Photo of Ken Saiki next to old family grave markers which have been restored with modern gravestones.

A Missed Opportunity Inspires A Commitment to Help Others Touch Their  Ancestral Homeland

Ken Saiki
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

I called my daughter at work and told her the good news: My father had heard that we were headed to Japan on a two-week trip and offered to take us to his furusato. Dad was born in Shiya Village in the former Takata-gun district in rural Hiroshima, where he had spent his childhood days. At the age of 15, he was sent to Hawai‘i for a chance at a better life.

Photo of Kiyoto Saiki (Ken's father) offering a prayer at his father's grave

For our Japan trip, Lauri and I had planned to start in Okinawa, then fly to Kagoshima and, without a fixed itinerary, make use of JR Railpasses to get to our final destination, Tökyö. A detour to Takata-gun would truly be a highlight. Grateful for my dad’s offer, I agreed to pick up a JR Railpass for him to use while he traveled partway with us.

I had missed a previous opportunity to visit Hiroshima 30 years earlier. In 1964, as a 21-year-old U.S. Navy ensign, receiving orders to a ship homeported in Yokosuka was a dream come true. I had never been to Japan before and was looking forward to taking full advantage of my assignment, going to all the exotic places I had read and heard about all my life.

Unfortunately, within weeks of arriving at Yokosuka, a pair of North Vietnamese patrol boats opened fire on a U.S. Navy ship in the Tonkin Gulf, and the Vietnam War was on. From then on, my ship would spend months at a time deployed in the South China Sea. So much for my grand plans to visit every scenic spot in Japan. I made it as far west as Ösaka and Kyöto, but not to Hiroshima. Truth be told, at the time, Hiroshima wasn’t on my list of top 10 places I wanted to visit. Hiroshima was my dad’s furusato; my hometown was Honolulu.

But now, 30 years older and a bit wiser, I could better understand the significance of a furusato. More than a hometown, more than just where one happened to have been born and raised, a furusato is a native place, a place where one can appreciate his or her roots. It’s a place of origin, and we were so fortunate to have Dad show us his old home to help us better appreciate who we were. He was just as excited to be able to take us there.

Ten days before we were scheduled to leave, my father died suddenly of heart failure. Lauri and I decided to go ahead with our trip to Japan anyway, without Dad and without a stop in Takata-gun. My furusato homecoming would have to wait for another day.

Photo of the Saeki/Saiki family's old home in Takata-gun

A few years later, I had a chance to extend a business trip to Japan to visit my Saeki cousin in Hiroshima City. (Somehow, our “Saeki” name became “Saiki” once it got to Hawai‘i.) After telling my cousin’s wife, Itsuko, about having missed my chance to see my dad’s birthplace years back, she offered to take me to Shiya. Two of her children, Izumi and Yoshi, took time off from work and the four of us headed out by car on the hour-long drive to the countryside.

As the concrete office buildings along the main thoroughfares grew fewer and fewer until they finally faded from sight and were replaced with farm homes separated by rice fields, I could feel the excitement building within me. I would see a store sign with our surname in kanji. And another! Saeki country. We must be getting close! […]

Having felt this reconnection with my roots in Shiya, I promised to return regularly. Not only that, I felt that I needed to share the same furusato experience with my siblings and all my Saiki cousins in Hawai‘i and their families. I wondered how many of our Honolulu Takata Gunjinkai members had visited their furusato. The group has about 100 member-families who trace their roots to Takata-gun, which is now known as Akitakata-shi (Akitakata City).

Fortunately, my sempai (mentor) Yutaka Inokuchi had been part of a club trip to Takata-gun in the past and we could pattern our trips after that experience. We’ve been planning and taking members to their ancestral homeland every other year or so now for the past 10 years.

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Photo of Ken Saiki visiting the area which his father's home was


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