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Sakaye Tsuji’s Contributions, Influence Are Legendary

Wife of the Late Rev. Kenryu Tsuji Is ‘One-of-a-Kind Treasure’

Rev. Kenryu Tsuji, who passed away in 2004 after more than six decades as a Shin Buddhist minister, was revered for being trailblazing, innovative and farsighted.

His wife, Sakaye, has been influential in her own right. Every step of the way beside her husband, she also contributed to the growth of Shin Buddhism in Canada and the United States. She was a minister’s assistant before there were minister’s assistants, keeping the Ekoji Buddhist Temple in Virginia open during her husband’s frequent trips for speaking engagements, conferences and meetings.

Over their 58-year marriage, Sakaye Tsuji served as a Dharma School teacher, scheduler, chef, confidante, secretary, adviser and religious leader, all the while raising five daughters. She also worked part-time to support the family and kept the household in order.

“At every temple and position where Sensei served, the Sangha and organization were so lucky to get the energies and efforts of two completely dedicated bodhisattvas for the price of one,” said Rev. Brian Nagata, director for Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai (Society for the Promotion of Buddhism) America. He considers Sakaye Tsuji his “second mom.”

During a December 2023 session on Zoom with four of her five daughters, the 99-year-old Foster City resident downplayed her contributions that started when she married Rev. Tsuji in 1946.

“I’m sorry to say I should have helped more,” she said, later repeating that same sentiment in the interview.

“Mom is very modest,” daughter Liz Tsuji said, “but I think he used to bounce ideas off her. I remember that, mom.”

Many others agree with her.

Among them are Gail and Norm Kondo, longtime members of Ekoji, the Virginia temple that the Tsujis helped start in 1981 and where Sakaye Tsuji was immersed in not just temple life but in the lives of the Sangha.

In an email about Tsuji, the Kondos said she was the temple co-leader and “is a one-of-a-kind treasure” who became “the Sangha’s beloved second mom, grandma, sister, friend.” They recalled she did everything with the children: crafting, swimming, playing with the Tsuji cat “Boots,” watching movies and videos, and going to McDonald’s and Chuck E. Cheese.

“If we needed an emergency babysitter, she was there; if we needed someone to help with a school crafting assignment, she was there; if we needed a sounding board, she was there; if we needed sage advice, she was there,” the Kondos said.

“She was the rock we relied on,” they continued. “She joined us in the major events of our Sangha families’ lives — birthdays, graduations, children’s concerts, sickness and death — as a valued ‘family member.’ Safe to say Mrs. Tsuji’s impact on the Sangha extended well beyond temple walls.”

The Kondos joked that her only fault was that she loves going to casinos.

Tsuji said she looked after the temple when her husband was away. She would lead meditations, services and conduct hoji (memorial services). The week before Obon, she’d prepare shojin ryori (Buddhist vegetarian cuisine) after the 6 a.m. daily meditation. She also arranged the chairperson for services, helped set up the altar and made sure the temple doors were open.

“Those days there were no minister’s assistants,” she said.

Rev. Kenryu Tsuji was one of the most influential individuals in the growth and development of Shin Buddhism in North America. A native of British Columbia, Rev. Tsuji was the first Canadian-born Shin minister, helped plan the first Obon service in Canada, was the first Nisei bishop of the Buddhist Churches of America, served as president of the Institute of Buddhist Studies, was the first Buddhist president of the United States affiliate of the World Conference on Religion and Peace, and helped to establish temples in Toronto, Hamilton and Montreal in Canada and Ekoji in Virginia, as well as Buddhist organizations in the South such as in Richmond, Virginia.

Daughter Roz Tsuji recalled accompanying her father to meet with the philanthropist businessman and devout Buddhist Rev. Dr. Yehan Numata in Japan. She listened as her father said he felt there needed to be a Jodo Shinshu temple near Washington, D.C. 

Rev. Dr. Numata, founder of the Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai, agreed. BDK would help finance the opening of Ekoji, and Rev. Tsuji, who had just retired after serving 13 years as BCA bishop, became the founding minister. 

“While most friends her age were enjoying retirement and grandchildren, Mom Tsuji was working alongside Sensei every day to bring the Nembutsu to this new region,” Rev. Nagata said.

Sakaye Tsuji was born on July 29, 1924, in Genoa Bay on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, the second youngest of Tsugiye and Tobei Kawabata’s four children. She spent part of her youth in Japan but mostly grew up in the city of Duncan in British Columbia. Although her parents were Buddhist, they sent her to a Christian church for a time. 

