Remembering the lives of individuals — whether known or unknown — through memorial services is part of a dedicated practice in the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist tradition.
The Buddhist Temple of San Diego members traveled to the Imperial Valley to conduct cemetery services May 28 after a two-year interruption because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Located in the southwest region of the United States, the valley is productive in agriculture and has a storied history of Japanese and Buddhist influences.
Early in the 20th century, Jodo Shinshu churches served the communities of El Centro and Brawley. At the end of World War II, many Buddhist families did not return to the desert region, leading to the closure of both churches.
With the valley in close proximity to the West Coast, the San Diego temple has built a strong connection to this region. For over 60 years, ministers and lay leaders from San Diego have traveled to the valley annually to conduct cemetery services.
This past May, the 110-mile pilgrimage took a group of four members to pay homage at the Mountain View Cemetery in Calexico, Evergreen Cemetery in El Centro and Riverview Cemetery in Brawley.
All three cities and the surrounding agricultural farming communities were at one time vibrant with many Japanese and Japanese American families living in the region.
First visit: Calexico
Located four miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border, in the city of Calexico, the first visit was at the Mountain View Cemetery.
A total of 14 graves of loved ones of Japanese ancestry are located in the older section of the cemetery. The landscaping is no longer maintained. Dirt surrounds each grave. There are no flowers and large red ants can be seen crawling on the gravestones.
Ten of the graves are children ages 2 and under with the youngest, Daniel Kita, who lived only 15 days. Most of the people buried at the cemetery died in the 1920s and 1930s. Several gravestones are identified with the Buddhist Swastika symbol. Some graves are etched in Japanese.
“Calexico is a very lonely cemetery,” Fumiko Ohara, a longtime member of the Buddhist Temple of San Diego, recalled recently.
“I had been accompanying the minister from San Diego to the Imperial Valley for many years,” said Ohara, who was born in Brawley and moved to San Diego after World War II.
A portable altar was set up in front of one of the graves and Rev. Laverne Imori, a Tokudo Minister’s Assistant, chanted “Juseige.” As a reflection in memory of the deceased, temple member Norman Kiyono read Rennyo Shonin’s letter “White Ashes.” A flower was placed on each of the graves.
17 El Centro graves
The second visitation was at Evergreen Cemetery in El Centro.
Nestled under the shade of palm trees and pines, 17 graves are located in the cemetery’s older section. Many of the Japanese who are buried in this area were born in the 1870s and lived to the mid-1930s.
The service included chanting “Juseige” and singing of the “Ondokusan.”
“‘Ondokusan’ is about gratitude,” Rev. Imori said. “Although we never knew who these people were, we are grateful for the lives of those individuals who came before us, establishing a new life for themselves and their families and setting an example for why we are here today.”
The group then visited the center of the cemetery where the majority of the Japanese are buried.
The O Butsudan was set up in front of the Nimura family grave.
The Nimuras were agricultural farmers in nearby Holtville and hosted the minister and friends from San Diego to meals and rest while visiting. Saburo Nimura, the last surviving brother of the family, and frequent participant at the El Centro cemetery gatherings, passed away in 2021. It was only appropriate that his memory was honored in front of the family’s grave.
During the visit, the San Diego group met George Kodama of Holtville, and his wife, who were placing flowers on the graves of relatives. Several minutes later, George’s cousins arrived, along with his 99-year-old aunt, Grace Kodama.
“I come here every year to remember my husband and family members,” the matriarch of the Kodama clan said.
Sitting in a chair and being shaded from the bright sun, Grace Kodama shared fond memories of her younger days and her connections with family and friends in the valley and San Diego.
“My family was Buddhist, but when I was 8 years old, my friend took me to the Japanese Christian Church,” she said. “I enjoyed it because many of my friends were there. I have been Christian ever since, but I feel it does not matter what religion you are. We are Japanese and are grateful for each other.
“Having grown up in the Imperial Valley, our family was sent to Poston Camp I in Arizona during the war. I remember the San Diego people being in Camp III,” Grace Kodama recalled.
The group arrived at the Riverview Cemetery in Brawley, approximately a 15-mile drive north of El Centro. The thermometer was inching close to 95 degrees in the early afternoon. The air was dry, and the wind was beginning to pick up.
Upon arriving at the cemetery, the O Butsudan was set up in front of the “Ireihai,” or Buddhist memorial in the Japanese section of the cemetery.
The Ireihai was dedicated by families of the Brawley Buddhist Church in March 1960. An inscription on the monument is written in kanji with the Buddhist phrase “Ku E Issho,” which means “To meet together in the Pure Land.”
The cemetery is the final resting place for many Nikkei who lived in the communities of Brawley, Westmorland and Niland. Close to the Ireihai, a bench was installed in 2013 to honor the Issei pioneers of the three communities.
Following the chanting of the “Juseige,” recitation of “White Ashes” and O Shoko, the remaining flowers were placed on many of the graves.
“I got very emotional on my visit (yesterday) to the cemeteries,” Marie Galvez, a frequent visitor to the San Diego temple, said. “I realize that I don’t have any family or relatives in this country that I can show my respect like we did yesterday on our visits.”
A frequent attendee of the annual Brawley gathering is Tim Asamen of Westmorland.
Asamen, who is inspirational in maintaining the Buddhist and Japanese history in the Imperial Valley, was not able to attend this year’s gathering. Asamen also serves as a volunteer archivist and docent for the Japanese American Gallery located at the Imperial County Historical Society’s Pioneer Museum in the town of Imperial.
SD, El Centro ties
Established in January 1924, the El Centro Buddhist Church was home to many Buddhists in the El Centro, Holtville and Calexico communities. The Brawley Buddhist Church opened in July 1927, serving the communities of Brawley, Westmorland and Niland.
The Buddhist Temple of San Diego and El Centro Buddhist Church have a close, historical relationship.
In 1943, when the San Diego temple closed its doors during World War II, a fire destroyed the Hondo and Onaijin, located on the second floor. When the war ended in 1945, the El Centro Buddhist Church decided to cease operation because many of its Sangha members had relocated to other parts of the country.
The El Centro church decided to donate its center altar to San Diego, which replaced the one that was destroyed in the fire. Today, the center Onaijin, which was refurbished in 2008, is a reminder of the close relationship between San Diego, El Centro and the Imperial Valley.
Ministers and representatives from the San Diego temple have made visitations to the cemeteries in the valley twice a year for Memorial Day and O Bon.
Ohara reflected on such visitations.
“During (Rev. Giko) Yamamoto Sensei’s time, O Bon services were held during the day at the gravesites,” Ohara said. “A service was held at a family’s home in the evening because many Issei were living in the valley.”
The Memorial Day weekend and O Bon cemetery visitations continued into the 1960s and through the early 2000s. As participation declined and the summer heat became unbearable, the O Bon service in July was discontinued.
Honoring the memory of Buddhists and Japanese who lived and thrived in the Imperial Valley, continue to resonate each year rich with respect, appreciation and deep gratitude. Gassho.