Rev. Yoshiaki Fujitani dedicated his life and career to serving the islands’ diverse communities.
As bishop of the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii for 12 years, he advocated for inclusivity — passionately working to expand services, while collaborating with a diverse group of religious leaders.
Fujitani died on May 17 at Kuakini Medical Center. He was 97.
Known by many as a visionary and trail blazer, Fujitani cofounded a handful of community nonprofits, including Project Dana, which offers support and care services to seniors; the Interfaith Alliance Hawaii, which represents a wide range of religions in seeking social justice and equality; and the Samaritan Counseling Center Hawaii, which provides faith-based counseling services regardless of religious affiliation.
“He was really accepting,” said longtime family friend Donna Higashi. “He made people feel special. He helped them realize that there’s not one way to do things.”
Born on Maui, Fujitani moved to Oahu and graduated from McKinley High School. As a sophomore at the University of Hawaii during the Pearl Harbor bombing, he joined fellow ROTC members in what would become the Varsity Victory Volunteers. Although his father, a Buddhist priest, was interned in New Mexico, Fujitani wanted to serve his country. Known as the Triple-V, the group was made up of UH students of Japanese ancestry who were initially classified by the government as “enemy aliens,” preventing them from serving in the military. They volunteered to build barracks, smash rocks and do other tasks until the U.S. Army formed all-Japanese units to serve during World War II — the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the Military Intelligence Service.
Fujitani served in the MIS and was sent to Tokyo to translate government and military documents. After returning home from the war, he enrolled at the University of Chicago through the GI Bill and then at Kyoto University to study religion and Buddhism. He was ordained a priest and was appointed as Honpa’s bishop in 1975.
While at Honpa, he created the Living Treasures program in 1976, which recognizes community leaders from all walks of life. Past honorees include musician and kumu hula Robert Cazimero, former UH President Fujio Matsuda and Hawaiian scholar Mary Kawena Pukui.
“He was a breath of fresh air,” said Alan Goto, an advisor on Honpa’s board who considered Fujitani a mentor. “He just had the personality that people loved him. He was quietly forceful and made his points.”
After retirement, Fujitani remained active in the community, serving as director of the Buddhist Study Center near UH Manoa. He also volunteered with Project Dana and was recognized as a Living Treasure honoree in 1994.
A beloved dad and jiichan (grandpa in Japanese), Fujitani loved spending time with his family. He met his wife, Tomi, in Chicago while attending MIS training school. Her family had been released from an Arkansas internment camp and moved to the Windy City.
Daughter Pat Holmes still loves to tell the story of how her parents met — it was not love at first sight. The pair went their separate ways after the war but reconnected when Fujitani attended the University of Chicago. They wed in 1949 and had three children and six grandchildren. They were married for 70 years before Tomi died last year.
Although work kept Fujitani busy, he always found time to go on outings with his kids and attend his grandchildren’s school plays and dance recitals. Holmes remembers as a teenager taking a family trip to Waianae during the summer. They stayed there for one week and went fishing, which her dad enjoyed.
Holmes also loved her dad’s witty, self-deprecating humor. One of his favorite jokes poked fun at his and other seniors’ hearing woes. When he was on the set of the filming of the local “Go For Broke” movie, he was asked to give a blessing and began it by making fun of his age.
He enjoyed golfing, bowling, playing tennis and photographing “just about everything,” from family events to Tomi’s ikebana. As he got older, one of his favorite pastimes was sitting on the lanai of his Manoa home feeding the birds, sometimes going through a 20-pound bag of birdseed in a week.
“There was so much that he did, and folks could see how much of an impact he had in their lives. There was that sense of awe,” Holmes said. “We’re really proud of him.”
Fujitani is survived by daughters Pat Holmes and Maya Togashi; son Stephen Fujitani; and grandchildren Gen, Keala and Kiyomi Fujitani, and Akemi, Satsu and Akira Holmes. Visitation will be open to the public at 2:30 p.m. Aug. 15 at Honpa Hongwanji. A private service will follow at 4 p.m. but will be livestreamed on Honpa’s website. It would’ve been Fujitani’s 98th birthday.
Jayna Omaye covers ethnic and cultural affairs and is a corps member with Report for America, a national service organization that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities.