Yoshiko Ikuta, 1928-2019
Friend, Sister, Activist
I met Yoshiko in a WILPF (Women's International League for Peace and Freedom) meeting. We were both serving on the Board. Through some difficult moments Yoshiko was committed to speaking truth to the situation, her insights were clear and honest. She was trained in psychology and knew how to use that training. We worked together as co-chairs of the anti-war/disarm committee, through the many wars the US is and has been involved in.
In 2005 Yoshiko and I travelled to Bolivia for the International WILPF meeting and again we collaborated on what positions we might take during the meetings with women from many countries.
All this is to add to the fact that we were just good friends, enjoyed laughing, gossiping, conspiring, and eating. When I came to Cleveland we always met and had a meal.
So I appreciated Yoshiko's spirit, her fearlessness, and her clear understanding of her own history as a Japanese born American. She quietly and with strong spirit went about the business of trying to bring some justice to her community and our country.
Marge Van Cleef, Philadelphia, PA
There are a lot of things that everyone knows about my mom. That she was born in Japan, and came to get her Master’s degree in social work at Case Western Reserve University. That she was a social worker, a family therapist, and most of all, an activist for peace and justice. That Women Speak Out was not just an organization for which she worked tirelessly; it was her sisterhood, her extended family of shared values and commitment. That it’s hard to imagine a Hiroshima/Nagasaki event, a Peace Show, a holiday bazaar, or a Saturday protest at the West Side Market, or really, any major protest in this town without her. That she loved music and the arts, and became an accomplished painter late in life. That she had a sunny, upbeat attitude and a wide circle of friends and admirers.
You may also know that she went to Doshisha University, had a cousin, Naozumi Yamamoto, who was a well-known music conductor with a syndicated TV show in Japan; and that she had been a classmate of Takako Doi, the Socialist Party leader of Japan; that she had a brother named Akiyoshi; and she was born in Kobe -- at least that’s what her passport says.
So it was with a little perplexity that in her last week of life, I re-read, in her memoirs, that she was born in Osaka. When I asked whether she was really from Kobe or Osaka, she gave a furtive, sideways glance, laughed uncomfortably, and just said, vaguely, that it was kind of between both cities. Kobe, being a port city, was a much more cosmopolitan, interesting place, while Osaka was better known for hustling for money. Her memoirs a clear -- she was born in Osaka and moved to Kobe in the mid-1930’s. Note: if there are things about your life want to keep vague, don’t document them in your memoirs.
I guess all of us are more complicated than we let on, or perhaps even realize, and my mom was no exception. She loved to spout off about socialism and criticize the disparities between the rich and the poor, while living on Lakewood’s gold coast, enjoying a panaoramic view of Cleveland’s skyline over Lake Erie, indulging her taste for high-class restaurants, the Cleveland Orchestra, and traveling the world. My father’s family had been farmers and house servants, and I grew up in Brook Park, where all the kids’ dads worked at the Ford or Chevy plants or drove trucks. I miss her terribly but I often cringed at our Bible Studies when she would say, “Oh, that reminds me, when I was in Jerusalem…” or “when I was in Corinth” … or “when I was in Ephesus...”
She (and I) come by our contradictions honestly. Both sides of her family had strong connections to the imperial family. Her father grew up in a house by the pond on the imperial grounds and played with the Emperor’s cousin in Kyoto, her great-grandfather was a scholar, and her aunt worked for the Empress in Tokyo. Her mother played the organ at their Congregational church, her grandmother was part of the Kumamoto Band of early Congregational converts who founded Doshisha University. One grandfather served the family of Emperor Komei, put Japanese poems to Western tunes, and hosted painting parties in a nearby garden with a nude model, and the other was a Shinto priest, a Buddhist priest, and maintenance engineer for the imperial family. Despite their clearly privileged background, her mother’s family was sympathetic to progressive ideas. When her maternal grandmother, Suye, had a stroke, their family moved back home to take care of her:
Many students and friends stopped by sometimes to practice their ... music but often just to socialize… The conversation was sprinkled with social justice philosophy based on liberal ideas like democracy and socialism. It was current politics one day and happenings in the art world the next. Democracy was their ideal. (pp 26-27)
World War II changed everything. As nationalist ferver became rampant,
English-sounding names of household items were replaced with Japanese words. ...Rain-shoes had to be called amegutsu and erebeta (elevator) became shou kouki (a machine that goes up and down). (p 49)
Christianity was considered a foreign religion and anyone who worshipped the Christian God was a potential spy… Uncle Naotada could no longer teach European music because it was considered unpatriotic. He eventually lost his position. (p 51)
Officially, Western music was “out.” Unofficially, her mother played Bach and Beethoven at home as an act of cultural resistance.
