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Honoring Yoshiko Miwa, a BCA Supercentenarian

Yoshiko Miwa is a treasure and one for the ages.


Miwa is a lifelong Buddhist who has watched the development of Jodo Shinshu in the United States for over 12 decades.


This amazing woman celebrated her 110th birthday on Feb. 28, becoming a supercentenarian.


Reaching such a milestone is quite an accomplishment while her growth with the Jodo Shinshu teachings is a history filled with memories and gratitude of her illustrious life.


Miwa was born in 1914 to Umekichi and Masu (Ohama) Tanaka in Guadalupe, California. 


In 1914, war broke out in Europe and escalated into the first World War. Woodrow Wilson was president of the United States. Baseball legend Babe Ruth made his major league debut with the Boston Red Sox. First-class postage was two cents. The population of the United States was 98.7 million. (The population was 336.1 million so far in 2024, according to the U.S. Census.) Buddhism in America was 15 years old.


“Every so often, I find my mind drifting back into the past, reliving with nostalgia, the peaceful and carefree lives of yesteryear,” Miwa noted in her 1992 autobiography. “Life moved at a much slower pace in those days and many interesting things happened on the farm.”


Growing Up on Farm




Many of the Japanese immigrants who settled in California’s Central Coast were farmers. The Tanaka farm was no exception. 


Tanaka was his own blacksmith, making harnesses and horseshoes as well as shaping farm tools. On the farm, there were many animals, including chickens, pigs, cows and horses. Miwa’s father used to milk the cows every morning and night.


“We had fresh milk every day and plenty of fresh eggs and poultry to eat,” Miwa said. 


She also remembers the pigs being sold to the butcher. Her father would come home with bacon and pork to feed the family.


Hard work paid off when Miwa’s father came home one day with a gift for his family.


“Our first car was a Model T Ford. It was a big day when papa came home with our first car,” Miwa recalled. “It must have been around 1922 or 1923. It was a black, four-door model, frail looking with skinny tires.”


Miwa was the fifth of seven siblings, which included two brothers and five sisters. 


Guadalupe Church


In 1909, the Guadalupe Buddhist Church was established. Rev. Issei Matsuura served as one of the church’s early ministers in 1915.


Rev. Matsuura and his wife Shinobu were among the early pioneers sent from Hongwanji in Kyoto for the purpose of propagating Jodo Shinshu Buddhism in America.


On March 1, 1918, Rev. Matsuura became Guadalupe’s permanent minister and served until 1928, along with his wife and five children. Rev. Matsuura would serve a second tenure with the church from 1934-1947.


Miwa’s father was the first president of the Guadalupe Buddhist Church from 1914-1939. Umekichi Tanaka was instrumental in spearheading the effort for the construction of a permanent building and donated the altar, including the Gohonzon, both still in use today.


Tragically, her mother and infant brother died on Jan. 26, 1919, from complications related to the flu, according to the Santa Maria Times. Young Miwa was 4 years old at the time.


As a result, it became difficult for Miwa’s father to tend to the farm and care for his six children.


Life was not easy for the families who emigrated from Japan. Immigrants had difficulty adjusting to a new environment with the customs so different in America.


“They must have been overwhelmed at the tremendous task before them as teacher, counselor and advisor to so many immigrants in this foreign land,” Miwa recalled. “It must have been heartbreaking and rewarding at the same time.”


Miwa said her father felt that it was a difficult task to take care of his five daughters following his wife’s passing. After pleading with Rev. and Mrs. Matsuura to take care of his children, the compassionate and understanding minister and his wife lifted the burden from Tanaka’s shoulders.


Life in Children’s Home


The Matsuuras decided to open the Guadalupe Children’s Home in the spring of 1919 at the church. The focus of the home was to teach religious guidance and Japanese language. Children, as well as parents, could gain spiritual and educational benefits together.


“My husband could not bear to see the families broken up,” Shinobu Matsuura said in Miwa’s autobiography. “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.”


Miwa’s two older sisters were the first to reside at the church. Soon, other families heard about the home and began bringing their children. The Guadalupe Children’s Home cared for up to 30 children. 


The church needed to expand to accommodate the growing number of children.


Renovations began with the construction of more rooms and complying with the state’s safety codes. In the fall of 1919, the home was granted a license to room and board children. 


“Living in the Guadalupe Children’s Home is especially meaningful to me because I was one of 30 children nurtured under the guardianship of Rev. and Mrs. Issei Matsuura,” Miwa said. “My elementary and high school days were spent with (the) reverend and his family.”


Miwa lived in the home until graduating from Santa Maria High School in 1932.


Morning and evening services were held at the home along with religious etiquette training. 


“Emphasis was laid on moral and ethical principles,” Miwa recalled.


Attendance was mandatory for Japanese language school and there were strict study hours every evening after supper.


“These strict training had disciplined me, which later influenced and gave me direction in life,” Miwa said.


The new building accommodated about 12 children in each ward. The boys lived in a separate building.


“We each had a single bed, shelf, and small cubicle for our valuables, but not much privacy,” Miwa said.


There was a big playground with swings and equipment. Since there were not many toys, children created them. 


“We carved our own tops to spin, sewed doll dresses from scraps, and played house,” she said.


Piano lessons were taught to the older girls. 


Recalling Mrs. Matsuura


Daily chores and practice were important parts of daily life at the children’s home.


“We were our own janitors and had to clean our own rooms, the hondo, and the yard,” Miwa said. “The older girls did the laundry and ironing. When we ate our meals, we expressed thanks before and after the meals, and what we put on our plates, we had to finish it clean. There was no wasting food.”


Rev. and Mrs. Matsuura provided the children with the best in life, which included occasional birthday parties and attending the circus and animal performances. The couple would also take the children to Pismo Beach for picnics and clam digging. 


