Former Hongwanji Bishop Lived His Life with Gratitude and Aloha

Karleen Chinen
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

A minister. A former bishop. Keiki o ka ‘äina — a child of Hawai‘i. Son. Brother. Husband. Father. Grandfather. A grateful World War II veteran. A man of great foresight and compassion. A gifted and thoughtful writer. A lunch buddy and, most of all, a precious friend. In his 97 years of life, Yoshiaki Fujitani was all of those, and more.

Rev. Yoshiaki Fujitani at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (Punchbowl), 2000.

On May 17, the Rev. Yoshiaki Fujitani passed peacefully into Amida Buddha’s Pure Land, just as his wife Tomi had 14 months earlier. The Fujitanis were not victims of COVID-19, although the isolation may have accelerated his demise, for it kept the congenial man who had such a natural way with people confined at home.

I knew of Rev. Fujitani long before we became friends. At the time, he was the bishop of the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii, a position he held from 1975 to 1987.

I met him after he retired as bishop and had taken on a new role as the director of the Buddhist Study Center. He had asked me to talk about my work on the Herald with a small group of people.

Many years would pass before we were reunited when I began working with the newly formed Hawaii Nikkei History Editorial Board, editing what became “Japanese Eyes, American Heart: Personal Reflections of Hawaii’s World War II Nisei Soldiers” in the mid-1990s. During that period, we became first-name friends. I mean no disrespect by calling him “Yoshi,” but that’s how he wanted us to address him. Of course, whenever I introduced him to others, it was always as “the Rev. Yoshiaki Fujitani, former bishop of the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii.”

Many times, I saw him walk up to people he had never met before with his outstretched hand and a warm smile. “Hi, I’m Yoshi,” he would say, putting them at ease. His personality and his myriad of life experiences made him so approachable.

Back then, learning to address the Nisei members of our Editorial Board by their first names was not easy for the Sansei board members — Drusilla Tanaka, Cary Miyashiro, Mimi Nakano and myself — for we genuinely respected all of the Nisei on the board: Hideto Kono, Ed Ichiyama, Bob Katayama, Bob Sakai, Ted Tsukiyama, Jane Komeiji and, of course, Yoshi, along with Bishop Ryokan Ara of the Tendai Mission of Hawaii. Except for Jane, an educator and a published author, and Bishop Ara, all were World War II veterans who had served their country and then had given even more to the community in government service, education, the legal profession and religion, as well as to their respective veterans clubs and cultural organizations, even in retirement.

Bishop Ara had assembled the 442nd and MIS veterans with the assistance of Kono, retired director of the state Department of Planning and Economic Development. The 100th Infantry Battalion was represented by the Sansei descendants. Between the generations, our respect for one another was mutual: We all treated each other as equals and as friends.

Yoshi was born on Aug. 15, 1923, in the town of Pa‘uwela on the lower slopes of Haleakalä. He was the second child and the first son of the Rev. Kodo and Aiko (Furukawa) Fujitani’s eight children. Rev. Fujitani was the resident minister of Pauwela Hongwanji, serving people in the rural East Maui communities of Pa‘uwela, Ha‘ikü and Kuiaha and even further out, in Pe‘ahi, Mäliko and Kailua.

Although Yoshi had grown up in a temple setting and had learned the Hongwanji rituals, he didn’t live his life in a Buddhist bubble. His mother had a lot to do with that. She had come to Kaua‘i from Toyama Prefecture with her parents when she was 4. She attended grade school on Kaua‘i and then enrolled in Normal School in Honolulu, where she completed her education.

Although an Issei by definition, Aiko Fujitani was bilingual and more like a Nisei woman. She was 20 years old when she married Rev. Kodo Fujitani. He was 15 years her senior and had only recently arrived from Japan. Soon after, he was assigned to Pauwela Hongwanji, his first assignment as a Jödo Shinshü minister in Hawai‘i.

In a 2012 oral history interview with Drusilla Tanaka, Yoshi said that he and his siblings “gravitated toward Mother.” They were naturally drawn to her because she could speak to them both in English, their first language, and in Japanese. Their father, on the other hand, knew only a few English words and was rather stern, which was typical of the Issei man.

In “Japanese Eyes, American Heart (Vol. 3): Learning to Live in Hawai‘i,” Yoshi remembered an old man named Mr. Sugimoto, who lived in the basement of the temple and helped the Fujitani family as a yardman, gardener and handyman. One day when Yoshi was about 10 years old, he approached the old man as he worked in the yard.

Oji-chan, what are you doing?” he asked.

“Well, I’m shoring up the vegetable bed,” Sugimoto-san replied. “If you don’t keep on shoring it up, then it’s going to flatten out and you won’t have a vegetable bed,” the old man explained.

“I didn’t understand his message until much later,” Yoshi wrote in the book. “He was saying that you cannot do something and feel that you’ve done everything and so you stop doing it. Shoring up a vegetable bed is a necessity, and that has to be done all the time.” That simple lesson of shoring up a vegetable bed had lasting meaning for him in the years ahead, he said. It was a constant reminder that “there have been and are many hands shoring up the garden bed, which is me, to ensure a healthy physical, mental and spiritual life.”

Yoshi was 12 when his father received a new assignment as the resident minister of Mö‘ili‘ili Hongwanji Mission. The Fujitani family moved to Honolulu, where Yoshi grew up among kids of all ethnicities and began living the life of the quintessential Nisei. He attended Washington Intermediate School and then President William McKinley High School, where he was greatly influenced by people like the school’s principal, Dr. Miles E. Cary, who exposed the students to participatory democracy.

After graduating in 1940 at the age of 16, he entered the University of Hawai‘i and enrolled in ROTC, a required course at the time. When the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, Yoshi and his fellow ROTC members reported for duty.

World War II set him on a path not traveled by any of the Honpa Hongwanji ministers. UH ROTC led to his service in the Hawai‘i Territorial Guard, the Varsity Victory Volunteers and, eventually, the Military Intelligence Service, where he initially did translation work in the Pacific Military Intelligence Research Section.

After Japan’s surrender, his unit was sent to Tökyö to collect documents believed to be of value to the military. He used his time in Japan to also visit his maternal grandmother in Toyama and to spend time with his cousins in Tökyö.

While those were happy moments, he also remembered incidences in Tökyö that saddened him.

“Once, I was approached on the street by a father who asked for whatever I could give him so that he could feed his children. The begging didn’t bother me, since I understood the circumstances,” he wrote in JEAH, Vol. 3, published in 2013. “What bothered me the most was that these suffering people, ostensibly our enemies, looked so much like me. I am an American, I affirmed, but I was also Japanese, I realized.”

Yoshi’s military service enabled him to complete his education at the University of Chicago on the GI Bill. He earned a Master of Arts degree in the history of religions and decided to become a Hongwanji minister. His father had suggested Buddhism as an area of study prior to his departure for Chicago. But, he wasn’t simply following his father’s advice. In his essay in JEAH, Vol. 3, Yoshi wrote that he had done some serious soul-searching while in the Army and in college. It led to his decision to become a Buddhist minister.

“I began to feel that unless the Nisei came back to Hawai‘i to continue in the spread of Buddhism, then Buddhism would disappear. So, I thought I have to learn Buddhism so that I can be of some help. It was not because I was spiritually prepared, but because I saw the need,” he wrote.

Varsity Victory Volunteers veterans (from left) Yoshiaki Fujitani, Ted Tsukiyama, Akira Otani and Takashi Kajihara were recognized by the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa on Feb. 26, 2015, near the sculpture that honors the VVV at the Queen Lili‘uokalani Student Services Center. The 2015 program marked the 73rd anniversary of the formation of the Triple V, the World War II volunteer labor battalion that the four former UH ROTC students joined after being expelled from the Hawai‘i Territorial Guard because they were of Japanese ancestry. The ROTC students made up the HTG, which was activated on December 7, 1941. Of the four pictured, only Akira Otani and Takashi Kajihara survive; Yoshiaki Fujitani died last month at 97, and Ted Tsukiyama died in 2019 at age 98. (Photos courtesy of Karleen Chinen)

One of his early and most influential teachers in Japan was Dr. Gadjin Nagao, a noted scholar at Kyoto University. He also studied the various denominations of Buddhism, focusing, eventually, on Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, the tradition he had grown up in and of which his father was a minister.

Before returning to Hawai‘i in 1956 as an ordained Honpa Hongwanji minister, Dr. Nagao shared some advice with him: “When you go back to Hawai‘i and work in your position as a minister, don’t think in terms of teaching with great sermons. Real teaching has to come from your being, your lesson. You have to live your lesson, not just talk about it.”

