LASTING COMMITMENTS: A gift from God — Kamisama kara no okurimono

Best wishes for 2023! Amidst the grief and suffering that so many of us are going through, with family members and friends passing on, lots of sickness, a growing sense of divisiveness and hate amongst people, I think we all search for hope as the new year begins.

Sensei Kawahatsu wrote an intriguing article this year that I’d like to bring forward, explore, and reflect on. For my first 16 years of life I did not know any Nihongo. Since I grew up in a Christian church and my Dad is a Yonsei, I did not grow up with a grounding in Japanese language and thought. I’ve been thinking about the roots of the kanji that Sensei Kawahatsu shares because the origin of the kanji seem to reflect some of the root values and beliefs that I have seen in both Christian and Japanese people.

Here is a partial summary of Sensei Kawahatsu’s article posted on his YouTube at https://youtu.be/eiNnmX6EN7o and sent by e-mail on July 14, 2022:

神様 (Kami-sama) means “God.” The left side of the first character represents the altar and the right side represents lightning. The left side of the second character represents a tree. The right side, top line indicates a sheep and the lines below represent a long river. 贈 (Okuru) means “a gift.” The left side represents shells or treasure and the right side represents steam or something increasing. 物 (Mono) means “things or items.” The left side represents a cow and the right side represents something to purify. Together we purify the cow and offer it to Kami/God.

The kanji for Kami-sama is amazing. The imagery of an altar and lightning reminds me of the Biblical story in 1 Kings 18:20-40 when God burned the bull that was sacrificed on the altar when the prophet Elijah called on God to do this act of power, but the prophets of Baal were unable to produce a result. The sheep, tree and river remind me of my Dad’s favorite Bible verse that his grandma (a Nisei who was born in San Francisco) taught him in Psalm 23 about God being a shepherd. He recites this passage to himself when he has insomnia. The passage starts, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake…” (Ps 123: 1, 2, King James version) biblegateway.com.

The kanji for okurimono, with shells and steam, is so insightful. When there is treasure and you share it, the reciprocity creates an expansive type of power. Gift giving and generosity creates a cascading type of positive effect. I have observed that many Nisei parents engaged in self-sacrificial love and indulged their kids with every good thing to try to help us thrive. I know that’s true for me. My Mom in particular has spent every ounce of her energy giving to our family. I grew up with a desire to be a giving person because I was the recipient of so much love and care. I remember my Baachan talking to me about my Mom and I think she may have said, “Kamisama kara no okurimono.” That would make a lot of sense because it is true! Can “treasure” also be hope, peace, joy and love? I’m thinking about these beautiful ideas because I write this column during the advent season. I’d like to strive to have an abundance of these ethereal gifts because there needs to be enough to give out and still have some remaining to sustain us!

My good friend, Karen Fujioka Nielsen, who has studied the Bible and lived in light of God’s promises of hope and love, offers a comment. This past year her Mom died and she’s gone through a brutal bout of chemotherapy and treatment for congestive heart disease. She says, “God is the giving source and He always gives in abundance, never just enough but always running over. The more we give without the thought of withholding, it seems that God gives more back to us. He does have an abundance of hope and love.”

The kanji for mono seems strange from our current vantage point. Cows? Purification? Does it mean cleaning and bathing a cow, or does it mean slaughtering a cow, or does it mean sacrificing a cow? Whatever it meant, cows are hard to deal with and “mono” was not easy to obtain when the kanji was created. If it refers to purification and sacrifice, it reminds me of the book of Leviticus in the Bible with its lists of atonement sacrifices and Jesus being the sacrificial lamb for the sins of the world.

I think love and sacrifice are tied hand in hand. My Mom says, “To be a [good] mother, you can’t be too into yourself.” She is 85 years old and she is still living up to her principles. She absolutely refuses to eat the tastiest things during a meal unless she is absolutely sure that everybody has had as much as they can eat. She always does the dishes and never makes anyone clean up after her. She never leaves her grocery cart just shoved willy-nilly in the parking cart. She always parks it with the other carts.

It’s these types of stories and examples from our Issei and Nisei (and Sansei and Yonsei) friends and ancestors that makes me proud to help the Nichi Bei Foundation start a “Legacy Society.” www.nichibei.org/legacy-society.

Two other examples of concerted group efforts to keep stories alive and spread community connectedness are a new nonprofit that I’m involved in called Hanami Hope, hanamihope.org, and a nonprofit that Sensei Kawahatsu is part of called We are One, weareonesf.org. I would like to see hope, peace, joy and love abide in our community so that we have enough to pass around. Let us ponder together the meaning of “Kami-sama kara no okurimono.” Thank you for your wise reflection, Sensei Kawahatsu.

Laurie Shigekuni, owner of the law firm of Laurie Shigekuni & Associates, is working with office colleagues and friends to start a nonprofit organization called Hanami Hope. The new organization’s projects include education to counter anti-Asian hate through storytelling. Learn more at https://hanamihope.org. Laurie Shigekuni has practiced estate planning, probate and trust administration law since 1996. She graduated from U.C. Santa Cruz in 1983 and U.C. Hastings College of the Law in 1989. Laurie Shigekuni & Associates is based in San Francisco with satellite offices in San Mateo and in Pasadena. For details see www.calestateplanning.com.

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