The Rev. Mitsuo Aoki helped countless people, particularly cancer patients and their families, with his compassionate outlook on dying.
"He was sought out a lot for his wisdom," said the Rev. Clarence Liu, chaplain of Hospice Hawaii. "He lived his dying in the very same way that he shared about it and talked about it. There was great integrity and great truthfulness in the way he lived his life."
Aoki, a theologian, minister and college professor who founded the religion department of the University of Hawaii at Manoa and served as an influential figure in the establishment of Hospice Hawaii, died Thursday at his Pohai Nani home in Kaneohe. He was 95.
Born in the plantation town of Hawi on Hawaii island, Aoki, known as "Mits," attended the Chicago Theological Seminary and Union Theological Seminary.
According to longtime friend Rick Bernstein, who knew Aoki for 40 years, he was raised in the Jodo-shu Buddhist tradition and converted to Christianity in the 1930s. He was a recipient of Honpa Hongwanji Mission’s Living Treasure award and the Jefferson Award for outstanding community service.
His selfless compassion touched many. "I think people connected to the truth of his humanity," said Liu.
Friends said his classes were always full. When he taught world religion at the University of Hawaii, officials had to move it to the Varsity Theatre to accommodate the large crowds. "He had a joyful, optimistic attitude that was infectious," Liu said.
Aoki helped many cancer patients to not fear death, but accept it and focus on the positive aspects in life. In a 2001 Honolulu Advertiser article on Aoki, Bernstein said, "He comes to you, at your home, in the hospital. He sits down with you and talks story with you and helps you work out a strategy for healing yourself either physically, emotionally or spiritually.
"He’ll see people for as long as it takes."
A 2003 documentary called "Living Your Dying" that focuses on Aoki’s work with cancer patients was featured in the Hawaii International Film Festival and Hawaii Public Television. In the documentary, Aoki shares his own near-death experience that later prompted him to focus on death and dying. "He always said that death was a mirror, and what you learned as you grew close to death was how to live. It was a mirror to teach us how to live our lives," said Liu.
While he spent more than four decades teaching others on his views on dying, friends recalled his great sense of humor. He was a "cosmic dancer," jumping on his desk during class with moves that were a cross between tai chi and the jig, said Liu. "I loved it. It was wonderful to see the joy of living."
Friends also described him as a gentleman who always remain rooted. "He was a real local boy. There was no pretenses with Mits. What you see is what you got," he said.
Aoki established a nonprofit organization called the Foundation for Holistic Healing and served as a spiritual adviser to the Young Presidents Organization.
He also was an influential figure in the establishment of Hospice Hawaii. "He was a beautiful person, a beautiful mind," said Stephen Kula, director of Legacy of Life in Hawaii and former president of Hospice Hawaii. "He had a supernatural spirit about himself. He was very centered, loved everybody."
Current Hospice Hawaii President Kenneth Zeri said, "When you talk about people who leave a mark in our island, in our lives, Mits is certainly one of those people."
"He’ll live in our hearts and our memories."
Aoki is survived by son Galen and daughters Sophie Ann Aoki and April Aoki. A 2 p.m. memorial service will be held Sept. 18 at the Church of the Crossroads.