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Eastern District Holds Special Willow Grove Obon

On July 22, the BCA Eastern District’s New York, Seabrook and Ekoji temples held its annual Obon gathering at the Willow Grove Japanese cemetery in New Brunswick, New Jersey.


While most BCA temples celebrate Obon within the temple grounds and at local cemeteries, the Willow Grove Obon service is a very special observance honoring the legacy of all Americans of Japanese ancestry and BCA members.


At the close of Japan’s feudal era, as the end of the samurai and shogun era was slowly evolving, forward looking officials realized that Japan would have to turn to the West if it wanted to become an active participant in the 19th century modern world. Young samurai were sent to America to study the ways of the West. Even our Nishi Hongwanji mother temple dispatched ministers to study the conditions of contemporary religion in Europe and America before it began sending ministers to Hawaii and America.


In 1860, the first Japanese government mission to the United States sailed from Japan to San Francisco on the Kanrin Maru, captained by famous Japanese military strategist Katsu Kaishu. Those on board included translator John Manjiro and Yukichi Fukuzawa, who would later go on to found Keio University in Tokyo.


During this maiden voyage to America, three of the ship’s crew died on their way to San Francisco. Gennosuke and Tomizo from Hiroshima and Minekichi from Nagasaki were the first Japanese to be buried in America and are resting today in San Francisco’s Japanese Cemetery in Colma, exactly across from the BCA Memorial.


A few years later, one of the first places where young Japanese samurai were sent to study was at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Rutgers was founded by Dutch Reformed Church missionaries and because the Dutch were one of the few foreign countries which maintained communication and trade with Japan during the feudal era, Dutch officials encouraged young Japanese men to come to America to study at Rutgers.


These young men, many of whom were still teenagers, made the long journey to the East Coast and studied English and western subjects and dreamed of helping to create a new Japan.


Taro Kusakabe of Fukui was one of the first young Japanese men to go abroad to study. He held passport No. 4 issued by the Foreign Affairs Nagasaki office. Kusakabe had studied English under a Dutch minister, who had settled in Nagasaki and Saga, and he enrolled in Rutgers. Kusakabe was diligent and studied mathematics, but he succumbed to tuberculosis just a few weeks before graduation. He was posthumously awarded his degree and was the first Japanese to be elected to the academic excellence Phi Beta Kappa society. He passed away on April 13, 1870, at the age of 26.


Kijiro Hasegawa was from Himeji City in Hyogo and he passed away in 1871, at the young age of 23. A memorial in his memory is held in Himeji City even today.


Kosuke Matsukata of Kagoshima came from a distinguished lineage of pioneers who helped to build a new Japan. His second cousin Haru, would later become the wife of U.S. Ambassador (and Japan scholar) Edwin O. Reischauer. Kosuke was a member of the Iwakura Mission, which traveled around the world to seek recognition for the new Japanese government and research conditions of the modern world. After circumventing the world with this embassy mission, Matsukata received permission to enroll in Rutgers, but contracted an illness and he passed away in 1872 at the age of 22.


Jinzaburo Obata was from Kokura in Fukuoka and first came to America as a tutor and companion to Lord Masayuki Okuhira of the Nakatsu clan. Obata later enrolled in Brooklyn College in New York City and suffered a nervous breakdown and passed away in 1873. Because no other Japanese were buried in any American cemeteries on the East Coast, Obata was buried in the Willow Grove cemetery with the other students.


Otojiro Irie of Yamaguchi Prefecture enrolled in Rutgers in 1872 along with Kiyonari Yoshida who would later become a member of the Privy Council, the official advisory council to the Emperor of Japan. Irie would pass away on March 20, 1874, at the age of 22 after only two years of studying at Rutgers.


Unfortunately, many Japanese students became ill from malnutrition and lack of proper medical attention. These students also had no immunity to many American diseases. Shinjiro Kawasaki, also from Kagoshima, was sent to study at Eastman Business College in Poughkeepsie, New York, but caught measles and succumbed to tuberculosis when he was only 21 years of age.


Tatsuzo Sakatani from Okayama did not follow the same student route as the others. He was employed at an engineering firm in New York City. However, he passed away in 1886 at the age of 26. Sakatani was from a prominent family and his younger brother Yoshiro would go on to serve as a mayor of Tokyo and later as Japanese finance minister.


And finally, we remember Baby Takagi, the daughter of Saburo and Suma Takagi. Saburo was serving at the Japanese Consulate office in New York City when his baby daughter died on Sept. 5, 1877, shortly after birth.


Baby Takagi is probably the first Japanese American female to die in America. Saburo later served as the first Japanese Consul General in San Francisco. Before his government service in America, Saburo had studied in the United States and was an attendant to Koshika Kaishu, the son of Kaishu Katsu.


Each of these young pioneers were from prominent Japanese families who played major roles in transforming Japan from a closed nation to the point where our Issei pioneers were able to immigrate to Hawaii and the mainland United States.


For 150 years, the graves of these brave young men and baby Takagi have rested peacefully in Willow Grove cemetery. For many years, Rev. and Mrs. Hozen Seki from the New York Buddhist Church would make annual Obon visits to the graves.

In 1985, 115 years after the passing of Taro Kusakabe, former Bishop Rev. Kenryu Tsuji — who with Rev. Dr. Yehan Numata helped to found the Ekoji Buddhist Temple in Fairfax Station, Virginia — started to conduct the annual Willow Grove Obon service.


As the final Obon observance in the BCA Eastern District, members from the New York, Seabrook and Ekoji temples gather with members of the Princeton Japanese Association to clean the gravestones and conduct an annual Obon service.


In addition to myself, the participants at the Willow Grove Obon were:

Keiko Anderson, Mariko Banas, Mike Banas, Richie Barase, David Brady, Ruth Funai, Noriko Kane-Goldsmith, Marc Grobman, Rev. Cheryl Ikemiya, Rev. Erick Ishii, Samantha Jacobus, Susan Jacques, Keiko James, Gertrude Kihara, Molly Kuramoto, Keiko Ohtaka, Nancy Okada, Hoshina Seki, and Keiko Shiozaki.


Standing in front of these gravestones, I wonder what were the dreams, the visions and hopes of these young pioneers?


After 250 years of feudalism, Japan was on the verge of bursting into the world and these young men were determined to take the lead in building a new Japan.


Every American of Japanese ancestry, every BCA member owes so much to the vision and dreams of these seven pioneers who gave their lives for us. Do you think these pioneers could have ever envisioned a day when the Nembutsu would be heard from coast to coast in this vast nation?


Countless are those who we remember each Obon. All BCA temples and members deeply appreciate the Eastern District temples for gathering each year to honor the memory and legacy of these pioneers.


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