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Interviews
Yasuko Oishi Comes to Visit

April 1994 interview by David Chadwick with Shunryu Suzuki's eldest daughter in Yaizu Japan. Translated by Kyoko Furuhashi and Shizuko Takatsuka

[ This edited version was created in July of 1997. It has an introduction which is unusual. At the time I was writing about my experience of interviewing Suzuki's family in Japan. I have only looked this over briefly before entering it onto cuke.com - and I noticed some mistakes.]


Hoitsu, Shunryu's eldest son and successor to his temple, had opened up a little in our first talk. I could still tell that there was something bothering him but at least he'd woken up to the fact that I was there for a purpose and that I needed his help. On his way back to the gallery he took me to a yochien, a kindergarten or preschool, one of two that his father had founded after the war. It was a homely building with no curves, just cinder block and windows with metal frames, two stories with a flat roof. We took off our shoes in the entryway and replaced them with green slippers which were much to small for me - I had to push them along with only half my toes fitting in - I'd become quite used to the ritual. "

We went upstairs into a large room with a piano and slightly raised stage. Folding metal chairs were stacked in the corner. The floor was of wood, clean and shiny. On the wall, hanging down with the tops tilted outward, were two framed black and white photographs. One was of Shunryu, in robes and looking moderately serious. The other was of another much more serious looking Soto Zen priest, the one who had founded the school way back before the war. Shunryu was actually the refounder - it had closed during the war. From there Hoitsu and I entered the courtyard playground area and took the surrounding covered cement walkway to the other side of the building to a room in which there were eight young female teachers in their twenties. They greeted us with deference and enthusiasm. Both of Hoitsu's daughters, Narumi and Kayoko, were there and they smiled at me. The kids had gone home and now the teachers were chatting, straightening, preparing for the day, and waiting to get married and pregnant so they can make room for fresh female junior college graduates to take their places. At Hoitsu's suggestion Narumi went upstairs and soon returned with Encho Sensei, the principal, his big sister, _ishi Yasuko. She was about five feet one, had sparkling eyes and grey hair. We figured that we'd met twenty-two years before in the States when she'd come to visit her father just before he died. Hoitsu told her what I was doing in Japan and she agreed to come by the temple in the evening.

Yasuko-san slid open the heavy wooden door, walked onto the cement floor in the wide open foyer. "Shitsurei itashimasu (I'm being rude)," she called out and then she stepped out of her low heeled shoes up to the wooden step and then onto the tatami of the entrance hall. Hoitsu's wife, Chitose San, acted so excited to see her. Her voice rose in pitch and the two ladies exchanged pleasantries. Yasuko's voice was more matter-of-fact in its character. Chitose put us right away in the formal guest area at the end of the wide tatami. She turned on the heat to the electric rug we sat on at a reddish wood table and she poured us our first cups of tea, leaving the pot and an electric thermos of hot water so we could serve ourselves after that.

Unlike Hoitsu, Yasuko was eager to talk to me. She sat alertly in seiza, refused a cookie I offered her from a plate Chitose had left, and spoke straight away without waiting for me to ask her a question.

[first she said something about village children playing in front of Rinsoin. But it's not translated so that I can understand it - maybe Kyoko heard their sounds on the tape.] Yasukoís Japanese was easy for me to understand. I only spoke with her this one time, but I was very pleased with the interview.

"I was born at Zounin, showa 10 (1935), on November 11th. I am a boar. Hoitsu is a rabbit and my father was a dragon. When I was born at Zounin, Shunryu-san (this is what everyone in Yaizu calls Suzuki-roshi) was at Rinsoin, a few hours travel away. He was the abbot of both temples then and spent more time here than he did with his family. My mother, my father's mother, and I were living at Zounin. When I was 4 Shunryu-san moved into zounin - he went there just after Hoitsu was born. Before that my father only came to visit sometimes. He was a tanshinfunin - the husband who lives away from home."

