Rev. Bert Sumikawa Continues to Help Descendants Honor their Ancestors
Gregg K. Kakesako
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Over a decade has passed since the last time Kailua resident Arthur Nakagawa offered incense at the gravesite of his two siblings and grandfather; they are buried behind a locked chain-link fence on a Waimänalo military base shut off from the world.
The Bellows Japanese Cemetery located at Bellows Air Force Station in Waimänalo is off limits to civilians. Visitors must be approved and escorted to the cemetery by the Marine Corps.
Rev. Bert Sumikawa, of the Windward Buddhist Temple (windwardbuddhisttemple.org), had first performed the 500-year-old Japanese Buddhist custom of honoring the spirits of ancestors in June 2019. The story of the first obon ceremony in over a decade was published in the Herald’s May 15, 2020, issue. However, because of last year’s COVID-19 pandemic, the Marine Corps closed public access to the windward O‘ahu resting place of these deceased Japanese immigrants and their descendants.
On June 21, 2021, Sumikawa had to obtain written permission from the Marine Corps and an escort to take 12 people, including three members of his Kailua congregation — Shirley Yangisawa, Daikichi Nishita and Dennis Tashiro — to visit the graves. There, Sumikawa conducted an obon service for the 50+ immigrants buried at the site.
Only two members of the group — Arthur and Irene Nakagawa — knew they had a family member buried there. Nakagawa believes his mother’s brother’s family (Katagihara) gravesite is also there.
Five others — Melissa Yamaguchi and her mother-in-law Wendy Yamaguchi, Joy Ogawa, Gayle Matsuda and Ann Nakata — were hoping to find evidence that the cemetery held the remains of lost family members.
Sumikawa’s party met Danny Hayes, community-relations officer at Marine Corps Base Hawaii in Käne‘ohe, in front of one of two gates designed to keep people out of the training area. The first 10-foot-high locked gate was located just off Bellows beach, about half mile from the guard post to the Air Force Station. Two large signs warned that people and POVs (personal owned vehicles) are not allowed beyond the fence line.
A white air-conditioned 15-passenger van drove the group through the gate and along a black asphalt runway. The short 10-minute drive passed by two separate groups of modular buildings designed to resemble Iraqi or Afghan villages and used to prepare Marines and other soldiers for the intricacies of urban warfare. Hayes said civilians are hired as village role players to add authenticity to the training scenarios.
When they reached the cemetery, Sumikawa set up a small butsudan (Buddhist altar) on a wooden table. Under a cool blue Waimänalo sky and beneath two towering iron wood trees, the Buddhist priest said a short prayer and asked the tiny congregation to join him in offering incense.
In his short sermon and prayer Rev. Sumikawa said, “We are here this day to observe the Bellows Japanese Cemetery obon service. Let us be aware that the reason for this is to pay our respects to those pioneers from abroad who laid the foundation for the rest of us to enjoy this unrepeatable life. Because of their hard work, dedication and aspiration for all their succeeding family members and for all of us here in the state of Hawai‘i, we are here living in a lifestyle unimaginable to these pioneers. Their hope was for a better life for us, and if they were here, they would be pleased with their accomplishment.
“So let us then reflect on the true spirit in which to celebrate obon. By so reflecting, we become more awakened to the benevolence that supports us all, the great compassion that never abandons.”
The Nakagawa Family
“When we first arrived at the cemetery,” said Nakagawa, 69, “I had a feeling of coming home to a place that was so familiar and had visited many times.”
“I was surprised as to how well maintained the area was,” Nakagawa said. “The grass was so neatly trimmed, and all the headstones (of my relatives) were clearly visible.”
Nakagawa said: “In the olden days, we used to access the cemetery by driving on the airstrip. Later they made us go through the gate that we just entered to access the cemetery.”
As Nakagawa and his wife approached the two headstones, he said, “[I was] so happy to see the headstones were still standing and in pretty much the same condition as I remembered.”
He had this fresh impression after nearly more than a decade. “It looked like a park,” said Nakagawa as he and his wife cleared the area near the two headstones and then offered flowers, water and senko (incense).
But this visit was different for Nakagawa because he had recently researched his grandfather’s history. “[This time], I knew more of his past than I had known before. I felt a sense of gratitude for his work, hardships and sacrifices that had laid the foundation for our family.”
Nakagawa’s grandfather, Kumaji Nakagawa, was born on Feb. 2, 1863, in Hiroshima. Immigrating to Hawai‘i in 1899 with wife Haruyo, he worked at He‘eia Plantation in Ko‘olau Poko for a year and half before moving to Waimänalo Sugar Plantation. He died at the age of 50 in 1913.
