emigrants who settled in Hawai‘i, the largest number — about 25 percent — came from Hiroshima Prefecture, and today, the connections continue. Among the most notable are the sister-city relationship between Honolulu and Hiroshima City, which was established in 1959, the year Hawai‘i achieved statehood, and the sister-state relationship between Hawai‘i and Hiroshima Prefecture, which was signed in 1997. Next month, the 20th anniversary of that relationship will be celebrated when Hawai‘i welcomes Hiroshima Gov. Hidehiko Yuzaki; Prefectural Assembly chair Shin Uda; past chair Masao Hayashi and the staff of the International Affairs Division . . . which leads me back to Reiko-mama.

While working for the Hiroshima International Affairs Division in 2008, Reiko’s supervisor asked her if she would be willing to host an English-speaking student, as one more host family was needed. Reiko and her husband Keisuke agreed to host a student because they believed strongly in the program and its mission, and Reiko felt she was proficient enough in English to welcome a homestay student into their home. The program encourages students to stay with their own relatives; if they do not have relatives in Hiroshima, however, a host family will be assigned to them.

Group photo of Jairus, Shogo and Reiko-mama at Irori Sanzoku theme park
Jairus, Shogo and Reiko-mama at Irori Sanzoku theme park

“Hiroshima is my furusato (ancestral home) and I’m thankful,” said Reiko. “It’s the place where I learned how to be a good person, and if I can share some of that, I’m happy,” she said. Reiko has hosted students five times since her first experience.

“Hiroshima people are warm-hearted. Even though they had a difficult life because of the atomic bombing, the people have a strong spirit and soul and Hiroshima is now a city of peace,” Reiko said. “I’m happy to host students, help with events, work on these kinds of programs! I love people and enjoy making friends; it’s fun for me! I learn so much from everyone and I enjoy sharing Hiroshima with everyone,” said Reiko, who now works for JTB (Japan Travel Bureau) in Hiroshima.

Hawai‘i Herald readers may be familiar with the historical documentary film that I am currently writing and producing on Katsu Goto. The early Japanese sugar plantation immigrant was lynched in 1889 for standing up and supporting the plantation laborers. I shared his story in last year’s Big Island issue (April 15, 2016). Katsu Goto’s story so captured my heart, mind and spirit when I became the first recipient of the Goto of Hiroshima Foundation grant in 1993. The grant included a trip to Hiroshima, where I met Goto’s niece, Dr. Fumiko Kaya, who had established the foundation to honor his legacy. I wrote about my amazing experiences in Hiroshima in the Herald’s Jan. 7, 1994, edition.

Since then, rather than researching my own father’s roots in Hiroshima, I have pored myself into researching the lives of Katsu Goto and Dr. Kaya. After all these years, I know more about their family tree and history than I do my own.

I learned one thing, however, after chatting with an elderly relative at a family function many years ago: My own roots in Hiroshima are in Fukunaga Mura, Jinseki Gun, at the border of Okayama Prefecture. In 2003, the rural town of Jinseki had a population of 2,746. The following year, it merged with the towns of Sanwa, Yuki and Toyomatsu to create the town of Jinsekikogen.

In 2011, not having any family contact in Hiroshima, Kellie was assigned to the Ara-
ragi family. And what a blessing it was! The homestay portion of the program came towards the end of the visit, after the students had gotten to know each other.

“We had done all the study tour activities together and had become very close, and now we were being separated, leaving the group to go with either family we didn’t know very well or strangers we didn’t know at all,” recalled Kellie. “We were in a room, and one by one, we were picked out and left the group. We felt like puppies in an animal shelter being adopted!”

Actually, there was no reason for Kellie to have worried, as Keisuke and Reiko welcomed her with open arms. Kellie immediately fell in love with their 1-year-old son Shogo, playing the ‘ukulele for him and letting him pluck the strings. The Araragis filled Kellie’s short three days with them with activities they thought she would enjoy: tea ceremony and a koto lesson from Reiko’s mom, Teruko Kawachika — this time it was Kellie who was plucking the strings. At home with the family, she shared a meal of temaki sushi and omiyage snacks from Hawai‘i. The family also took her to Irori Sanzoku, an exciting theme park restaurant in nearby Yamaguchi Prefecture, where they dined on “mountain pirate” food such as grilled chicken on a skewer and huge rice balls.

“They were filming a commercial when we were there so that was interesting!” recalled Kellie of the adventure.

