Japanese American Issei Pioneer Museum
In Honor of the Struggle and Sacrifice of First Generation Japanese in America

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02 - B.C.A. and Issei Pioneer Museum - Yoshiaki G. Takemura
B.C.A. and Issei Pioneer Museum - Yoshiaki G. Takemura - Feb. 2011

Early in the spring of 1957, I attended a last rite for the first time as a BCA minister at the hillside cemetery along the Pacific Ocean in Santa Barbara. I met an officer from the county there, and we buried a wooden casket. There were no other people present for this Issei besides us. The next funeral was for Rev. Shodo Tsunoda’s father. It was a big funeral (Rev. Tsunoda is the first Nisei minister in the BCA). I attended many funerals during my days with the BCA. Now, the Issei are gone and most of the Nisei are not here with us either. Every morning, I have a short memorial service before the statue of the Buddha that stands facing westward (Pure Land and Japan) outside of my home near Puget Sound.

About 50 years ago, a “Nursing Home for the Issei” was my dream. I wanted to build a nice home for the elderly Issei. But, only the time passed and my dream became a fantasy because of the absence of funding. While I was at the Buddhist Temple of Fowler, I was seriously contemplating building an Issei museum and looked for a possible location and property. Soon after my assignment to the Salinas Buddhist Temple in 1976, the Issei Pioneer Museum became a reality on the second floor of the temple's YBA Hall. The museum received great support from temple members, especially president, Frank Oshita, museum board chairman, Saburo Iwamoto, and treasurer, Sid Shiratsuki. Since it was the first museum of its kind in the US, many messages, including those from Prime Minister Takeo Miki, Governor Jerry Brown, and President Gerald Ford, arrived to congratulate the event. Later, our Gomonshu Kosho Otani of Hongwanji and well-known writer Ryotaro Shiba, came to see the museum. On the occasion of the opening of the Japanese American National Museum in LA in 1992, some items from my collections were rented out.

Throughout my BCA assignment, I was interested in the Nikkei history. I tried to save items of interest and many members, senior ministers and colleagues helped me tremendously. While serving in Santa Barbara, I received old Japanese records for phonographs and newsletters published in the Relocation Center in Arizona. I still have these today. Many of the items in the museum were in the possession of Nikkei. However, there are many other items that can still be found in bookstores, antique shops, auction houses in the US and flea markets, like Toji, in Kyoto.

Following my retirement from the BCA in 1999, I spent next 4 years in Mexico City representing the Hongwanji. And since October 2004, my entire collection has been on display at the present location in Hansville, Washington. Beginning in 2006, four researchers and staff members from the National Museum of Japanese History came to the Issei Pioneer Museum for three consecutive summers. They cataloged and photographed about 800 items to be stored for their information base.

The National Museum of Japanese History opened a 13 month long special exhibit, “Amerika ni watatta Nihonjin to Senso no Jidai” (Japanese Immigrants in the United States and the War Era) in March 2010 with some of our items are on display. The exhibit will be open until April 2011. Many of the items selected from the Issei Museum for the exhibit are objects made during WWII in the internment camps, various documents, photos, newspapers and books. My wife and I excitedly accepted their invitation to attend the exhibit. Although the number of items was small, this represented the first time that items associated with our forefathers were exhibited on such a grand stage. The items told a short but powerfully inspiring story about us to the people of Japan.

My maternal grandparents are Issei. When my grandmother came to the US in 1905, as a picture bride, she was 19 years old and was the sole Japanese woman in Auburn, Washington (White River Valley, south of Seattle). She received Okamisori and homyo (confirmation and Buddhist name) at the Hongwanji Temple in Kyoto prior to her departure from Yokohama. Her written records of the departure from Japan and the early days in America was printed in tabloid form and are being displayed as a special exhibit.

Ever since Japanese Issei immigrants arrived in the US as “dekasegi” (working abroad), Nishi Hongwanji provided spiritual needs for them and their descendents. During WWII, when service books were unavailable in the camps, they made their own by cutting stencils and hand-turning the tumblers of mimeograph machines.

Among the Issei and their families, Buddhism has been the dominant faith and the Buddhist Churches of America flourished, especially during the 1920's, 1930’s, 1950’s, and 1960's. Group pictures taken at the conferences and special occasions speak for themselves. After WWII, almost all Nikkei chose this country as their permanent home and Issei and Nisei did their best to lay the foundation for their succeeding generations. When standing in the museum, I am not only surrounded by the historical items of them, but also by the spiritual presence of these pioneers. The experience helps me to reflect on these courageous people and reminds me to give praise and gratitude to our pioneers whenever my thoughts are with them. I am hopeful that the future generations will realize the uniqueness of their cultural and religious heritage, and contribute to making the world a better place to live.

In Gassho

Issei Pioneer Museum
Yoshiaki G.Takemura

This article was prepared for “The Wheel of Dharma”, a monthly publication of the Buddhist Churches of America Headquarters located in San Francisco.

Japanese American Issei Pioneer Museum - isseipioneermuseum.com - 2011