The Rev. Bert Sumikawa and a dozen members of the Windward Buddhist Temple held an obon service in June 2019 at the nearly one-acre Bellows Japanese Cemetery in Waimänalo. (Photo courtesy of Windward Buddhist Temple)
The Rev. Bert Sumikawa and a dozen members of the Windward Buddhist Temple held an obon service in June 2019 at the nearly one-acre Bellows Japanese Cemetery in Waimänalo. (Photo courtesy of Windward Buddhist Temple)

Rev. Bert Sumikawa Helps Descendants Honor Ancestors at the Bellows Japanese Cemetery

Gregg K. Kakesako
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

This year, obon — the 500-year-old Japanese Buddhist custom honoring ancestors’ spirits — will deepen Ann Nakata’s connection with her family roots. Just two months ago, 72-year-old Nakata, a retired Kapahulu florist, discovered she had two aunts and an uncle who died over a century ago.

Her quest to learn more about her three relatives started when she learned that they might be buried at a haka, or grave, at the Bellows Japanese Cemetery located on Bellows Air Force Station in Waimänalo.

It began with an article Ann saw in an East Honolulu shopper about an obon service held by Rev. Bert Sumikawa. About a dozen members of his Windward Buddhist Temple attended the memorial service to honor 50 Japanese immigrant ancestors buried at the Windward O‘ahu graveyard. It was probably the first memorial service held there in about a decade.

When Ann told Sumikawa that she might have an uncle buried in Waimänalo, he told her that there was, in fact, a grave marker with the name “Nakata.”

“My late mother told me long ago that my father’s infant brother was buried in Waimänalo where my grandparents lived,” said Ann. “But it seems like I’m the only one that remembers this.”

Bellows Japanese Cemetery in Waimänalo

The nearly one-acre cemetery, located near the black asphalt runway, is fenced off as part of the Marine Corps training area and off-limits to civilians.

The Marine Corps prohibits military training activities at the cemetery in reverence to those laid to rest.

Capt. Rob Martins, Kaneohe Bay Marine Corps spokesperson, said the Marine Corps estimates that most of the existing grave markers are written in Japanese with dates of deaths between 1911-1917. The latest grave marker reads 1943.

Research conducted by the Marine Corps indicates there are about 45 grave markers with about 57 people associated with these markers.

According to Martins, it is believed that the grave markers are those of the Japanese immigrants who worked at, or, were associated with, the Waimänalo Sugar Plantation.

Ann Nakata is pictured with her family’s kakuchö (Buddhist memorial book) and photos of her family and of her grandmother’s funeral. (Photo by Gregg K. Kakesako)
Ann Nakata is pictured with her family’s kakuchö (Buddhist memorial book) and photos of her family and of her grandmother’s funeral. (Photo by Gregg K. Kakesako)

The Search for Three Nakatas

Ann’s search began with only a kernel of oral history from her late mother — no family records and no names. In March of 2019, she started checking at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ genealogy records, birth and death certificates at the Department of Health and immigration files at the Japanese Consulate.

Consulate records show that Ann’s grandparents — Genjiro and Riyo Daikoku Nakata — had a son, Ken (Ann’s uncle), who died when he was just four months old on July 6, 1912.

Ann’s search also revealed — with the help of researchers at the Mormon Church — that she had two more relatives, Asao and Shizue. “That was a shocking find.”

Pieces of Information About the Nakata Family

Ann knew her grandparents came to Hawai‘i from Hiroshima and were married in Waimänalo in 1901. They were interred at Honpa Hongwanji, and now, Ann’s search has led her to find out that her grandparents had two daughters and one son who died as children.

The couple had one surviving daughter and three boys: Miyako Nakata Kanbara, Saburo Robert Nakata, Kakuro Nakata and Shigeru Charlie Nakata.

The eldest daughter Miyako’s urn is in the Wahiawa Hongwanji columbarium, and the urn of Ann’s father, Robert, is with the remains of his parents at the Honpa Hongwanji columbarium.