“The best excursion was going up into the mountains to fish, and we got to eat the fish!” said Kellie, who enjoys the outdoors and loves to fish on the Big Island. “We drove to this place near a river with freshwater ponds with yamame,” she recalled excitedly about the fishing spot stocked with Japanese trout in Akiota, Hiroshima. “You could buy a round ball of bait and use just a little on the hook of the bamboo fishing poles. It was thrilling to catch the fish! After we caught enough fish for lunch, they cleaned it for you and you could have it either grilled or fried. We had it both ways! It was a delicious lunch with onigiri (rice balls)!”

All too soon, the homestay came to an end and the students returned to their group, sharing stories with each other about their homestay experience, each maturing a little bit more as they delved deeper and learned more about Hiroshima in a real and meaningful way. The exchange program concluded with a reception with the students sharing cultural presentations from their respective homeland with the homestay families. The Hawai‘i students played ‘ukulele and danced hula.

Kellie returned to Hilo with stories and photos of the Araragis’ hospitality that touched me deeply. I wrote to Reiko and thanked her for her kindness and sent a few Hawai‘i souvenirs. She wrote back and included a few gifts. Thus began our exchange of letters, gifts and emails, discussing a variety of subjects. Before we knew it, Kellie’s homestay mother had become our dear friend and family in Hiroshima.

Then, last year, five years after Kellie, our then-15-year-old son Jairus was selected as an exchange delegate. We asked the Araragis if they could host Jairus. They responded positively. They said we could list them as our “family friend” in Hiroshima.

Reiko emailed me, saying they would take Jairus to the same places they had taken Kellie — to the same yamame trout fishing spot in Akiota, mountain pirates’ restaurant and other spots. We were so happy! By now, Reiko’s and Keisuke’s son Shogo was 6 years old. He became a younger brother to Jairus during the short homestay and Jairus became Shogo’s oniichan (older brother). Jairus also took to calling Reiko “Reiko-mama.” During their exchange visit, the students participated in the 71st Hiroshima Peace Memorial Ceremony commemorating the atomic bombing of Hiroshima by U.S. forces on Aug. 6, 1945.

Since Kellie’s return from Hiroshima, we have been encouraging the Araragis to visit us in Hilo. Now they have even greater reason to visit.

During one of our email exchanges a few years ago, Reiko told me that her maiden name was Kawachika and that her grandfather, Masaru Kawachika, was born in Hilo. Masaru’s immigrant parents, Tsunekichi and Hina Kawachika, returned to Oshima Island in Yamaguchi Prefecture when Masaru was 11 years old. Reiko thought she might have relatives in Hilo. I told her that there are some Kawachikas in Hilo, but, unfortunately, I did not know any of them.

Reiko immediately found the name of Robert Kawachika in Hilo and called him from Japan! It turned out they are indeed related!

Tsunekichi Kawachika — Reiko’s great-grandfather — had a brother named Heisuke, who had remained in Hilo when his brother returned to Oshima. Heisuke had six children, and Robert Kawachika is one of his grandsons.

My recent phone call to Robert and his wife Jean, both retired educators, confirmed the family tie. They told me that they still correspond with Reiko and look forward to meeting her, her brother Kimihiko and their father Katsuhiko (Masaru’s grandson — and Robert’s second cousin) one day soon in either Hiroshima or Hilo.

It is heartwarming to know that the bonds of family and friendship and heart and spirit between Hawai‘i and Hiroshima continue to blossom on the bridge that connects our two island homes.

Hilo resident Patsy Iwasaki is a former Hawai‘i Herald staff writer. She teaches in the Communications and English departments at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo while working on her Ph.D. from UH-Mänoa. In addition to raising her family with husband Alan, Patsy is continuing work on her historical documentary film project with the working title of “Honoka‘a Hero: The Story of Katsu Goto.” The film’s trailer can be seen at katsugotomovie.org.

Kellie Iwasaki holds up the yamame (Japanese trout) she caught on a fishing excursion back in 2011
Kellie Iwasaki holds up the yamame (Japanese trout) she caught on a fishing excursion back in 2011
Photo of Keisuke, Reiko Araragi, and Kelly eating Kelly's catch in 2011 from a fishing excursion. (Photos courtesy Patsy Iwasaki)
Photo of Keisuke, Reiko Araragi, and Kelly eating Kelly’s catch in 2011 from a fishing excursion. (Photos courtesy Patsy Iwasaki)
Kellie enjoyed experiencing a tea ceremony with Reiko-mama and her mother, Teruko Kawachika, along with Reiko’s then-year-old son, Shogo.
Kellie enjoyed experiencing a tea ceremony with Reiko-mama and her mother, Teruko Kawachika, along with Reiko’s then-year-old son, Shogo.


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