In Japanese, the word otosan
means “father.” In a series of articles, I want to share with you my personal stories about my family, starting with my otosan, Roy Isami Ebata. My intent is not to provide a biography about my father in the traditional sense. Instead, I want to share with you stories about my father in a unique, more interesting way, each story introducing relevant insights about him, and providing you a personal and historical context by which to learn about my Japanese heritage and culture in Hawaii.
I begin my story about father by first sharing with you his death. My father passed away on January 12, 1990, as an inpatient at Kuakini Medical Center in Honolulu, Hawaii; he was 71 years old. The cause of death was stomach cancer.
When it was discovered that my father had stomach cancer, it was already too late for the doctors to do anything to save his life. The cancer had spread to extensively throughout his body and to the major organs. I don't know for how long my father must have suffered from the symptons of cancer, but in his taisho
way (or to demonstrate a stoic attitude toward life), he took the pain, not showing it outwardly and kept it hidden from the family as long as he could until the pain became too intense for him to hide it anymore. But, by then, the cancer was too far along and he died very quickly thereafter. He didn't want to be a burden to the family and accepted the inevitability of his impending death.
My father was given a Buddhist funeral service at Hosoi Mortuary, even though he had not been a practicing Buddhist since he was inducted into the U.S. army on February 23, 1942. His induction papers indicated that he was a Protestant. Interestingly, my father must have known that war with Japan was imminent because he requested expatriation of his Japanese nationality and his request was granted by the Japanese government on November 18, 1941, about 19 days prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The U.S., in common with other countries, forbids expatriation during time of war. Given the circumstances of the time in Hawaii, he had to cut all ties to anything Japanese to be inducted into the U.S. military service and fight for his country like the thousands of other Nisei who also served during World War II. (Note: I will share with you more of this part of my father's life in later stories.)
Immediately after the Buddhist funeral service, there was a second funeral service held for my father. As a veteran of World War II -- he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army as a member of the famed all-Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team on December 28, 1945 -- he was entitled to a military funeral service at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl Crater in Honolulu. My father was given a military funeral with a military honor guard and 3-volley salute and my mother given the American flag.Japanese Hospital
My father died of stomach cancer at Kuakini Medical Center, which has an interesting history of serving the immigrant Japanese community in Honolulu since the beginning of the twentieth century. It was even known at one time as the Japanese Hospital.
Originally, the Japanese Benevolent Society, led by the Reverend Takie Okumura of the Honolulu Japanese Christian Church, banded together to care for “those Japanese…overtaken by unforeseen mishaps, or those who [were] not able to provide medical care for themselves at their own expense.” Chartered in October 1899, this society operated from quarters in the Kapalama district in Honolulu. After 3,500 Japanese immigrants were left homeless following the outbreak of the bubonic plague and the Chinatown fire on January 20, 1900, the society built a hospital in a two-story wooden structure. It was completed in 1900 and called the Japanese Charity Hospital. As the number of Japanese immigrants increased in Honolulu, it was evident that larger facilities would be needed, so in 1901, the hospital was moved to a two-story building on Liliha Street.
Further growth in the Japanese immigrant population mandated the availability of more medical services and further growth of the hospital. In 1911, additional acres of land were acquired on Kuakini Street for new and larger facilities (and where the hospital stands today). A 16-building complex was constructed in September 1918 that was named the Japanese Hospital. The doctors who staffed the hospital were all born and trained in Japan, but this came to a stop with the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, which put an end to all further Japanese immigration until 1952. Taking their place were the Nisei and that's how the Nisei physicians came into positions of prominence in Hawaii. By the 1940s, the hospital was Japanese – organized and operated in a traditional Japanese manner. Hospital records were kept in Japanese, but the ability to read and write Japanese was not required of the nurses. A family-style of care was practiced at the hospital, with family and relatives taking care of the patients’ needs, including the changing of the bedpans, often sleeping in the rooms. Nurses were trained to “serve” the needs of the doctors, carrying out orders without question. During this period, the hospital operation was more doctor-centered than patient-centered. Although the hospital was open to all, it was for the most part a Japanese hospital serving the Issei, first generation Japanese born in Japan, and their families. However, the situation changed after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The U.S. Army eventually took administrative control of the hospital in 1942 and changed the Japanese Hospital name, replacing it with Kuakini Hospital and Home. The Americanization of the hospital took place gradually, and the “older” administrators were replaced with younger Nisei hospital administrators.Jisei No Ku (Death Poem)
Sometime before my father’s death, he wrote a jisei no ku
, or death poem. It refers an ancient Japanese art of “writing a farewell poem to life,” dating back to the earliest Japanese sources, although it became popularized as an art form and/or death ritual in the nineteenth century. It’s a death poem normally written when one has knowledge of one’s impending death, and it’s usually written in a graceful and natural form and about neutral emotions adhering to the teachings of Buddhism and Shinto. The poem is usually written in a way that doesn’t mention the fact that one is about to die directly, but one can use negative metaphors like a sunset or falling sakura or cherry blossoms to suggest an inevitable death.
