Shared Stories: Celebrating the Departed

Kay Okino spent her childhood on the idyllic island of Hawai’i in the 1920’s and 30’s. Her cultural influences were a melding of Japanese traditions and what she learned in the Hawaiian schools.  Her description of the Japanese tradition of celebrating the dead brings to mind some elements of Dia de los Muertos in the southwest. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center.  Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns

By Kay Okino

In Hawaii where I lived as a child, Halloween was not much fun – no one came to our house because we lived in the country. Our home was isolated from others. However, as children, we imitated everything we learned at school.

At home we made jack ‘o lanterns out of papaya. The fruit came closest to pumpkin and it was free. We carved faces and put lighted candles in them and placed them on the porch, hoping someone would notice. No one came, but I enjoyed reading about the shenanigans that happened elsewhere, especially in the United States.

The Japanese celebrate something similar to Halloween. It is also a celebration for the dead, but it is not as ghoulish as our Halloween here. It is called “obon” – it honors the dead. It is a time of merriment and has an atmosphere of carnival with lots of food and music.

The main feature is folk dancing. The dancers make a large circle around an elevated platform and dance to the beat of a drum. The folk dancing depicts planting and harvesting of rice and crops. It is easy to follow so anyone can join in the dance, even little children.

The cemeteries are decorated with fresh flowers and food. In the olden days, they were decorated with beautiful, colored paper lanterns and were very festive, but I do not see them anymore.

Once when we were children, returning from Sunday school close to lunch time and very hungry, we saw a lady placing delicious looking pastries on a grave. As soon as she left, our hunger got the best of us, and we went and stole the goodies and ate them. 

We were sure we would be punished by the dead, but nothing happened. This was a very shameful act. We told no one, and never did it again. This is my first confession.

Now that I write about this, I am not sure if I wasn’t punished. It is said that for everything we do, bad or good, it is recorded somewhere up high in the sky. 

A few years ago here in Norwalk, I was accosted by two human ghouls. One Halloween afternoon, a beautiful lady knocked on the door and pushed her way into my house, followed by her man accomplice. It was a home invasion. I was sure I was going to be killed, but by the grace of God, I was not hurt.

In contrast, I was also visited by an angel. When someone at the Norwalk Senior Center heard about my ordeal, he came to my home and put up an iron screen door. No one can push himself in now. Besides, I have a little puppy that barks like crazy at anyone approaching the house. She is my protector and my love.