Bombs fell, houses burned, and food was scarce. They survuved by picking bamboo shoots and storing sweet potatoes in caves. In high school, she was drafted to work in a military factory, cutting and riveting sheet aluminum.
Most of the major cities were bombed and devasted. Half of [my grandparents’] house was burned when a bomb was dropped. Grandmother Suye never regained her abililty to walk [after] ...her stroke. When the bombs were dropping, she put a large cooking pot on her head ad scooted out of the house to the bomb shelter dragging her lame right leg. Instead of money or paperwork from the bank, Grandfather Junjiro took his violin into the shelter… [it] had a very high value similar to a Stradivarius. (p 65)
In the large cities, children were sent to factories far away from their families and lived in the factory dormitories. Many died as the US bombers targeted the factory grounds. (p 66)
When the news broke of Japan’s surrender, she reflected:
I left the house, went up to the top of the hill, and sat under a tall pine tree...As I looked down the valley, I felt my anger. ... I AM NOT GOING TO LET ANYONE FOOL ME EVER AGAIN… NEVER...NEVER...NEVER AGAIN! I screamed at the mountain beyond the valley. My voice echoed off the mountain.
After the war, her family moved to Otsu. Their imperial connections no longer provided status or protection, and her relatives from Tokyo and Taiwan fled to the family house there.
You know, in broad strokes, the rest of the story, but our life connections intersected across time and space. She went to Doshisha University in Kyoto, where she was greatly influenced by a Bible Study led by Ruth Seabury, who had hosted countless Congregational and UCC visitors and was still widely remembered when James and I biked across the country in 1982. Bob and Mary Wood were Congregational missionaries there; Mary was a graduate of Case and encouraged my mom to come here to study. (She really wanted to go to Oberlin, but she already had a bachelor’s degree, so Oberlin was not an option. When she told Mary that she had never heard of Cleveland, Mary reassured her by telling her that it was only 30 miles from Oberlin.)
I knew that my mom had gone to college, but it didn’t hit me, until reading her memoirs again, that if you count her great-grandfather, the “scholar,” she was the equivalent of a fourth-generation college grad. It never occurrd to me that I might not go to college. When I was in high school, my mom pulled me aside and said, “Aim high. Don’t worry about the price.” It’s not that we had the money in the bank -- in that era, she was going to Giant Tiger three times to look at the same rug before deciding to go put it on layaway. But her combination of optmism, faith, and privilege gave her the confidence to tell me that. She brainwashed me to go to Oberlin, but it was too close to home, so I went to Carleton College in Minnesota instead. where Bob Wood, her friend and teacher at Doshisha, had gotten a job as an instructor. Another Doshisha student from her era, Masao Takenaka, later became a professor at Doshisha, and was a visiting professor at Harvard Divinity School while I was there. During my time in Boston, she came to hear her cousin, Naozumi, serve as guest conductor of the Boston Pops at the invitation of his friend, Seiji Ozawa, then conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Despite these connections, it was hard to keep up with the her family overseas. She took me, and I took my husband and children to meet the family as we were able. When Hannah was a baby, my mom got a two-year stint as supervisor at the Aoibashi Family Clinic in Kyoto, where she had done her field work as a social work student. That period enabled her to reconnect with her family, visiting them most weekends, except when she had a speaking gig. She may have done some public speaking before then, but she emerged as a public figure when she got back.
By the time I got a job with a real salary and a travel requirements, my grandmother was 90. After the first year, I had enough miles to take Hannah to Japan. I asked my mom if we should go immediately, or wait until I could collect enough miles to take the whole family. “No, Obasan is genki,” she assured me. Her mother was fine. She still had four briefcases going -- one for art, one for music, one for poetry, and one for calligraphy. She would stop in the house, throw down one briefcase, pick up another, and go out again. When my mom’s brother would ask her where she was going, she pretended not to hear. (“It’s a lot more convenient that way,” she confided to my mother.) She also admitted that she was starting to get a little tired, and took the bus sometimes when few years earlier, she would’ve walked. A few months later, my mom got the call. At age 91, my grandmother had gone out to the garden to pick some flowers for a watercolor painting, and they found her slumped in a chair with the flowers in front of her on a table. It was a great way for her to go out, but I was heartbroken not to have taken Hannah there before she died. Ironically, Hannah came to follow my grandmother’s tradition of art and music.
I’ve already mentioned my mom’s work as a social worker and activist.
My father was diagnosed with a serious lung disease in 1967. By the mid-1970s, he was starting to struggle for breath. I was still in high school, and she was in her forties, when she started telling me that the quality of life mattered more to her than its quantity. She told me she wanted “God of Grace and God of Glory” sung at her funeral and that her favorite flowers were cyclamen, sweet pea, and cosmos.
Our family had traveled around the US and to Canada, Mexico, Japan, and Hawai`i. But my father’s death at age 60, leaving my mom a widow at 48, allowed more than the flourishing of her relationship with John Hughes. It also opened the door to her international travels, beginning with her beloved France. I can’t fully document all of her other international trips but besides the Holy Lands, which I’ve already mentioned, she also went to Cuba five times, Ireland, Amsterdam, Russia, Turkey, Italy, Greece, China, Guam, Costa Rica, Brazil, and Puerto Rico, especially Vieques. Whew!
My mom and John Hughes were together some twenty years -- long enough that a lot of people thought that he was my father. After he died, she met John Deering. Throughout their more than a decade together, besides treating her like a queen, he supported her work with Women Speak Out and helped her edit her book, along with being a writer in his own right. In 2014, just before Christmas, he gave me his car, entered hospice, and died a few days later. We went on a family vacation to Hawai`i, and held a memorial service for him a few weeks after we got back.
Nine months after his passing, she called me up one Sunday morning at 10:00 to let me know that she had had some breathing troubles, called 911, and checked herself into Lakewood hospital. Ten o’clock on a Sunday morning is not the very most convenient time for a preacher to learn that her mother is in the hospital, so I went to visit her after church. She was sitting up in a chair, knees drawn up like a college student, perkily wearing hospital pants (who gets to wear hospital pants?!), plowing through her stack of magazines. When I walked in, she said, quietly, “I think I have a broken heart.”
They transferred her to Fairview and gave her a stress test. She was never quite the same after that. For the first time in my life, she showed uncertainty, and maybe even fear. They put in two stents and told her that she should be back to normal in two weeks. She came to stay with us at our house, I thought temporarily, and never left.
At our house, I began to realize the different ways in which John had helped her keep things straight, and how much stress his passing had caused her. (It occurs to me that this very liberated woman, like me, rarely lived without a man at her side.) Her “senior moments” became more frequent, and I began to worry more about her navigating and driving. She also clashed a lot with my aunts, her sisters-in-law.
The last few years were sort of a blur, trying to manage the needs of three smart, intelligent, independent, stubborn, and increasingly forgetful women from very different life and class backgrounds. I watched my mom struggle as she confronted her mortality. Despite the conversation we had nearly fifty years ago about the quality of life, she had begun to slip into the very thing she dreaded most -- a protracted decline -- while we all helplessly watched it unfold.
She continued to be active at church, and with her watercolor classes at the Beck Center and Painter’s Studio, where she mostly rose to the occasion. But at home, things were rocky. Every clash with my aunts triggered my own class traumas all over again. I tried to remember that her anger was from her illness, not her essence, tried to remember what an amazing person she was and that unconditional love was the solution. I don’t believe in heaven and hell as literal places of reward and punishment, but I longed for her to make a little heaven by finding a little more compassion for my aunt.