Yasuko straightened her dress on her lap and sat up straighter. She looked at me and smiled slightly. "My father was scary," she said slowly and with emphasis. "Because we weren't together much my father was almost like a stranger. And he didn't hold me much so I couldn't act like his daughter, I couldn't sit on his lap. When he would come to visit, he would read the newspaper I would tiptoe up to him and try to take the paper away saying it belonged to grandma. I wasn't used to him and thought he didn't belong there reading Grandma's newspaper. He was distant, but even when he occasionally said come here, I wouldn't go to him. I was that type of child."

"Shunryu-san's father, Grandpa, had died before my father married. Shunryu's mother died when I was about three before we moved to Rinsoin. He was at Rinsoin when his mother died. She had a cerebral hemorrhage. She fell down in the fields where she was collecting grass for her rabbits. At dark she hadn't come back home so my mother went to look for her and found her lying in the field and she never came to (if she was alive at that point). When she died I was in the temple by myself feeling lonely and heard an owl calling from the mountain behind the temple and got scared. I remember her well. I was grandma's favorite and she took good care of me. When her body was brought to the temple I called to her to try to wake her up but she didn't wake up. I was three then but I still remember it well now. Grandma knew okyu (a type of acupuncture). She'd give my mother treatments when she was sick. She didn't do it for the kids though. Her name was ... I forgot." [Whatís her name?]

"Someone was sent to get a message to Shunryu and he took the train to come be with his family and to offer incense and prayers for his mother. But he missed the station. He was asleep and went almost into Tokyo and had to get another train to come back. So he arrived very late and everyone was worried about him. His way of thinking was so different from other people. He must have always have been thinking about something else. People must have thought he was pretty strange. He was so absentminded. Even at the time of his mother's death, he missed his stop. Most people wouldn't do that I don't think - they wouldn't fall asleep on the train on the way to see their family in crisis. He was the sort of monk who is aloof or other-worldly. He wasn't really caught up by family life. He thought about people in general more than his family. He thought about the masses. He was a real religious person. I understand that now. When I was a child I didn't understand. When I was a child I wanted my father to consider his own family much more and to be fatherly. He wasn't so scary anymore after he went to America. Why was he more kind later? Maybe he wasn't really scary. Maybe it was just me - maybe it was because I was afraid that he looked scary."

"He decided to go study with Gyokujun Soon at Zounin when he was very young and the training was quite hard and so maybe he just seemed scary to us because of his training. Maybe his idea of how to treat children came from what he experienced at Zounin and maybe he wasn't really so fierce. He seemed to be hard on children but maybe he wasn't aware of it because his childhood was so hard. Even though I was scared of him, I did notice that he didn't give orders to others - he wasn't bossy. He let me do anything I wanted, he wasn't too fussy. He was just busy. "

"My mother though, was a nagging person, always telling us to do things. She was very attentive and took good care of my father when he was around and he was always forgetting things and that upset her and caused her trouble. Once my mother sat up all night sewing a hat for Shunryu-san and on the next day he lost it. He often lost umbrellas as well. And watches too - often - and money too."

"And sometimes he got angry. As for his temper, my most vivid memory is of the 15th of August when we listened to the words of the Showa emperor on the radio as everyone else did, the whole country did. At that time my father got very angry."

"Why?"

"I wonder why. He had a mixture of emotions."

"Why?"

"Towards the end of the war he had gone to Manchuria to build a temple - there was a town called Shizuoka village in Manchuria. It was named after Shizuoka, the capitol city of our prefecture, and he wanted to build a temple there. [Thatís interesting - Hoitsu also thought he wanted to found a temple there but Mitsu said he went to be a priest to troops or to lay people.] And just before the war's end he'd returned to Japan and everyone thought he might not make it back because of the terrible situation there. He just made the last ship. He knew that war was wrong because he was a religious person, but... I never thought about this before... How do I explain? His mind was divided between his realization of the wrong of the war and the need to follow what must be done."

"When I was six the Pacific War started. Showa 16 (1941) on the eighth of December was pearl harbor (the morning of the seventh in Hawaii). I remember my parents talking about it when the war started. It was Buddha's enlightenment day and we were offering azuki no okayu (aduki bean and sweet rice soup). On that day my father talked to us about the beginning of the war." [Do you remember his mood, emotions, opinion?]

"I learned at school that Japan was doing the right thing. I never doubted the rightness of our going to war. Gradually I realized it was wrong. So we have to compensate or make up for what we have done in the past. As the war developed and it became more obvious that Japan was loosing, as the food was getting more scarce, we made the temple grounds into a vegetable garden. A lot of soldiers came to the temple to live. And many children were evacuated from Tokyo. There were over sixty children living at Rinsoin. [boy thatís a lot - where did they live and what was it like and how were they taken care of?] First there were children and after that the children soldiers came to the temple." [Wasnít the order opposite?]

"So my mother was very busy looking after the children and the soldiers. She looked after other people very well - like Chitose does - they are good temple wives. When I was young there were lots of beggars and they came to Rinsoin and my mother gave them food but she also told them to work and take care of themselves. People were poorer then than now. My mother often gave things to the families who didn't have enough to feed their children - families were bigger then and people were having a hard time getting by. She was very kind to people in trouble or in need. There was a baby born at about the same time as Otohiro and that baby had many siblings and the mother couldn't breast feed her child but my mother had lots of milk to spare and so she nursed the other baby. I was about eight then. I went to their house to get the baby and carried it on my back [ombu] to the temple and then afterwards I'd return the baby. It was my job. Mother was very kind to people. I heard lots of people saying how wonderful my mother was. She was a hard worker. She was kind to others but she was strict with me - because I was the eldest. There were four of us. She had me do many things."

"One day I had to go on an errand to town and it was getting dark and I had to go on my own but mother had to stay and look after three children so I was sent. It got very dark. On the way home I walked up the mountain road in the dark back home to Rinsoin. There was no light in the temple and no one was there and I cried and was scared and lonely so I went down the road and I saw my mother walking up the road with my brothers and sister - they had gone to find me but she took a different road from the one I took so we missed each other. I remember that I was so scared. There were many more trees then. When I was a child the road would be completely dark at night. There were no lights and if it rained it would get completely dark. I was about eight then."

"My mother was a good storyteller - she told about Momotaro (the Peach Boy) and Shitakiri-suzume (forked-tongue sparrow) and she'd tell these stories when we went to bed at night - she was very affectionate. She would tell these stories while breast feeding the babies, my younger brother and sister. Because she worked so hard during the day she'd doze off while she was telling the stories. Her words would get garbled. So when that would happen I'd tell myself the story because I knew them so well. I was shy and not so good at talking in public to others but at school in Japanese class there was story-telling and I would volunteer to tell stories then. Whenever I told the stories I felt as if my mother were there with me. Thanks to her I could do that."

"Since my father was a priest he was considered to be above us. We others ate around the ozen, the family table, together while my father ate separate from us. He had his own ozen in the same room but separate from us. In every house men were considered higher than the women and children, but because we were a temple family the old customs were even stronger. So my mother served my father with a special respect. That's why we children thought our father was such an esteemed person. So I didn't think of my parents as a couple - it was more like my mother was a servant to my father. He scolded my mother a lot, and with a big voice. He got angry with her often. I wonder if my mother talked back to him? I hardly heard her talk back to him - I hardly ever saw my parents fighting with each other - just him scolding her. Maybe they didn't do that in front of us kids. Just a feeling. By looking at their faces I thought they might have fought at times."