“Mrs. Matsuura was a great storyteller,” Miwa said. “In inclement weather, we would form a big circle around the dining room and she would read or tell us stories, either religious, humorous, or suspense.”


Mrs. Matsuura treated each child warmly when the children left for school and arrived home at the end of the day, according to Miwa.


“Somehow, just her presence was comforting,” Miwa said.


In 1928, Rev. and Mrs. Matsuura left for Japan. In the meantime, the Guadalupe Buddhist Church was served by Rev. Tainen and Mrs. Hirota, followed by Rev. Gijo and Mrs. Motoyama.


By this time, most of the children had returned to their respective homes. The Matsuuras returned to Guadalupe in 1935 until the mass relocation and incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans from the West Coast occurred in 1942.


Miwa attended the University of California at Berkeley and earned a degree in business administration in 1936. 


During the late 1920s, Miwa served as a Dharma School teacher with the Guadalupe Buddhist Church. In 1928, she met Henry Miwa when he visited the church.


It was through the matchmaking efforts of Mr. and Mrs. Aratani of Guadalupe and Mr. and Mrs. Mayeda of Dinuba that Henry and Yoshiko became engaged. The young couple was married at the Fresno Buddhist Church in 1939.


From 1934 to 1942, Henry Miwa was hired as the executive secretary of the Fresno church, where he oversaw the general financial management. He also supervised the Sunday school and taught at the Japanese school as a substitute teacher.


Henry Miwa was active in the YBA. He served as president of the Central California YBA League, chairman and treasurer of California YBL, and was one of 10 official delegates from California to attend the International World YBA Conference in Hawaii. 


After World War II, he served as chairman of the Southern District Buddhist Church Council and was a board member of the BCA for three years. He also served as chairman of the Gardena Buddhist Church for two years.  Henry passed away in 1996 at the age of 90.


During World War II, the Miwa family was incarcerated at Poston (Camp 1) in Arizona. Following the war, the family settled in Hawthorne, California. 


Meanwhile, internment in Bismarck, North Dakota, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, took a toll on Rev. Matsuura’s health. He passed away in August 1947. After his passing, Mrs. Matsuura traveled around the world, speaking and propagating Buddhism. She became incapacitated from a stroke in 1972.


Miwa would go on to say that she was so fortunate to have known Mrs. Matsuura. 


“She lived in gratitude in the onembutsu,” she said.


In 1964, at the age of 50, Yoshiko Miwa received her nursing license from California Vocational Nursing School in Los Angeles and worked at Veterans Administration Hospital in West Los Angeles. In 1968, she accepted a position at Memorial Hospital of Gardena, where she worked until she retired in 1984.


Active at Gardena


With Gardena Buddhist Church, Yoshiko was a member of the Jr. Matrons (later the Matrons) and served as its president in 1962.


Yoshiko and Henry Miwa had three sons, Masao, Gerald, and Alan.


Her growing family includes 10 grandchildren, 20 great-grandchildren, and one great-great-grandchild.


Keeping her mind and body active is the best medicine for helping maintain a long life for Miwa.


Having grown up in the Guadalupe Children’s Home since the age of 5, Miwa did not have many toys and spent much of the time reading books.


“Her dad gave her a whole set of the Book of Knowledge, learning how to read,” said Miwa’s youngest son, Alan.


As an adult, she took a class called “Write Your Own Life Story,” which inspired her to write her autobiography.  


She earned a teaching credential in ikebana (but never taught), volunteered to check blood pressure screenings for seniors at the Gardena Buddhist Church, and helped serve lunch at the local Japanese Cultural Institute. Miwa also practiced sashiko (Japanese stitching) and sumi-e (Japanese brush painting).


Miwa is proud to have driven a vehicle up until age 100 and speaks English, Japanese, and Spanish.


Early in retirement, she exercised each day by walking four miles. Miwa found that walking was invigorating and kept her fit for a 20K March of Dimes Walkathon at age 76 in 1990. She finished the walk in three and one-half hours.


After taking furniture and reupholstery classes, she refinished a cabinet and reupholstered four vinyl chairs.


She said her secret for achieving longevity is — “Don’t dwell.”


Miwa’s activity these days is limited, but she does attend services and social activities at Gardena Buddhist Church. 


When asked about the BCA’s 125th anniversary commemoration, Alan Miwa put it into perspective:


“At 110, she really takes (things) one day at a time,” he said. “When we take her to church on Sundays, we have to remind her where she is going. She doesn’t see or hear very well, so she doesn’t take much away from the service, but she does enjoy sitting in the gejin and socializing.”


Celebrating Birthday


In celebration of her most recent birthday, the Gardena Buddhist Church recognized Miwa with a certificate of congratulations from the BCA and a gift from the BWA. Following the service, the Sangha celebrated Miwa’s birthday with cake in the social hall.


“She brought four generations to the temple for her 110th birthday,” said Rev. John Iwohara, Resident Minister of the Gardena Buddhist Church. 


Miwa’s family was able to gather and celebrate four days before her actual birthday.


As for sharing her advice to living a long life, Alan Miwa feels that his mother would say, “Live each day to its fullest and enjoy those around you.


“My mother, Yoshiko, is a very kind and soft-spoken individual,” Alan Miwa said. “I believe that she personifies that which is good in people. She’s lived a long and storied life, and I can’t remember her ever getting angry or raising her voice in anger.”


Rev. Iwohara added: “Mrs. Miwa is incredible.” 


“You listen to her story, and you know she has gone through a lot,” Rev. Iwohara said. “She’s gone through all of those things that we learned in history books. She didn’t just survive. She thrived and transcended those events.”


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I am a writer. I am intrigued by the story of Yoshiko Miwa and would like to read her autobiography. How can I purchase a copy of the book?

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