••• The International Writers Magazine: Dreamscapes Life Stories
James C. Clar
The Moiliili Japanese cemetery is crammed into a wedge-shaped area bordered by King Street, Kapiolani Boulevard and the Palolo Drainage Canal. Since it’s opening in 1908, the land around the cemetery has sprouted high-rise condos, apartment complexes as well as a random collection of modest, post-war single family residences in wildly different states of repair.
Views from the pedestrian overpass that leads from Kuilei Street to the other side of Kapiolani are impressive and include the urban sprawl that is modern Honolulu to the west, the Manoa Valley to the north, as well as Diamond Head and the ocean to the east. Looking over one’s shoulder at the austere markers and sparse, Zen-like symmetry of the graveyard itself, anyone familiar with the neighborhood can’t help but be impressed by the results of a recent beautification and restoration program. That initiative, completed back in 2012, has helped to recapture at least some of the park’s former respectability.
Since the untimely death of my best friend two years ago, my wife and I have all but adopted his thirteen-year-old daughter. Maile, to her credit, and owing both to a sweet disposition as well as to a strong measure of filial piety, is a frequent visitor to her father’s grave. I’ve honored to be invited along on a number of these excursions and, in fact, our trips to the cemetery in Moiliili have, over time, become a “tradition.” They’ve also morphed into an excuse to stop for lunch or a shave ice in Kaimuki or somewhere along Kapahulu Avenue afterward.
Like many kids her age, Maile is infected with the “retro” virus. Her affliction includes clothes, of course, and extends to the wonder of vinyl records. Her interest in that area is one that was shared by her dad and, still, by me. As such, the slow and inexorable accumulation of used vinyl has become a genuine source of contact between the two of us. Her knowledge of jazz and progressive rock from the 60’s and 70’s has become nearly encyclopedic. I’m not as familiar with J-pop or with the music of her generation but, as I tell her, I don’t have as much RAM as she does. Besides, while my wife understands the bonding that is going on between Maile and me, she’s a little concerned about space. Domestic tranquility precludes me from adding too many more records to my collection.
Coincidentally, about the time that my friend Brandon’s ashes were deposited at Moillli, Hawaii’s oldest record store moved from the Windward side of the island to a location on King Street at University no more than the proverbial stone’s throw from the cemetery. Maile and I quickly began combining visits to her dad’s grave with trips to Hungry Ear Records. Anytime we found what we considered to be real gem – Ella in Berlin, for example, or King Crimson’s Red– we’d visit Brandon and tell him all about what we’d managed to pick up. Depending on her mood, Maile would sometimes go so far as to lift the albums out of the bag to show her father.
Most of the time, we are the only people in the cemetery; apart that is from a wizened old Japanese man in a straw hat who I assumed was the caretaker. He always has a rake in his hand or a large dried palm frond – ubiquitous in the islands – which he uses as a broom to meticulously sweep the gravel walkways clear of fallen leaves and debris.
On a recent afternoon, Maile and I found ourselves lingering in the cemetery enjoying what can only be described as some spectacular weather – even by the standards of Hawai’i Nei! Puffy white clouds dappled a sky so unvaryingly blue that it seemed to have been painted in place. The hot sun was mitigated by soft trade winds. The susurration of palm fronds overhead and the sweet smell of plumeria were intoxicating.
While I wandered around more or less aimlessly, Maile got it into her head to try and find her great grandfather’s marker. By the time I joined the quest in earnest, she was frustrated by the seemingly random organization of the graves.
“I’ve found the elder Higas,” she said, “but Toshio isn’t with the rest.” Maile was a Math and Science person all the way; precision and order in all things were essential. Conversely, and unlike most teenagers, disorder and imprecision were loathed in principle, not to mention being sources of extreme exasperation. Besides, by tradition, the ashes of the members of a Japanese family are buried together in the same plot.
I knew from some of Brandon’s stories that his grandfather had come from Okinawa in the early 1920’s to work on the sugar plantations. He had been interred for a time during World War II and died a few years after the camp at Honolulu Gulch closed in 1946. I don’t ever recall my friend talking about visiting the grave and, until Maile’s mention of her great grandfather’s name, was not even aware that Toshio Higa had been memorialized in Moiliili.
After a few more moments of wandering around together and getting absolutely nowhere, I hit upon a course of action.
“Hey, Mai,” I said, “Let’s ask the caretaker!” I had spotted the old man a few rows over from us putting his tools in one of those little garden totes on wheels.
Proud of my brainstorm, I made my way over to where he was standing.
“Excuse me sir, are you the caretaker here?”
My inquiry was met with the kind of deep silence that only the Japanese have truly mastered.
Undeterred, I continued. “I was wondering if you might be able to tell us where someone’s monument is located. We’re looking for Toshio Higa. I think he died sometime in late 40’s or early 50’s.”
The old man’s apparent lack of comprehension was met by my own confusion. Almost all Nisei – and even most Issei – in Hawaii today speak English. Regrettably, haole to the core, my Japanese is limited to a number of stock phrases used in greeting and parting … not to mention a few expressions of a more colorful nature!