Through his jisei no ku
, my father expressed with neutral emotion the depth for his respect of life and fatalistic view of death through the beautiful and delicate cherry blossom. This profoundly beautiful poem captures the essence of my father – his spirit and soul, his feelings and inner passions that were largely hidden from public view.
Cherry blossoms fall
when the time is right,
I too will fall
when it is time to go
With the help of Gladys Nakahara, Ph.D., a Japanese language instructor at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, she translated my father’s jisei no ku
in the Japanese tanka
form. Most death poems were written in tanka
or short form, which is a classical form of Japanese poetry that encourages emotions and feelings. It’s an early form of poetry (31-syllables, arranged in five lines of 5, 7, 5, 7, 7 syllables) native to Japan that evokes a moment or marks an occasion. During the Heian period (794-1192), it was considered essential to be able to both compose beautiful poetry and to choose the most aesthetically pleasing and appropriate paper, ink and symbolic attachment – such as a branch, a flower – to go with it. Tanka
was often composed as a kind of finale to every sort of occasion; no experience was quite complete until a tanka
had been written about it. As a form of poetry, tanka
is over a thousand years old in Japan, older than another form of short poetry, haiku
, and is considered the most important form of Japanese poetry. The translation is:
sakura chiri yuku
ware mo mata
toki ga jukuseba
Japanese culture is steeped in the spiritual influences of Zen Buddhist philosophy, which views the material aspects of life as illusory. Death was no more lamentable an event than birth or next Wednesday. At its very core, Buddhist philosophy doesn’t preach so much the embracement of death, but an embracement of inevitability. Once one stops worrying about life and death, one can begin to enjoy oneself. Therefore, a good deal of jisei no ku
is tinged with a playful sarcasm of life.Hanami (Flower Viewing)
My father used the metaphor of the falling sakura or cherry blossoms to suggest his own inevitable death. The sakura or cherry blossom symbolizes the national character of the Japanese people, and the viewing of the cherry blossoms is one of the happiest events in Japan. This practice of “flower viewing” is known as hanami
, which is a centuries old custom and is said to have started during the Nara period (710-784) when the Chinese Tang Dynasty influenced Japan in many ways; one of which was the custom of enjoying flowers. At that time, hamani
referred to custom of enjoying the flower blossoms of the Japanese ume
or plum flower, which was favored by Kyoto’s aristocracy and ume
was synonymous with the word “flower.” But, it gave way to the cherry blossom by the start of the Heian period (795–1192), one of the classical periods in Japanese history in which unprecedented peace and security passed over the land under the powerful rule of the Heian dynasty for over three centuries.
During the Heian period, Japanese culture flourished as it never had before, such a cultural efflorescence would only occur again several centuries later during the Tokugawa period in pre-modern Japan. Struggles for the throne ceased but Japan still didn’t completely unite under a central government. Power accumulated under a single family, the Fujiwara. With such stability, the imperial court thrived, and began to develop a culture independent of the Chinese culture, which had formed the cultural life of imperial Japan up to that point. The Japanese developed their own system of writing since Chinese writing was adopted, and developed a court culture uniquely Japanese rather than derived from imperial China. This was a period in Japanese culture made famous by the greatest classic of Japanese literature, the Genji monogatari
(“The Tale of Genji”) by Lady Murasaki Shikibu. The custom of cherry blossom viewing originated from hanami parties, which were held at the imperial court by Emperor Saga in 812.
