The Queen’s May 1901 Visit to Hongwanji Temple is Remembered and Celebrated
Kristen Nemoto Jay
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
This past Nov. 11 marked 100 years since the passing of Hawai‘i’s last reigning monarch, the beloved Queen Lili‘uokalani. The anniversary of her passing and the legacy she left in stories, her music, and in her acts of generosity and acceptance were commemorated on Oct. 29 at the Honpa Hongwanji Hawaii Betsuin Buddhist temple, where hundreds with mostly Japanese faces and surnames turned out to honor the queen.
Many were hearing for the first time the details of her majesty’s visit to Honpa Hongwanji’s early temple on Fort Lane on May 19, 1901, to attend a birthday service for Shinran Shonin, the founder of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism. Her majesty had been invited by Mary Foster, a Buddhist with ties to Foster Botanical Gardens. The queen’s attendance highlighted her acceptance and understanding of the Buddhist community, quickly blurring the lines of racial and religious segregation in Hawai‘i.
In honor of the queen’s life and her historic gesture to the Buddhist community, Friends of Lili‘uokalani Gardens from Hilo, Honpa Hongwanji Hawaii Betsuin, community members and other leaders planned a special service that included a re-enactment piece by Jackie Pualani Johnson, newly retired drama professor from the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo.
Kahu (The Rev.) Sherman Thompson began the service with an expression of gratitude to all in attendance for celebrating the life of “her majesty . . . with this special service of appreciation.”
Brightening the temple were flowers shared by members of the Hawaii Betsuin, Moiliili Hongwanji, Kailua Hongwanji and Jikoen Hongwanji. The congregation rose to sing the Buddhist gatha, or song, “Nori no Miyama,” (“Deep in the Woods of Dharma”) which is believed to have been sung at the May 1901 service that the queen attended.
The Rev. Kevin Kuniyuki, director of Honpa Hongwanji’s Buddhist Studies Center, and Dr. Puakea Nogelmeier, professor of Hawaiian language at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa, then led a chant of the “Sanbujo,” (“The Three Respectful Callings”) that had been specially composed as “Mele Kähea Buda,” a traditional oli (chant) style based on the English translation of “Sanbujo.” As the sutra “Sanbutsuge” was chanted, incense was offered by Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii officials and members of the Kailua, Moiliili and Jikoen temples. They were joined by members of the Royal Societies; trustees Claire L. Asam and Thomas K. Kaulukukui Jr. of the Queen Lili‘uokalani Trust; and the Fujimoto family, whose Issei ancestors worked for the queen at Washington Place.
The Rev. Eric Matsumoto, bishop of Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii, presented the dharma message. His words expressed humility, respect and appreciation for the queen as he tried to fathom what the climate of racial and religious prejudices must have been like in the Islands and the world to notice the supreme gesture that the queen made to the local Buddhist temple. Despite the early stages of the annexation, Matsumoto said the queen’s selfless presence had resulted in tremendous publicity and acceptance for religious freedom and practice. He commended her majesty’s quest for peace and harmony despite her own hardships at the time.
The highlight of the service was a re-enactment by Jackie Pualani Johnson, a Hilo resident and recently retired drama professor from the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. Johnson entered the temple, pausing every few rows to nod acknowledgement and greet fellow attendees before approaching the front and turning to address the congregation. Her presentation included notes from Lili‘uokalani’s actual visit to the Fort Lane temple, mentions of the smell of incense that filled the room, as well as the refreshing lack of politics in the sermon. As Johnson read Lili‘uokalani’s notes and memoirs aloud to the hundreds of intrigued faces, one could not help but be transported back in time through Johnson’s portrayal. From her soothing voice and recollections of Queen Lili‘uokalani’s past, which had led to her visit on May 19, 1901, to the love of her island home and legacy within the Lili‘uokalani Gardens in Hilo, Johnson provided a glimpse into a world that would have otherwise been forgotten.