"During the war all the bells had to be taken away to be melted down for the war effort - even the small bells were sent away. Women even gave their rings. Whatever was metal. And it was not just the bells from the temple, any metal was given from all the houses. I was a child but I remember it well. Everyone carried the bell together to a place where metal was collected. I didn't go with them. Maybe I was nine then - Showa 18 (1943). My father was against giving the bells away, I think, but he couldn't express that outwardly. It was for the nation, for the common good." [did he go with the people to give the bell away?]

"Why did your father go to Manchuria?"

"To establish a temple."

"Did the Shumucho (Soto Zen headquarters) send him?"

"I don't know. He went to start a branch temple of Rinsoin. It seems he'd already decided that his activity shouldn't be confined to Rinsoin. He always wanted to go overseas for missionary work. It was always his wish. Because there were lots of Japanese in Manchuria he thought there was a need to teach Buddhism. It was because of the same sort of intention that he went to the states."

Yasuko had a far off look. She was quiet for a moment. Her feeling of nostalgia was tangible. I watched her mind wander through the memories. She came up speaking of food. "We grew pumpkins and other vegetables on the temple grounds. We didn't have white rice to eat. We ate pumpkins every day and potatoes - it was a treat to eat even that well. We ate inago (locust) too. Because we were always hungry we went to the mountain to pick chestnuts and acorns. We ate anything edible. On some days we had three meals but on others we didn't."

"Did you feed others?"

"Students came from the University in Shizuoka. University was called kotogakko at that time which is what we call high school now. Students were living at Rinsoin and went to the university by train - and it was an hour walk to the train station. On Saturdays and Sundays, their friends would come to Rinsoin because they were all hungry and they knew they could get food here. Their excuse was to do zazen but they really came for the food. Lots of them. So my mother collected any food she could find for the students and gave it to them. She didn't even put aside food for us. The field where we grew vegetables is now the ohaka (ashes site)."

"Did you get food from others?"

"No one had any food so we couldn't get food from them. Mother just worked hard to get the food. The caretaker of Rinsoin (Jiyasan), helped mother grow vegetables."

"It is a very sad thing, and I'm sorry to ask you, but could you please tell about the death of your mother."

She nodded seriously and paused for a moment, looking down. "Because this is a temple it was open to anyone. There was a monk named Otsubo who came from very far and even we children were afraid of him. I remember my mother telling my father that she didn't like him, that he was creepy. But he wouldn't listen. Otsubo went away but he couldn't find a temple that would take him so he came back to Rinsoin and stayed. Maybe he stayed for one or two months. When my mother died, none of the children or my father were at Rinsoin. Her mother was here with her - just the two of them. I went to downtown Yaizu with my sister on an errand and then we came back to Rinsoin. I was 16 or 17 then, in the second year of high school. It was maybe during my spring vacation. So on my way back I heard from one of the villagers that something horrible had happened to my mother. So go home quickly she told me. I hurried home and saw my mother lying on the ground at the entrance. Her head was covered with blood and my grandmother was attending to her. My mother went to the hospital and never came back."

"I didn't hear this from my father personally but I think the reason he went to the states was not just to teach Buddhism abroad but because he felt some responsibility for my mother's sacrifice. I think he went there for my mother's sake because he didn't want her to have died in vain and also I think he wanted to revitalize himself, for his own mental support, for mind-food."

"My father spent very little time with the family after he went to America but it was his way to care for us by trying to be a good religious person in a foreign country so that my mother's death wouldn't be in vain. I think his religious activities were for us children as much as for the people in the States. We didn't understand at the time why he did that. We felt deserted. He left seven years after my mother died. I was twenty-three. He married Mitsu in December of 58 and went to America in May of 59. Mitsu joined him two years later." Yasuko paused and wiped her eyes. She had been gently crying as she spoke about her mother."

"What happened to the monk who killed your mother?"

"Otsubo was mentally ill. He probably didn't have a good childhood. He didn't get along with others. Perhaps he grew up unloved."

"What about your father on that day?"