Originally, the custom of hanami
was a Shinto religious ritual held on a particular day. The coming of the cherry blossom season between late March and early April heralded the arrival of spring. During this time, it was also customary among farmers to perform ceremonies before the beginning of the planting season, forecasting the year’s rice harvest from the condition of the cherry blossoms. Then, likening the cherry trees in full bloom to a bumper rice harvest, they would go up to the nearby hills and mountains to see the cherry blossoms, carrying food and drink and celebrating the year’s good harvest under the trees. In those days, it was a tradition observed only by the nobility and upper classes.
By the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1568-1600), hanami
eventually spread to the samurai class. It was well known that the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537–1598), who played a major role in the unification of Japan, use to flaunt his power by holding grand hanami parties. Hideyoshi held hanami parties that reached new levels of extravagance and elaboration; they were held in public for the first time at Mount Yoshino in 1594 and at Daigoji Temple in Kyoto in 1598. Their reputation quickly spread through the Osaka region and they became the talk of the town.
Eventually, cherry blossom parties spread to the commoners toward the end of the Genroku period (1688–1704) during the Tokugawa dynasty (1600-1868). The Genroku period is regarded as the highest point of the vigorous culture of the merchant class of the Tokugawa era, a time of great renaissance in Japanese culture, a time when aristocratic and common arts flourished. Already the samurai class was becoming caught up in debt to the merchants, into whose hands the wealth of the nation was beginning to pass. Consequently, this was a time of jovial self-expression on the part of the merchant class. The extravagant life in the cities centered on brothels, teahouses and the Nō
puppet theaters and kabuki
theaters in the licensed pleasure quarters of Kyoto, Osaka and Edo (Tokyo). The Genroku period set the standard for an urban culture that continued throughout the Tokugawa era.
The Tokugawa bakufu
or government promoted people to plant cherry trees. Shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune planted cherry trees near Edo, which contributed to the popularization of hanami among ordinary people. Families, groups of friends or co-workers would gather for merry feasting, drinking and singing. Today, the meaning of hanami
has lost its religious ritual; it’s more like a popular opportunity for all people to have a good time – partying with food, drinking and singing under the cherry trees.
The appeal and anticipation of the blooming of the cherry blossoms hasn’t changed, however. The blossoms open all at once at the peak of their beauty and then the petals fall to the earth while still in bloom, swirling through the air as if unmindful of the death it will meet on the ground below. It uses the wind and gravity to its own advantage and purpose to bring beauty and inspiration to all who watch it. Then, in a matter of just a couple of weeks, they disappear. Its very delicacy and transience has an extremely emotional and profound philosophical appeal. It echoes a deeper, ancient cultural belief in the short, transitory nature of youth and with life itself. It’s the unpredictability of the blooming and falling of the cherry blossoms that it symbolizes how fleeting life itself is. The cherry blossom was evidence that this was the natural way of things and could even be beautiful and pure. Life is as delicate and light as the falling petals, and there’s a natural time for all beautiful things to end. It’s a humbling reminder that when one reaches full maturity it hints at the beginning of the decline of one’s life.
From feudal times, the manner in which the cherry petals fall at the height of its beauty, before it withers and becomes unsightly and the transience of its span assumed a beautiful and important symbol for the samurai or warrior class. This is because the life of a samurai in feudal times was a well-known comparison to the short-lived cherry blossoms, for the samurai was always fully prepared to sacrifice his life at any time in the cause of his lord. They didn’t fear death. The samurai were trained to detach themselves from life and death encounters and to respond to any threat with a composed exterior, yet, with an inward passion. They were prepared to go into battle no matter the odds. To die in battle would bring honor or meiyo to one’s family and one’s lord. The samurai was prepared to serve his lord to the highest degree and to sacrifice his life for the good of his lord and family. The fundamental conflict of the samurai in real-life and portrayed in kabuki
drama was that between giri
, or the conflict between duty and personal desire. The samurai was expected to subordinate his personal feelings for the higher goal. There’s a saying in Japan, “the cherry is among the flowers as the samurai is among men.” Samurai strove to see beauty and meaning in life, up until the last moment, by creating death poems that would serve as a last testament, and a lesson for those left behind.