Densho Digital Archive
Oregon Nikkei Endowment Collection
Title: Homer Yasui Interview II
Narrator: Homer Yasui
Interviewer: Margaret Barton Ross
Location: Portland, Oregon
Date: October 10, 2003
Densho ID: denshovh-yhomer-02-0006

<Begin Segment 6>

HY: Well, Margaret, you were asking about what influence the Issei women had on carrying on the tradition and the culture of the Japanese. Well, they had a lot to do with it. It wasn't flamboyant as say the tenshosetsu and some of the other parties, but they were sensitive to things like Boys' Day and Girls' Day which was pretty important to them. And the other one for the Buddhist family particularly was Obon. Obon is, are you familiar with Obon? Okay. Well, Obon is kind of a, I suppose you could say fairly that it's a celebration of dead. In other words, this is when the Japanese, well, Buddhists, welcome the return, spiritually at least, of their deceased, their ancestors. They're welcomed back to the land of the living, here. And for this occasion, they'd have dances and eating and flower arranging and things like that. It's a festive occasion. It's a real very nice tradition when you stop to think of it. They're welcoming these spirits of their ancestors back to the land, see how your descendants have done. They've done pretty good. We're getting along fine. We're healthy and we're working and all that. So then they have the dancing to celebrate the return of the people. They do tanko bushi and all that sort of stuff, and they eat well. And so the Buddhists did that usually in the bigger cities. In Hood River, not so much, but they did it individually in their own homes. They welcome, they put little servings of food, little bits of incense in their house. They call that a, household shrine called a butsudan. So in the bigger cities though, they'd have even more than that. In some of the big cities, they even had ceremonies after three days saying farewell to the ancestors, sending them back to the never-never land where they come from. And in Japan, they have a beautiful ceremony called Naga something. Anyway, what they do is they have floating candles on little boards, and they float it down the river, and you see these thousands of lit candles floating out to sea, and this is symbolic of the spirits of their ancestors returning to heaven. It's a beautiful thing. It's a beautiful thing. So we didn't have that in Hood River because there weren't that many Buddhists. But such things as New Year's celebration was very, very important. That was probably the most important one for the Hood River people.

New Years, I don't know why it had such importance in the Japanese psyche and spirit, but it does, even to this day. So it was supposedly a day when you renewed everything. You paid your old debts, and you cleaned your house, and you look forward to a new year for prosperity and good health and good wishes. So symbolically, it was highly important. While not everybody did it, you know. I don't remember us spending a week cleaning the house. I don't think we spend a day cleaning the house. [Laughs] Well anyway, I remember my mother spending a lot of time preparing foods, and these were special foods that most of the time you don't get. And you know, even Nisei women like my wife, she still prepares these things because she's brought up as a Nisei too, and she knows what this is like and how much it meant to our parents, you know. So I mean, things that you never get like black beans, you never get black beans. But all of these foods, most of them anyway, have a symbolic meaning. For example, black beans is called mame, and somehow mame is associated with money. I don't know if it means money or not. Someone like Tim could tell you, I don't know. But anyway, they served things like that, and they'll have things like iseebi which is a spiny lobster. And the reason why they serve spiny lobster is because the lobster has a bent back, you know the shell, the tail, bent. This is a wish that you can grow old enough to have a bent back like a spiny lobster. And so a lot of these foods have great, great meaning. And one of the primary things the Japanese will always have at Oshogatsu, New Years, is what they call mochi. Mochi or pounded rice cakes, and you've been to these mochitsuki, and this tradition goes back for centuries, maybe millennia as far as I know. And in Hood River even, they used to have a rice pounding, but not as a community thing. Usually, it was just a couple families, two or three families. They'd get together and pound the rice cakes. But now, it's become a good thing and a big thing, and it's a good thing because it allows the Yonsei, the fourth generation, the fifth generation, Gosei, and Rokusei, sixth generation, to see what it was like when their forebearers came to this country, in the turn of the century, 1900, over a century ago, and how it was like and how things have evolved, and yet some of these traditions have remained the same. You know after all, this country, we still celebrate Thanksgiving, and that was started 300, more than 300 years ago. And we try to think, well, the pilgrims were, got corn from the Iroquois or from Squanto or whoever it was, and they got the turkey. And so we still celebrate it, and we kind of think back to those days. So there's no different. The Japanese do this for New Year's. That's very important.

But Boy's Day was kind of important because boys in those days were considered more important than girls, so they'd have Boy's Days. And Boy's Days we're supposed to grow up with manly virtues, be bold and be strong and be brave and be smart and be everything, you know. So they'd have things like, have you ever heard of koi nobori? Okay. Koi nobori is, you've seen these, have you ever seen these cloth or paper carp streamers flying? That's koi nobori. And usually what they did in Japan, we didn't do so much here, is you flew one for each one of your boys on I think it's in March, sometime in March. They fly these carp streamers. And the symbolism is that in Japan, a carp is considered a very strong fish, and it will swim up the most fierce rapids and falls desperately to get to where they have to go to spawn. So they'll overcome all odds to go upstream, so that symbolically want their boys to do that too. Another symbol for Japanese boys is they would have these very ornate samurai helmets. It's called a kabuto, and because they're pretty expensive, not all families could afford them. But if they could, then they, sometimes, they'd make them out of paper, fake helmets, but that was important. And then probably more important from the Issei women's point of view was hinamatsuri which is Girls' Day. And the reason why it was probably more important to them is because most Issei women had one or two or three or four Japanese dolls. Hinamatsuri is usually celebrated in Japan by a collection of the imperial family doll. You know, big collections will have, oh, I don't know, twenty, thirty dolls dressed in this brocade and fancy clothes and lamps and all that sort of thing. But even so, people like my mother would come with maybe two or three because she got this as a girl herself. Usually, the parents gave a doll or two to their daughters for every hinamatsuri. So over the years, they would amass of collection of these dolls. So they, most Issei women had some dolls, not all of them maybe, but some. And so they'd come, bring them over. And of course, they, when they became mothers, they'd want their own daughters to have, know a little bit about this, so they'd teach their daughters about hinamatsuri. So all Nisei women know a little bit about hinamatsuri, far more than I would know about it. So that was another important celebration.

Now, it wasn't really a celebration but a very, very important event, an affair, that took place, and this is I think as far as I know, universal in the United States, maybe Hawaii too, was undoukai. Undokai was a combination picnic and a field day, and there, the people gathered usually, it was usually an all-day affair, and some of these were very elaborate. For example, in my wife's family in Los Angeles, they'd spend weeks getting ready for this. They'd, scope out the place, and they usually do year after year, so it was easy. But they'd practice for program dances and music and singing and oratory and all that, and they spend weeks getting ready for this. In Hood River, since we were not a big community, we'd spend maybe a week or so, but the elders would get ready. They'd hire or rent a place or find this place and lay out the land, cut the grass and so on. In Hood River, the undoukai, this big field day/picnic combination, was held usually in the Mosher Ranch that the Yasui family owned, and oh, two or three, four hundred people of the valley would gather. This was not at any special day. Usually, it was in the summertime when the kids were off from school and when the harvest was over, when the cherry season was over, which is in July usually. So after that, they had undoukai, and we'd spend the day eating and gossiping and singing. And always, there were organized races, sack races, potatoes, and three-legged races and swimming and so on, and that was a big thing. They held them all over, any Nisei will tell you, yes, they had undoukai. That was a big thing too.

<End Segment 6> - Copyright © 2003 Oregon Nikkei Endowment and Densho. All Rights Reserved.