As the service came to a close, the congregation rose to sing one of her majesty’s most beloved song, “Aloha ‘Oe.” Her idyllic lyrics of “one fond embrace . . . until we meet again,” vibrated along the walls of the temple space and concluded the morning’s tribute to Hawai‘i’s beloved queen.
“There were so many chicken skin moments,” said Friends of Lili‘uokalani Gardens president K.T. Cannon-Eger after the service. Cannon-Eger helped research the historical elements of the queen’s life, particularly during the time period of 1901, and found that Lili‘uokalani was on her own quest of spiritual growth, which inevitably led to her own interest and open-mindedness to various other religions and faiths.
Cannon-Eger recalls a story about the queen greeting the first group of Japanese contract immigrants — the kanyaku imin — to arrive at Honolulu Harbor aboard the SS City of Tokio in February 1885.
“Her majesty was there with her brother (King Kaläkaua) and noticed that there was a very pregnant woman coming off of the ship . . . they ended up taking the husband and wife to the hospital . . . and became godparents to that child . . . It’s stories such as this and the fact that our queen was such a gracious and noble woman that makes us realize where we are today and how we’ve come together to live harmoniously. In my opinion, Buddhism would not have flourished to the extent that it did if the queen had not attended that service. Her presence made it acceptable and squashed a lot of the criticism that was going on during that time.”
Thomas K. Kaulukukui Jr., a trustee of the Queen Lili‘uokalani Trust, was intrigued to learn more about the relationship between her majesty and the history of Buddhism in Hawai‘i during his trip to Hilo earlier this year for a ceremony commemorating the queen. It was through that trip and the re-enactment ceremony that he realized the impact Lili‘uokalani had on the people who were new to Hawai‘i.
“She understood very well what the impact would be,” Kaulukukui asserted. “Our ali‘i (royalty) didn’t just go places . . . They were very thoughtful of where they go. Because wherever they’d go, they brought the reputation and the mana (spirit) of the island and their spirit with them. So this visit must have been important for her to make that statement. And she did, she made a conscious act. I think that’s why the feelings are so strong in terms of gratitude on behalf of Hawai‘i’s Buddhism community.”
Kaulukukui noted also that although it was a gift to the Buddhist community, it was considered a gift to the queen, as well.
“The invitation was also a gift for the queen. I think she would have seen it that way. She was very open and willing to learn about different religions. I think she would have wanted to be remembered that way. So I think it’s to no one’s surprise that she showed up that day to the service.”
Johnson, who is used to performing “Living History” renditions as a memorized script, was excited to represent the queen in a different format, speaking with a textbook in hand, as if sharing her memoirs. It was her final semester of teaching at UH-Hilo before retiring when Friends of Lili‘uokalani Gardens proposed the project to her. Despite her busy schedule, Johnson said she could not decline and took on the project with open arms as a tribute to the queen.
“I think one of the things that is important about this kind of tribute is that it gives us a new sense of understanding,” said Johnson. “So often we treat history as this kind of staid, expressionless list of facts. So what happens with living history and here even more so within this tribute to Lili‘uokalani’s gesture to the Buddhist temple in 1901 . . . It just brings it off the page.”
Like many of the community members who helped organize the commemoration service, Johnson is proud to represent what Hawai‘i’s last reigning monarch would have wanted for her Islands: a place for peace and acceptance of one another.
“I really believe she understood how it would impact the whole culture here in Hawai‘i,” said Johnson. “She knew that embracing those who have come to the Islands will be meaningful and so important to the connection of all those who lived here. By giving her blessing to this service, she understood the momentousness. It’s as if she knew our Islands would be destined to become what we are today — a place filled with aloha.”
Kristen Nemoto Jay was born and raised in Waimänalo. She recently left her job as editor for Morris Media Network’s Where Hawaii to pursue a freelance writing career. She also tutors part-time at her alma mater, Kailua High School, and is a yoga instructor at CorePower Yoga. Kristen earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology from Chapman University and her master’s in journalism from DePaul University.