I often wondered whether Dr. Nagao knew about the wealth of life experiences his young apprentice had already accumulated by then. Those experiences had molded him into the young man he was when he arrived in Kyöto. Yoshi took Nagao-Sensei’s words to heart and lived them throughout his life. He touched so many lives in Hawai‘i, Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. Although at his core he believed in the teachings of the Buddha, he saw himself as not just a Buddhist minister but also as a human being.

Having grown up in Hawai‘i had a lot to do with that, for he was surrounded by people of all ethnicities and from all stations in life, most of whom were contributing something to the community. It helped him see with his own eyes how our lives are all interconnected, just as he had learned from Mr. Sugimoto. Thus, as bishop, he welcomed insuranceman Paul Yamanaka’s suggestion in 1976 that the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii start a “Living Treasures of Hawai‘i” program to honor and thank people who have contributed to making Hawai‘i a more humane society, regardless of their faith or ethnicity. Yamanaka suggested that a Hawaiian-Japanese-German man named Charles Kenn be named the first “Living Treasures” recipient for his selfless sharing of Hawaiian culture with others.

I asked Bishop Eric Matsumoto, Hawaii Kyodan’s current bishop, if he had a special memory of Rev. Fujitani. Both were island-born sons, as were former bishops Kanmo Imamura, Chikai Yosemori and Thomas Okano.

“You’re a minister for the community, too,” Bishop Matsumoto remembered Yoshi telling him. “These insightful words of former bishop, Rev. Yoshiaki Fujitani, impacted me greatly,” Matsumoto said, adding that they left “a lasting impression” that guides him to this day.

“It added a greater dimension to my ministry of sharing the Buddha-Dharma. Needless to say, Rev. Fujitani himself lived those words in that he was not only a minister to our Jödo Shinshü Hongwanji Shin Buddhist community and Buddhist Sangha in Hawai‘i, but also to the larger community, including the interfaith community,” Matsumoto wrote.

“I believe he was guided and inspired by the depth and breadth of Amida Buddha’s wisdom and compassion,” he said. “He will be remembered and sorely missed for his leadership, foresight, broad vision and inclusivity as one of the most distinguished interfaith leaders of Hawai‘i.”

Yoshi was an early leader in Hawai‘i’s interfaith community. In JEAH, Vol. 3, he recalled his epiphany while the minister of Wailuku Hongwanji on Maui.

“It must have been in 1959 when Father Putman of Christ the King Catholic Church in Kahului entered our temple and offered incense, actually participating in a Buddhist funeral ceremony being held for the mother of one of his parishioners. Up to that very moment, it had been common knowledge that Catholics by church law were forbidden to set foot in a non-Catholic place of worship. The startling lesson I learned was that even people of different faiths can respect each other’s beliefs and have an amicable relationship.

“I took that lesson to Honolulu, where one of the earliest events I attended in the community was the first Union Thanksgiving Service comprised of a group of interfaith clergy and held at the St. Clement’s Episcopal Church on Wilder Avenue on Thanksgiving Eve, 1960. The rector there was the Rev. Paul Wheeler. Included were clergy from the Unitarian church, Jewish temple, Methodist church, Soto (Buddhist) Mission and the Catholic church. An interesting aspect of that first gathering was that the Rev. Ernest Hunt, a Buddhist, who was to give the first interfaith Thanksgiving message, could not be present and so his message was read by Rev. Wheeler, an Episcopalian Christian. The tradition of this interfaith service has continued to the present, with the participating temples or churches taking turns in hosting. A unique consequence of that arrangement is that unprecedented things occur, as in my case when I was the speaker when the service was held at Temple Emanu-El. There is no doubt that such a gathering has brought stability, respect and friendship to our community.”

When he was still driving, Yoshi was an active participant in the Interfaith Alliance Hawai‘i, where he regularly attended a morning program called the Interfaith Open Table. He was also a devoted supporter of the Samaritan Counseling Center Hawaii and Project Dana, the interfaith caregiving support program. Additionally, a lecture series at Chaminade University of Honolulu, a Catholic college, was named the Fujitani Interfaith Dialogue Program in honor of Yoshi’s contributions to Chaminade’s Buddhist Studies Program.

In the fall of 2012, the Government of Japan recognized Yoshi’s contributions to Hawai‘i’s Japanese American community by awarding him The Wooden Cup with the Chrysanthemum Crest. Several of Yoshi’s Buddhist and non-Buddhist friends joined him and his family at the Japanese Consulate to witness the auspicious event.