As she came up beside me, Maile quickly sized up the situation and asked our question again, this time in Japanese.
“Hai” was the old man’s monosyllabic response. With that, he turned and began walking toward the far side of the cemetery grounds, the side abutting Kahoaloha Lane. Maile and I looked at one another and followed in silence.
We soon reached a black marble plinth inscribed with white Kanji symbols.
“This is it!” Maile spoke with reverence as she knelt to trace the letters with her elegant fingers.
I turned to the old man in order to thank him and, in the process, dazzle him with the pronunciation of one of the few Japanese phrases I had mastered, arigato gozaimasu, but he had gone. I looked around me. Once again, Maile and I were the only two people on the grounds. I scanned the paths and walkways. There was no sign of our guide.
I tapped Maile on her shoulder and she rose from her grandfather’s monument. I looked at her with an expression of bemusement. I thrust my hands out in front of me, palms up, and shrugged my shoulders.
“No way he could he move that fast” I declared with astonishment.
“Look!” Maile pointed towards the place where we first encountered the old man. “Even his cart-thing is gone.”
“Hey, Mai. Maybe he’s like a ninja or something?” My playful remark was stereotype-laden enough to earn a light punch on the shoulder! Maile was ferociously proud of her Japanese heritage.
Over the next few weeks I found myself bogged down at work. Consequently, I had to miss a couple of excursions with Maile. From speaking to her, I do know that she had gotten it into her head to do some kind of oral history project for one of her classes at school. Her topic had something to do with the Japanese experience in Hawaii during World War II. She told me that she had even interviewed the old man from the cemetery. His reminiscences, she said, were amazingly detailed. I was looking forward to getting together with her and to hearing all about it.
One evening after work, I was walking by Hungry Ear and decided to stop in. They were having one of their periodic sales. Many of their $5.00 records were reduced to a buck. I couldn’t wait to tell Maile. I was hoping that we might be able to swing by together on the weekend.
The store was crowded. I said ‘hello’ to Jim, one of the employees and an inveterate collector himself. As I flipped my way through the bins and boxes, I thought of something.
“Hey, Jim,” I asked. “Have you ever walked through the cemetery out back?”
“Sure,” he responded. “I sometimes sit over there and eat lunch.”
“Do you know the name of the old Japanese man who’s sometimes there? I think he might be the caretaker or something.”
Jim shook his head. “Can’t say that I do, brah. It’s usually just me and maybe a few people paying their respects or tending to the plots themselves … some kids getting stoned once in a while too.”
I looked behind me at the speaker. He was a middle-aged man with long hair tied back in a pony-tail. His Aloha shirt was so faded and worn that it would have been difficult to identify the original color or pattern. He was haole but, like many people in the islands, there was more than a touch of the melting pot in his features. It would have been hard to pin down his ethnicity.
“I live right around the corner,” he continued. “I was part of the group that raised the funds for the restoration project. We didn’t have enough money to hire a gardener or caretaker. We decided to take care of the grounds ourselves.”
He reached over and offered his hand. “I’m Shawn.”
“That’s weird” I said more to myself than to anyone else. “My friend’s monument is there and his daughter and I have been spending a lot of time on the grounds. We keep seeing an elderly Japanese man with grounds-keeping equipment. He wears a straw hat and usually has one of those ni au brooms in his hand. I don’t think he speaks much English. My niece tells me that she’s interviewed him for a project she’s doing at school!”
Shawn smiled and raised his eyebrows.
“No idea who that might be. Apart from me and a few other aging hippies, most of the neighborhood now is made up of students. Funny, though, the man you’re describing; sounds like old Mr. Kuroda. He was the custodian for something like forty or fifty years. He died back in 2008, maybe, 2009. I’m not sure when, exactly, but I do know it was before we completed the restoration. We used to say how we wished he had lived long enough to see how good the old place looked.”
Once outside, I took out my phone and called Maile. I told her about the record sale and she reminded me that she was going to be spending the weekend with us in any event. We’d combine a trip to Brandon’s grave with a shopping spree at Hungry Ear after all.
“You forgot about me spending the weekend, didn’t you?” she chided.
“No … I mean, I remembered, it’s just that I lost track of which weekend.” A thought niggled at the back of my mind the way those last few grains of wet sand stick between your toes when you put your shoes back on after a day at the beach.
“Listen, I want to ask you something. You know that old guy in the cemetery, the one you interviewed. What was his name?”
Maile didn’t hesitate. “Mr. Kuroda. Maybe he’ll be around this weekend. You can talk to him. I’ll translate. He’s the neatest guy. He lived through so much and, like, knows everything there is to know about everybody that’s buried over there.”
I’m sure he does, I thought as I ended the call. The buildings to the west were silhouetted against the yellow, gold and orange of the sun as it set. I opted to take the long way home and began walking up King Street. No way was I going through that cemetery alone and in the dark!
© Jim Clar June 2016
jcc55883 at aol.com
James C. Clar has published fiction and nonfiction in print as well as on the Internet. He and his wife divide their time between the wilds of upstate New York and the sunny shores of southeastern Oahu.
James C Clar
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