"I don't remember well, I couldn't talk; I was confused." She sighed and wiped the corners of her eyes some more. "I was 17 and Hojo-san was 13 when my mother died. My little sister Oumi was 11. Otohiro was 7. Our grandmother was with us - she raised us from that point. My mother's younger brother died in Saipan during the war. Because of that our grandmother had come to Rinsoin to live with us after the war, so she was already there. Mother died in 1952, on the 27th of March - Chitose's birthday. Otohiro's wife Michiyo's birthday is also the day when my father died - December sixth. " [? He died on Dec. 4th (5th in Japan) - maybe sheís got Michiyoís birthday wrong.]

"Although I was terribly sad at the time of my mother's death, I felt I had to be strong because I was the eldest. So I didn't cry much - I had to look after my younger brothers. I cried a little when she died but since then I have never cried - till now. Now I can cry but I couldn't back then because it was too terrible. I think people cannot cry when they are really sad. When people are really sad all the emotions seem to die."

"My father didn't express his feelings afterwards but after that we all slept in the same room together - grandma, him and we children. And at that time I dreamed about my mother and said something in my sleep and when he heard that he got very angry with me. Because he was a Zen monk, he didn't express himself outwardly. It seems that his suppressed feelings were activated by my speaking in my sleep. I thought my mother died because my father let that crazy monk stay at Rinsoin so in my mind I blamed him for my mothers death and held a grudge toward him. I couldn't forgive him. But now I have overcome this grudge and now I can understand that whether he let the monk stay or not was not the only reason for her death - maybe it had to happen. I understand it in this way now. Maybe a human being's small mind wouldn't understand the movement of the cosmos and there must be very big forces working that we could never understand. So we shouldn't blame someone for things past but rather grow to be better at learning lessons from what has happened."

"I think it's important to overcome initial sadness and try to make the most of it. I think it's important to try to understand Otsubo's childhood and to make an effort to bring up children today in a better way so that that won't happen again and that was part of my father's motive in going to the states. I try to apply these principles in the kindergarten - that's my way of making the most of my mother's death. Both my parents supported me to become a kindergarten teacher and cultivating children effects the future and is an important job and I think my parents wanted me to actualize their wishes to make the world a better place."

"Sometimes I've wanted to quit because of difficulties with relations between parents, kids and teachers but I persevered because I remember my mother's wish that I would teach children and make the future better."

"My little sister Oumi died in showa 39 (1964). She was at a sensitive age when my mother died. She loved our mother very much and was the most attached to her. I was away from home going to a university in Tokyo for two years and she felt lonely. She was delicate, sensitive, loved music and drawing. My little sister never got over my mother's death. The shock on her was harder than to me - she became schizophrenic." [Oumi hanged herself in a mental institution. Right?]

"I was about 24 when my father went to America. I (emphasizing herself as opposed to others) wasn't against his idea of going to the states because I knew of his desire to do so and I had grown up. I told him I wanted to get married before he went. Since mother was dead I wanted him present at my wedding so that's how I got married - in December. A week after I got married, my father remarried. Hoitsu was in the University in Tokyo and Oumi was in a mental hospital. Otohiro was a junior high student. Otohiro joined my father two years later with Mitsu when she went."

"Grandma was at Rinsoin. My husband and I were living in Rinsoin too because my family would have been upset if I had left - so we stayed there. After Hoitsu finished college and had spent his time at Eiheiji, he returned to Rinsoin and my husband and I moved out. We were here for seven and a half years. Otohiro wasn't doing well in school. He entered senior high but had to quit of course when he went to America. He was good with his hands though. Otohiro asked Mitsu not to make him go to high school in the states but he had to. He's forty-nine now."

"Mitsu and Otohiro went to the US by ship. I saw it go slowly away and it made me so sad. A plane would have been fast. Otohiro was crying hard when he left."

"Otohiro was in the army in Vietnam and had to speak English all the time."