Gratitude was at the core of Yoshi’s being. He was always grateful, guided, he said, by the Four Gratitudes or Obligations — gratitude to parents, to one’s country, to all beings and to the Buddha.

On one of our lunch outings, he wrote in my notebook the words of former Honpa Hongwanji Bishop Shojitsu Ohara: “Hima no toki wa ware wa yama wo miru. Isogashii toki niwa yama ga ware wo miru,” meaning, “Only when I have time, I look at the mountain. But when I’m busy, the mountain is always looking at me.” The “mountain,” he explained to me, was Amida Buddha, who was always looking after him with compassion. And for that, he was always grateful.

Whenever we went to lunch, without fail, he would always put his palms together in gassho, his hashi (chopsticks) resting in the valley between his index fingers and his thumbs. With his eyes closed, he would quietly express gratitude, saying the word, “Itadakimasu,” meaning “I humbly receive this food,” before taking even a nibble . . . and then “Gochisösama” — “Thank you for this meal” — at the conclusion of our lunch.

For the last few years, Drusilla, my sister Joyce and I organized lunch outings with him — and Tomi, when she was still at home. When I called him to remind him about our lunch date, he always reminded me that he would need a ride because he no longer drove. “No worry,” I assured him. “We’ll come and get you and take you home.”

In 2012, the Government of Japan recognized the Rev. Yoshiaki Fujitani for his contributions to Hawai‘i’s Japanese American community by presenting him with The Wooden Cup with the Chrysanthemum Crest. Several of his friends from Hawai‘i’s interfaith community attended the presentation at the Japanese Consulate. Pictured from left are: wife Tomi Fujitani; Maryknoll Sister Joan Chatfield; the Rev. Yoshiaki Fujitani; Bishop Stephen Randolph Sykes of the Inclusive Orthodox Church; Bishop Eric Matsumoto of the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii and his wife Tamayo; Edna Muneto and the Rev. Tatsuo Muneto, then rimban (chief minister) of Honpa Hongwanji Hawaii Betsuin.

We usually went to Tokkuri Tei in Kapahulu, where he enjoyed the Ahi Natto Donburi, or Kahala Sushi, so he could enjoy a platter of sashimi with a bottle of beer. Our fathers had already passed on, so watching Yoshi enjoy his sashimi made us happy, like we were watching our own dads eat.

Our last meal together was early last year at Kahala Sushi. And then COVID shut everything down. Every so often, I would pick up a take-out order of sashimi and take it to his house.

We last saw him in person in October for a belated birthday celebration, which, thanks to COVID, turned into a “drive-by” event. His birthday presents were things we knew he could use or would enjoy: a platter of sashimi and inarizushi, sanitation supplies and face masks, Peet’s Coffee and his favorite beer. With signs and streamers, we drove one decorated car at a time into the garage, where he was seated, and passed our gifts to his daughter, Pat, through the window. We waved and called out to Yoshi, wishing him a belated “Happy Birthday!” He was smiling and waving back at us. Before we left his garage, Pat gave us some of his favorite Cherry Vanilla cake, which she had baked — a gift of gratitude from Yoshi.

Seven months later, with all of us now fully vaccinated and with life returning to some semblance of normalcy, we were planning an in-person get-together with Yoshi and our fellow Editorial Board member, Mike Okihiro. And then came Pat’s text on May 17 about her father’s passing.

Many times when Yoshi and I talked on the phone, I reminded him that he had to live to 100 so we could have a REALLY BIG party. He tried hard, but he was tired. He’d had a good life and he was grateful for that. I think he wanted to be with Tomi again.

In the weeks since Yoshi’s passing, I have found myself reflecting on Rennyo Shonin’s “Letter on White Ashes,” which Hongwanji and other Buddhist ministers usually read at funeral services. I had heard Yoshi read it several times in the past and I remembered how it had moved me. I remembered the peace I had felt in hearing his meaningful recitation of those words: “In silently contemplating the transient nature of human existence, nothing in our world is more fragile and fleeting than our life. . . . By so understanding the meaning of death, we shall come to fully appreciate the meaning of this life which is unrepeatable and thus to be treasured above all else.”

Yoshi, with heartfelt gratitude, we thank you for sharing your life with our community and the country. Most of all, mahalo nui loa for your friendship. I was blessed. Aloha ‘Oe . . . I will see you again.

Karleen Chinen is a former Hawai‘i Herald editor and writer.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here