Robert started Oahu Sales in 1945, a commercial refrigeration company whose customers included Times Supermarket and Star Market.

Ann’s Uncle Kakuro’s ashes are buried in Tökyö and Shigeru, a 100th Infantry Battalion veteran who was wounded at Monte Cassino in 1944, was buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (Punchbowl) in 2006.

Ann’s second cousin, Arthur Nakagawa, said he has several relatives buried at the Bellows Japanese Cemetery including his grandfather, Kumaji, and a sister, Florence Hiroko, who died as an infant. Hiroko’s ashes were later relocated to the Soto Mission columbarium.

“I had been attending yearly obon services for as long as I can remember until five or six years ago,” said Nakagawa, who served as Honpa Hongwanji’s business manager from 2009-2018.

Nakagawa said that he began attending obon services at the Waimänalo cemetery with his family when he was 10 years old and continued even after his parents died.

“When we used to go, the cemetery would be overgrown with California grass,” said 67-year-old Nakagawa. “We had to clean this by hand the week or two before [the service].”

His uncle, Masanao Katagihara, would bring his tractor to help cut the grass and maintain the cemetery. But the late Sen. Daniel Inouye, at the urging of Yoshiaki Ono, stepped in and “got the Marines to clear it for us,” Nakagawa said.

Today, workers from the Kaneohe Bay Marine Corps facility regularly maintain the cemetery.

Cemetery History

Rows of sugar cane were harvested from the Waimanalo Sugar Plantation between 1878 through World War II ending in 1947. Its mill was located near what was once the family-run grocery store, Shima’s Market, at 41-1606 Kalanianaole Hwy. The 5,000-square-foot store, which had been serving the Waiamänalo community for 38 years, was sold to Times Supermarket in 2008 when its owner Ron Shima retired.

Prior to commercial sugar operations, forests of breadfruit, mountain apple, kukui nut and coconut trees flourished in Waimänalo Valley. Taro patches, sweet potato and small fields of sugar cane were grown for domestic use.

A 1938 Honolulu Star-Bulletin story said Englishman Thomas Cummins obtained a lease to crown lands and began cattle ranching, building a race track which attracted King Kamehameha III as well as royal families from Europe.

After attempts to raise herds of cattle failed, Waimanalo Sugar Co. initiated commercial sugar operations receiving a royal charter in 1878.

In 1917, under a presidential executive order, the Waimänalo Military Reservation was established on land leased from the Waimanalo Sugar Plantation. It was renamed Bellows Field in 1933, honoring the memory of 2nd Lt. Franklin Barney Bellows, who was killed in France during a World War I aerial reconnaissance mission.

In 1999, the Air Force base lost some of its area after the Marine Corps acquired 1,049 acres to set up a training field.

Today, located on the windward coast of O‘ahu, the training beach and areas are used by the Marines and other armed forces to conduct amphibious and helicopter exercises. It is the only place in Hawai‘i where soldiers can disembark from ships and move directly into training area.

The cemetery is located near a forward operating base mock-up and a modular military operations in urban terrain (MOUT) village consisting of buildings made from shipping containers.

Martins said the Air Force put up a fence around the cemetery in 1957. The annual services that Nakagawa remembers were conducted by ministers from Kailua Hongwanji and Hawaii Betsuin, but apparently ended when Yoshiaki Ono, a member of Honpa Honwanji who coordinated the visits, died half a decade ago.

Rev. Bert Sumikawa conducting an obon service at the nearly one-acre Bellows Japanese Cemetery in Waimänalo.
Rev. Bert Sumikawa conducting an obon service at the nearly one-acre Bellows Japanese Cemetery in Waimänalo.

In 2018, Rev. Sumikawa was assigned to the Windward Buddhist Temple. The temple was originally called Kailua Hongwanji Mission when it was established in 1968. Reflecting its broader role in Windward O‘ahu, Kailua Hongwanji became the Windward Buddhist Temple on Jan 1, 2019.