My mom had been so chronically upbeat, and I had been so chronically well-behaved, we never felt much need for unconditional love. Last summer, at a conference in New York, a young man from Japan confirmed: we are great at achievement and work ethic, but we positively suck at unconditional love.
In the fall, my mom was adamant about buying and planting flower bulbs. I thought it meant that she felt well enough to think she would live to see them in the spring. James countered that maybe she wanted to make sure that something would live beyond her.
God is good, and grace abounds. In the spring, the flowers came up. And for some reason, throughout March and April, I said “yes” to every spring event invitation that came our way. In May, her social schedule was jam-packed with seven events, including two donor recognition events at the Beck Center, fundraisers for the Broadway Music School and the Interreligious Task Force on Central America, a party for Cleveland Art museum members, a Ramadan Iftar dinner, and a performance of American in Paris by the Cleveland Orchestra, culminating in a respite week at Kendal in her dream destination -- Oberlin. Ironically, they asked about her DNR preferences, and she told them she would want to just be left in peace if anything happened. But then, she chose the middle option (give medical treatment but except for chest compressions).
I picked her up from Kendal and took her directly to the church, where she did some volunteer work, and then, while I went to bring the car around, she collapsed with a hemorrhagic stroke. I called 911, but she was glassy-eyed and out cold for 10 minutes. In the ER, she kept tearing out cables and tubes, and insisting on going home (or “upstairs”). They did a CT scan and found bleeding in her brain. We finally got her to stay overnight for evaluation, and she struggled against the cables and tubes all night. Given the way her mother died, I am convinced that my mom felt it was her birthright to go out quickly, instead of lingering. It’s almost as if when she had her stroke, she felt that she finally got her “get out of jail” card. In the morning, I changed her code status, and her spirit perked up. Fr. Bob stopped in with his “Last Rights” kit and said a prayer, talking about forgiveness, and her kindness and gentleness, while I tried to remember the person he was describing. Her spirit began to soar. I made arrangements for hospice and brought her home.
The two and a half weeks at home following her stroke were perhaps the happiest of her life. She received a stream of visitors, well-wishers, gifts, and flowers, and I was able to give her the undivided attention she had craved. I stayed with her 24/7, stroking her face, giving her o-shibori (hot towels), and sleeping with her. It was exactly the medicine we both needed to rediscover each other. That little bit of heaven got created in our house, not by her loving my aunt unconditionally, but by me loving her unconditionally.
She constantly reassured me that she was “OK,” and basically just beamed a lot. Although speech had become difficult, she managed to communicate through smiles and gestures up until the last few hours. Her last communication was to rasp, "I'm OK" while making an upward spiral with her right finger. Two hours later, the hospice aide came to attend to her, and after we helped her sit up, I kissed her, and she stopped breathing. Sad as I am to be without her, I don't think it gets any better!
More than forty years ago, my mom made sure that I knew that her favorite flowers were cyclamen, cosmos, and sweet pea. I memorized that list, but didn’t realize what it would take to actually get those flowers for her memorial service. I finally found a florist who could get the cyclamen and cosmos, but I had to commit to a dozen cyclamen, and the wholesaler said that the sweet peas were looking kind of rough. There are reasons that most funerals use roses, mums, and gladioluses.
Then, a couple evenings ago, in the Metroparks, we found a field full of sweet peas. They just kept going on forever. It seemed like a direct order from my mom to pick them then and there. Of course, a law-abiding couple like us would not want to risk a 3rd degree misdemeanor by picking flowers in the Metroparks, but we did find a lot of them growing by the roadside nearby at an undisclosed location.
One of the many things I neglected to ask my mom was why she liked cyclamen, cosmos, and sweet pea. According to google, Cyclamen symbolizes love and sincere tenderness, Cosmos symbolizes peacefulness, wholeness, and modesty, and Sweet pea symbolizes delicate pleasure, blissful pleasure, departure, goodbye, thank you for the lovely time and adieu.
So Mom, we got the flowers for you! Thanks for the love and tenderness, thanks for the peacefulness and wholeness, and thanks for the lovely time with you! I love you! And Adieu!