Monday, July 12, 1999

By Dean Sensui, Star-Bulletin
George Takabayashi stands in front of the Yosebaka memorial
in Makiki Cemetery. This 12-ton granite monument houses the
remains of 289 Japanese pioneers in Hawaii who died without
descendants. Before they were moved to this common grave,
their individual broken-down headstones had remained untended.

Monument honors
issei who died
without descendants

By Susan Kreifels


"When I left Yokohama, I cried as I sailed out,
But now I have children and even grandchildren, too."
-- Immigrant sugar laborers' song

IN 1885 the first kanyaku imin -- Japanese contract plantation workers -- arrived on these islands so far from their homes. Many stayed, bearing generations of families who make up the majority of Hawaii's Japanese-Americans today.

But 289 died here leaving no trace of their existence but broken-down headstones at the back of Makiki cemetery. The muenbotoke -- those who die without descendants -- left no one to keep their graves tidy, to offer flowers, food and prayers during the Obon season. No children to honor them as ancestors, so vastly important among Asian cultures.

But these early Japanese have not been forgotten. The community will honor the pioneers Thursday during the 13th annual memorial service at the imin yosebaka -- common grave of the workers.

For years the late James Yonemura, a past president of the United Japanese Society, was saddened by those 289 deteriorated graves. He rallied support to collect the remains in a common grave marked by a 12-foot, rose-colored granite monument.

The monument was dedicated on Feb. 8, 1986, the 101st anniversary of the arrival of the first 944 kanyaku imin aboard the S.S. City of Tokio.

George Takabayashi, 77, former president of the society and one of the few remaining members who helped Yonemura raise the monument, said honoring these dead for the important role they played in Hawaii's history is just as important as the cultural reasons.

"These pioneers paved the way so other Japanese subjects could come to Hawaii," said Takabayashi, a nisei, or second-generation Japanese whose parents arrived in 1920.

Other muenbotoke are buried elsewhere in the islands, Takabayashi said.

Takabayashi said this year the service will also honor the Japanese plantation workers known as gannenmono -- the approximately 150 Japanese who arrived in 1868, the first year of Japan's Meiji Era. Their memorial stands next to the yosebaka.

These earlier workers came without the contract that resulted from the March 1881 visit of Hawaii's King Kalakaua. The king appealed to Emperor Meiji to resume sending workers to fill the labor shortage on Hawaii's plantations. Takabayashi said these earlier workers were tradesmen and craftsmen rather than the farmers who came later.

Sixteen Japanese sailors who died here or on imperial navy warships passing by the islands during the Meiji Era are also buried in the Makiki Cemetery.

Takabayashi said sailors of today's Japanese self-defense forces always visit the graves to pay respects during port calls in Honolulu.

In 1985 the Oahu Kanyaku Imin Centennial Committee and the Japanese Cemetery Association started working on the yosebaka project, raising almost $69,000. Committee members recorded the name, date of death and prefecture of birth on each of the 289 graves.

The committee then placed notices in the media looking for relatives who might object to the common grave. They received no response.

They brought in the stone from Okayama Prefecture, known for Japan's most beautiful granite. Kosuke Hiramatsu, who designed the monument for Japan's Imperial family, helped with the project.

Thursday's memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. at the Makiki Cemetery at Pensacola Street and Wilder Avenue. Clergy members from 34 Buddhist missions and temples and four Shinto shrines will participate in the offering prayers and incense. Archbishop Ryokan Ara of Tendai Mission of Hawaii will lead the ceremony.

"Now if someone visits the grave of a relative nearby and kindly offers one stick of incense or a single flower at the yosebaka, that would be enough to honor all," Yonemura said at the 1986 memorial service. "This little gesture would say that these early immigrants are not forgotten."

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