“I first heard of the graveyard at Bellows when I was assigned two years ago to the Kailua Hongwanji,” Sumikawa said, “and decided to do an obon service in the memory of those buried there. I even drove down and was stopped by a locked gate.”

Sumikawa believes that the cemetery might have been connected to the Waimanalo Nishi Hongwanji Mission that was located at the current site of Waimanalo Elementary and Intermediate School across Kalaniana‘ole Highway from the graveyard.

“Many members of the Waimanalo Hongwanji Mission, which is now closed, may have worked for the sugar plantation,” Sumikawa said.

Sumikawa believes the Waimanalo Hongwanji along with other Japanese temples and schools were closed; the U.S. government sent local leaders of

Japanese religious and cultural insutitutions to internment camps after the Japanese attacked the Pacific Fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Sumikawa said, “The Waimanalo Hongwanji was a vibrant temple before World War II, and Kailua Hongwanji actually was a branch temple of Waimänalo [Hongwanji].”

According to Nakagawa, church records indicate that the Waimanalo Hongwanji was founded in 1904 and merged with Honpa Hongwanji in 1941.

An inventory of the grave markers conducted by military officials revealed that the prefecture most commonly listed in kanji was Hiroshima and that a few of the deceased came from Fukushima, Kaneohe Bay Marine Corps spokesman Martins said.

Sumikawa believes that separate Filipino and Caucasian cemeteries once flanked the Japanese gravesite. “But they were disinterred and reburied elsewhere,” said Sumikawa.

Last June,  Sumikawa and about a dozen members of his congregation held a brief obon service under the shade of a large pine tree and placed flowers on the graves.

The Omizo Family

Mildred Watanabe said her dad, Herbert Omizo; her uncle, Stanley Omizo; and aunt, Molly Omizo Takabayashi, recall visiting the Japanese cemetery “where they had obon services followed by a picnic with food and games at the beach.”

Watanabe, 70, was born and raised in Waimänalo. “I looked forward to going to the beach park [after the obon services] because of the games, races and the prizes that were given,” she added.

Watanabe  remembers that at about 8 years old,  she attended these picnics near the site of the present Aloha Shriner’s Beach Club (Koiona Beach Park).  “There was a small pier and families would gather after going to the graveyard. Not everyone was from the plantation, and I think they were a lot of extended families that had relatives buried at the cemetery. It was a community affair.”

According to Watanabe, her aunt said that before the obon service “the Air Force permitted my father and Uncle Kenneth [Omizo] to drive their tractor to the cemetery to clean up the area.”

Her father’s youngest brother, Soichi Omizo — in 1993, shortly after his birth — was buried there, Watanabe said.

“He [Soichi] was exhumed from his grave a few years prior to 1977 which is the year when my grandfather died. My grandfather purchased a plot in Nu‘uanu Cemetery where both he and my grandmother, Soichi, and my Aunty Nancy, are now buried.”

Watanabe’s grandfather, Ryutaro Omizo, came to Hawai‘i from Japan in 1907 at 20 years old and worked at Kahuku Plantation where he later became a foreman.

In 1910, Ryutaro Omizo went to work for the sugar plantation in Waimänalo, and the family lived in one of the camps until the plantation closed in 1947, Watanabe said. He told researchers that the cemetery was already in existence when he arrived in Waimänalo.

Ryutaro Omizo grew papayas on land he leased from the state until he died in 1977. He and his wife, Hisa Yonemura, had 11 children. Watanabe’s father and his brother, Kenneth, took over the farm that was located behind the Waimänalo polo fields, adding crops of soybeans, eggplants, cucumbers and even pïkake. Eventually, the lease was turned over to Nalo Farms in 2008.

About Rev. Sumikawa

Sumikawa, 82, said his personal religious path could be traced to his paternal grandmother, Masuno Asada, who was a devoted Jödo Shinshü Buddhist. When she left Japan in the 1920s she brought a large Butsudan (Japanese Buddhist altar) that Sumikawa now maintains.

