The Onaijin at the small Guadalupe Buddhist Church in California’s Central Coast is at the center of a remarkable story of causes and conditions encompassing gratitude, joy, perseverance — and heartbreak.
The story spans more than a century and connects Umekichi Tanaka, a Japanese immigrant farmer and widower, with BCA icon Shinobu Matsuura, and with Tanaka’s daughter — 107-year-old Yoshiko Miwa. And the thread of events includes Miwa’s meeting with another centenarian, Toshiko Iriyama, at Guadalupe’s Obon Festival in 2019. Iriyama passed away Feb. 4 at the age of 106.
It also has a tragic past linked to a worldwide pandemic — not the current COVID-19 crisis, but the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.
The story of the Onaijin actually dates back to 1915, when Rev. Issei Matsuura began as the Guadalupe Buddhist Church’s minister. His wife, Shinobu, would arrive in 1918.
The Guadalupe Buddhist Church, established in 1909, holds a storied place among the BCA’s churches and temples. It was where Rev. Matsuura served two tenures — from 1915-1928 and also from 1934-1947 — and it was where the family would raise five children. The couple’s eldest daughter, Jane, would become an iconic BCA figure herself, spreading Shin Buddhism in the United States with her husband, Rev. Kanmo Imamura. Rev. Imamura was the son of Bishop Rev. Yemyo Imamura, the visionary second Bishop of Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii.
The Guadalupe Buddhist Church’s first president was a vegetable farmer named Umekichi Tanaka. He had married a picture bride from Japan, Masu Ohama, on June 5, 1903. At the time, he was 31 and she was 17, and the couple had seven children — two sons and five daughters.
Tragedy struck the Tanaka family during the Spanish flu epidemic, which lasted from 1918 to 1920. Masu Tanaka gave birth prematurely to a boy — and both she and her infant son would die on Jan. 26, 1919, from complications of the flu, according to the Santa Maria Times.
After she died, Umekichi Tanaka was unable to take care of all of his children. He sent his son (George) Minoru, who was the eldest child, to Japan, to be raised by his grandmother. The oldest Tanaka daughter, Tsuruko, who was an invalid and was bedridden since birth, stayed at home on the family farm, cared for in part by a hired cook and housekeeper.
Children’s Home Opened
Tanaka placed his other four daughters — Toshiko, Akiko, Yoshiko and Sueko — in the care of the Matsuuras, who despite having no experience in such matters, decided to open the Guadalupe Children’s Home in the spring of 1919.
“My husband could not bear to see the families broken up,” Shinobu Matsuura wrote in “Higan,” her 1971 memoir. “He wanted to care for the children at the temple, teach them the Japanese language while they attended public school and he wanted to raise them in an atmosphere centered around the Buddha.
“The parents were in such a dilemma that this arrangement was happily welcomed,” she continued. “The first to come was Mr. Umekichi Tanaka, who lost his wife in the infamous flu epidemic.”
The Guadalupe Children’s Home soon became a bustling center of home care for about 20 children. But the routine was jolted unexpectedly when a state inspector ordered it closed, citing building code violations. The children were temporarily scattered and housed with relatives and friends.
The Guadalupe Sangha was undeterred, and raised funds to build a second floor and a fire escape. A license to operate the facility was granted, and the Guadalupe Children’s Home reopened. In time, the home served 36 children between the ages of 6 and 16.
“Racial prejudice was severe in those days, but everyone persevered in body and mind,” Matsuura wrote. “When the children returned, and we were all reunited, it was a supreme joy and all we could do was to smile gratefully.”
In spring 1926, Lord Sonyu Ohtani toured the temples in Hawaii and the United States, including the Guadalupe Buddhist Church. He visited the Guadalupe Children’s Home and spoke with the children.
“Later, we heard from Bishop Yemyo Imamura of Hawaii Hongwanji that the Lord has described to him, ‘At a countryside temple on the Southern California coast, I was moved to see many children in the temple close to the Dharma, and growing up in a happy family atmosphere,’” Matsuura wrote.
After his son finished high school in Japan, Tanaka sent for him to come home and help on the farm, and he took his daughters out of the Guadalupe Children’s Home to reunite the family during the 1920s.
A Gift of Gratitude
Tanaka became successful as a farmer and, in a show of gratitude, bought a gold altar in Kyoto and donated it to the Guadalupe Buddhist Church — where it remains to this day as the Onaijin. Tanaka and his family members gathered at the church on Oct. 15, 1933, to celebrate the Onaijin — minus daughter Yoshiko, who was away as a student attending the University of California, Berkeley.
Another tragedy would strike the Tanaka family on Dec. 7, 1941, with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor — this time, directly affecting Umekichi Tanaka.
He was removed from his home and sent to Fort Lincoln, the federal Justice Department internment camp in Bismarck, North Dakota, which housed U.S. civilians of Japanese and German descent. After his release from Bismarck, Tanaka rejoined his family at the Poston internment camp in Arizona during World War II.
When the war ended, the Tanaka family didn’t have the resources to move back to the Guadalupe area. Instead, the family went to Fresno because that was where his son’s wife was born. The family ended up staying at the Fresno Betsuin Buddhist Temple until they found a place to rent.
Umekichi Tanaka would live in Central California for the rest of his life. He would never remarry and died in Sanger on May 7, 1966, at the age of 94.
A Return to Guadalupe
Fast forward to July 2019, and the Miwa family was planning a family outing in Pismo Beach at the time the Guadalupe Buddhist Church was preparing for its Obon.
“Mrs. Miwa wanted to stop in Guadalupe to see her old stomping grounds,” Rev. Nakano said. “I was shocked that people even heard of Guadalupe.
“Mrs. Miwa remembered the Onaijin, even after all the years away,” Rev. Nakano said. “At Guadalupe, both sides of the Onaijin have two paintings. They are very old, but Mrs. Miwa remembered them. She read the kanji. She knew exactly where to find the signature of her father. My mouth dropped. Plus that personal relationship with the church and with Mrs. Miwa makes me proud to be a minister at Guadalupe.”
Rev. Nakano, aware of Yoshiko Miwa’s age, thought about some of the Keiro members at Guadalupe — and then thought of Toshiko Iriyama. She contacted Iriyama’s son Teruo, explained that Miwa was visiting and convinced him to bring his mother to the Obon Festival.
“The day of Obon, they met and sat in a corner in the dining hall and got reacquainted with each other,” Rev. Nakano said. “After a few hours, their friendship was renewed. I was so happy that two 104- and 105-year-olds still had peers and memories of living in Guadalupe.”