The other headstone belongs to his brother George Masao Nakagawa and his sister Florence Hiroko Nakagawa. Both siblings had died as infants, Florence in 1937 and George in 1943. Their ashes were later moved to Soto Mission columbarium in Nu‘uanu then interred at Valley of the Temples in a family plot.
Unable to read the inscriptions on his grandfather’s headstone, Nakagawa, after his June visit, showed the Rev. Shingo Furusawa of the Honpa Hongwanji Hawaii Betsuin, pictures of it. “He was able to read that Kumaji’s birthplace was in Tanoura Village [located within the] Toyota District, Hiroshima. I am so happy that I was able to gain this additional information.”
Nakagawa, who served as Honpa Hongwanji Betsuin’s business manager from 2009-2018 after retiring as a Navy civilian engineer, recalls attending Obon services as a child at the Waimänalo cemetery with his family when he was 10.
“The cemetery used to be overgrown with California grass, and we would go the weekend before the obon service to clean.”
He said his uncle, Masanao Katagihara, at times would bring his Ford tractor to cut the grass.
After the war Nakagawa said Honpa Hongwanji member Yoshiaki Ono, who along with his wife, Dorothy, coordinated the Waimänalo obon services. At the urging of Yoshiaki Ono, the late Sen. Daniel Inouye convinced the Marine Corps to maintain the cemetery, Nakagawa said.
The Yamaguchi Mystery
In May 2020, Wendy and Melissa Yamaguchi, with the help of author and filmmaker Joy Ogawa, produced a nine-minute video about their family’s relationship with the cemetery, which they posted on YouTube. This short documentary presents both government evidence (like koseki, or the official family registry) and anecdotal information (oral stories told within the family about ancestors who had worked on the Waimänalo Sugar Plantation), which point to Waimänalo Japanese Cemetery as the resting place of the women’s Issei ancestors.
This past June, Ann Nakata and Wendy and Melissa Yamaguchi hoped to find their ancestors’ haka (grave). But they left disappointed since no one in the group could decipher the difficult kanji characters on the headstones.
Background of the Bellows Japanese Cemetery
Although there is no official cemetery registry, according to the Marine Corps, which carefully maintains the cemetery, there are about 45 visible grave markers that were erected between 1911-1917. Almost all of them are written in Japanese. An inventory conducted by the military found that the most commonly listed hometowns of these headstones’ deceased were Hiroshima and Fukushima.
Those buried in the tiny Waimänalo cemetery are believed to have been workers at the Waimänalo Sugar Plantation, which harvested cane from 1878 through 1947, as well as laborers from local dairy farms and members of the Waimanalo Hongwanji Temple.
Separate Filipino and Caucasian cemeteries once flanked the Japanese graves. Native brush and other foliage have erased all traces of their existence. The remains from the Caucasian graves were removed and interred elsewhere.
The one-acre Waimänalo Japanese haka was part of the 1,049 acres the Marines received from the Air Force in 1999. Within Marine Corps Training Area Bellows are three urban facilities with convoy routes, tropical forests to patrol and landing zones for airfield operations. The Marines now use the entire area, including an old airfield, as a training area for beach and helicopter assaults and urban-warfare fighting.
One of the specialized trainings during biannual multinational Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) war games are beach and helicopter assaults from Navy ships anchored off Bellows beaches.
Although the cemetery is off-limits to civilians, no military-training activities are allowed within the cemetery area, which the Marine Corps consider culturally sensitive. The fence around the Japanese cemetery was erected by the Air Force in 1957.
Another fence also surrounds the sandy cemetery; its ground is unevenly dotted with small holes believed to have been dug by wild pigs that had breached the fencing. It’s hard to decipher the Japanese characters on the headstones, with some covered by lichen. Only one was inscribed in English: that for the infant Tamaichi Yamani, who died in 1943 at the age of one.
We may not know the identities and stories of all the Issei laid to rest in the Bellows Japanese Cemetery. But we do know they are from a generation of pioneers who, as Sumikawa said, “have laid the foundation for the rest of us to enjoy this unrepeatable life.”
Sumikawa also reminds us that because of these ancestors’ spirit of gambari and their aspirations for all keiki o ka ‘äina, “we are here living in a lifestyle unimaginable to these pioneers.”
Gregg K. Kakesako worked for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, and later the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, for more than four decades as a government, political and military affairs reporter and assistant city editor. He has also served as a congressional reporter for the Gannett News Service.