While attending Pearl City Elementary School Sumikawa also went to a Buddhist dharma school to learn the teachings of Buddha at the Honpa Hongwanji Betsuin on Pali Highway with other members of his family. It was a respite from working at the family store in Kailua. His stepfather, Kazuo Asada, and his mother, Akiko, first operated K. Asada Store in ‘Aiea and later opened Oneawa Super Market in Kailua with his brother, Masao Asada, in 1947.

Although Sumikawa’s maternal grandfather, Kakichi Okimoto, was a congregational minister at a parish in Waimea on Kaua‘i, he never did attempt to convert his family to Christianity, Sumikawa said.

But attendance at ‘Iolani School, where religious studies was a requirement, influenced Sumikawa and he “fell away from Buddhism.”

After graduating from ‘Iolani School in 1955, Sumikawa attended Marquette University majoring in zoology and received his medical degree in dentistry in 1963.

“Having a strong interest in religion, even though my major was zoology,” Sumikawa said, “as I was preparing to enter dental school, my minor was in Catholic theology and I took all the theology and philosophy classes I could fit into my schedule.”

In discussing his personal religious path, Sumikawa added, “I had absolutely no interest in becoming a Catholic priest although throughout my life, as I grew older I frequently imagined myself something other [than] the pediatric dentist that I am.”

Sumikawa became a Buddhist minister after retiring in 2007. After a pediatric dentistry career of 41 years, Sumikawa spent his first few retirement years studying in Hawai‘i and Japan to become a Buddhist minister.

Sumikawa said, “It is taught that [the] Jödo Shinshü path is a process, and all this process is a gradual progression from the awareness of the interconnectedness of all beings to the realization of the oneness of all, and that we are truly interconnected and dependent on all beings for our own existence.”

Members and guests from the Windward Buddhist Temple joined the Rev. Bert Sumikawa on June 10, 2019, to conduct a brief obon service, and laid flowers on approximately 30 graves. (Photo courtesy of Windward Buddhist Temple)
Members and guests from the Windward Buddhist Temple joined the Rev. Bert Sumikawa on June 10, 2019, to conduct a brief obon service, and laid flowers on approximately 30 graves. (Photo courtesy of Windward Buddhist Temple)

His disenchantment with what he learned in high school and college turned into studies of Buddhism, Tendai, Shingon and Zen and finally returned him to his Jödo Shinshü roots.

Sumikawa took classes at the Buddhist Study Center in Mänoa, the Honpa Hongwaji Betsuin in Honolulu and the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley. He did his ordination training in Japan and was ordained as a Kaikyoshi (minister) in 2007.

Sumikawa served at Pali Honpa Hongwanji and the Mö‘ili‘ili Hongwanji before being assigned to the Windward Buddhist Temple in 2018. Sumikawa now also leads the congregation at Kapolei Buddhist Sangha.

Looking Ahead

About a dozen members of the Windward Buddhist Temple, led by Sumikawa, want to hold another obon service this summer to pray for the souls of individuals buried in the little-known remote Waimanalo haka, unless prevented in doing so by COVID-19.

Ann will continue her search to determine the final resting place of her relatives and plans to share her findings with her family. She had hoped to visit the graveyard with Sumikawa, but conflicts with the military’s training schedules and restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic have postponed the visit.

Families that would like to visit the graveyard need to coordinate their requests with the Kaneohe Marine Corps Base community relations office at 257-8876.

Danny Hayes, Kaneohe community relations officer, said,  “Unfortunately, the cemetery is located within a controlled Marine Corps training area, so it is important that the proper coordination is done. The coordination is to ensure Marine Corps training isn’t interrupted, and that we have someone available to safely escort relatives to the site.“

Gregg K. Kakesako worked for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Gannett News Service and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser for more than four decades as a government, political and military affairs reporter and assistant city editor.

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