After World War II broke out, the Kawabata family was incarcerated at the Bay Farm camp in Slocan, a former Gold Rush town in southeast British Columbia. In camp, she met a new Shin Buddhist minister, who was a Canadian native who returned home on the last ship out of Japan at the start of the war. Their first meeting occurred when parents invited Rev. Tsuji over for dinner.

Rev. Tsuji was not only the camp Buddhist minister, but principal of the school. Sakaye Kawabata became a teacher at the school. Although Sakaye’s parents didn’t want her to marry a minister, knowing it wouldn’t be an easy life, that’s what she wanted to do. 

Her parents were right about the difficulties of being a minister’s wife. The paychecks didn’t always come on time, and the orei Rev. Tsuji brought home was often whatever the Sangha member was growing on a farm at the time. Later, when Rev. Tsuji was the BCA Bishop, he routinely passed on his orei to the BCA, according to daughter Ellie Tsuji.

To supplement the family income, Sakaye Tsuji took on a variety of part-time jobs: hair stylist in her sister’s salon, sales clerk, kindergarten assistant and office clerk for the U.S. federal government.

Another one of her side jobs was ironing clothes at 25 cents a shirt. She sometimes earned $1.25 at a time, Ellie Tsuji said. Rather than have the customer pick up the clothes, she would deliver them in the family’s old green Ford. 

Sakaye Tsuji said her husband “didn’t have time to look after the faucet leaking or the washing machine not working, so I would have to do that.”

She also managed to carve out time to pursue a host of hobbies such as knitting, crocheting, painting, origami, making greeting cards and jewelry, sumi-e painting and sewing.

“They told me it would be hard,” Sakaye Tsuji said, referring to her parents. “I didn’t have training to be a minister’s wife … maybe I’m just too nonki (easy going) … I heard people complain about the minister’s life, but it didn’t bother me.”

After getting married in 1946, the Tsujis’ first assignment together was in Toronto, where they started a temple. They bought a house that became the church on the bottom floor; the growing Tsuji family lived on the second floor. Four of the five children were born in Toronto. In addition to her many responsibilities as mother and okusan, Tsuji helped with the Dharma School.

Rev. Nagata said even after nearly 80 years, “those amongst the first Dharma School children speak lovingly of Mom Tsuji.”

Maya Lawrence recalled her mother looked after the stream of guests who came through the house, something that sister Liz Tsuji recounted in a foreword to Rev. Tsuji’s 2003 book, “The Heart of the Buddha-Dharma.”

“All through our childhood, I remember my father bringing home visitors to spend the night, often with no notice,” Liz Tsuji wrote. Many of the visitors were monks from China, Japan or India.

Sakaye Tsuji was also famous for her cooking.

“Mom would put on huge dinners for people,” Lawrence said. 

It wasn’t just for the visitors Rev. Tsuji brought home. The frequent BCA or IBS-related meetings at the family home also included dinners. She also planned dinners for meetings outside the home.

On one occasion, when Rev. Tsuji was the BCA Bishop, she hosted a dinner for the entire BCA National Council — 150 to 200 people — at the bishop’s residence in Belmont. Her daughters remember there was a bus parked in the driveway.

“Her oshogatsu (New Year) spreads are legendary,” the Kondos said. “If Mrs. Tsuji was cooking, we’d be there.”

Rev. Nagata said: “Mom Tsuji easily transitioned into any responsibility or role she found herself in, whether it be entertaining the Monshu or the Japanese ambassador or boiling hot dogs for the young ones.”

Tsuji said although she really wasn’t exposed to Buddhism until she was 18 years old, being a Buddhist “became a natural thing … I guess I was always a Buddhist.”

Buddhism, she said, “is our kokoro (heart), our arigatai (being grateful).”

When she once revealed to her husband that she said, “Nam Am Da Butsu, Nam Am Da Butsu,” before going to bed,” he replied in surprise, “You say that?”

Tsuji lives with daughters Ellie and Roz Tsuji in Foster City. In addition to her five daughters — the others are Maya Lawrence, Liz Tsuji and Carolyn Holochuck — she has six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. These days, she enjoys making jewelry, cooking and crocheting.

She expresses her gratitude to the Sangha members who support their temples and to all the past presidents, ministers and teachers who have helped Shin Buddhism grow in the United States.

“I’ve had a good life, all 99 years,” she said. “I have five girls who look after me; everybody looks after me so well. I can’t wish for anything more.”


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