I told her about the time that the FBI came to Sokoji and interviewed Shunryu because a number of young men were doing alternative service to the army at Tassajara and the FBI agents were surprised to learn that Otohiro was in the army as a barber. They had assumed that Zen Center was a pacifist group and such a contradiction was puzzling to them.

"I think my father made him go into the army in order to make him see the things he may not have seen about human nature, an evil part of human nature. Being away from his parents he must have realized his love for them and the bond with his stepmother must have been formed at that time - he would call her at times. I think my father predicted that this would happen." (Months later in San Rafael, Kyoko Furuhashi and I are listening to the tape and I ask about Yasuko's rationalizing everything. Kyoko says, "This is typical older Japanese feeling.")

"I went to America when my father was dying. I was there for two weeks with Hoitsu. I saw Tassajara and Page Street. I didn't feel like I was in America. Of course they were all white people but it didn't feel so foreign, I guess because my parents were there. Tassajara reminded me of Rinsoin. The streams are similar but Tassajara has a hot spring. Tassajara was a bigger version of Rinsoin. Of course Rinsoin's streams are cemented and dammed with big dams. That happened maybe ten years ago. When I was living here they weren't cemented."

"Did you understand Shunryu-san better when you went to America?"

"Yes. When my father was at college, he was an interpreter for the English teacher there - Mrs. Ransom. Maybe since then he always wanted to go overseas. When I was a baby, Mrs Ransom came to Rinsoin, though I don't remember. She gave material for western clothes to my mother. She brought her bed and chair with her. [In later years after she returned to England?], we children used to play on her chair and we broke it and it had to be thrown away."

"My father used to say that when he was a child he wanted an overcoat and his parents went to a lot of trouble to buy him one so he was very happy to have it but when he went out, he lost it in a train. I heard this story from his younger sister."

"When my father was practicing Buddhism, there was someone called Jiya-san? (a caretaker) Jiya-san tried to scare him and said there was a ghost in the Zendo and then Shunryu-san tried to scare Jiya back by saying he saw the ghost. The zendo was totally dark and messy. There were many things in there including rats - it was not well kept. So my father arranged things to make it look as there had been a ghost and he lit a lamp low in the zendo and he told Jiya about it and Jiya looked and saw the light and got so scared he couldn't move. My father told me this. He did mischievous things in this way - not harming people. He didn't tell me much about his childhood." [This was at Zounin? When Shunryu was a boy?]

"He loved sweet potatoes - he used to grill them over the hibachi. We think of sweet potatoes as a woman's food and we thought it funny that a man liked them so much. I remember when I was a little girl asking him why he liked sweet potatoes so much since he was a man."

"But what my father liked most was sugar. Once when my husband and I were living at Rinsoin before my father went to America, he made miso soup which is very salty and he put sugar in it which he loved but my husband couldn't eat it. Nobody does that. He didn't drink alcohol but he sure loved sugar."

"Mrs. Ransom had told him that Christian monks don't drink or smoke. He was impressed by that. He didn't like tobacco."

"But she was a quaker. And that's not always true anyway."

"It's not? Oh. In Kyoto I saw men and women walking arm in arm. Japanese

will copy anything Western to look cultured. I think it's sad."

"Did your mother walk behind your father when they were out?"

"I don't know but probably so. It was the custom of the times."

"Mitsu and Shunryu-san had a pretty equal relationship."

"Yes, mitsu doesn't hide anything and my father liked that about her. They didn't fight so much because they said everything up front. I think that they were an ideal couple - my real mother wasn't like her. She didn't say what she felt. And he didn't express his real feelings to her either. Although they didn't fight so much there was a distance between them. She was like a servant to him but Mitsu was on equal ground with him."

"Why didn't Shunryu-san go into the army?"

"He didn't go into the army because he was so short and maybe he was too old too."

"When did the draft start?"

"The Pacific war started in showa 16 (1941). The Nisshin Senso (Sino-Japanese war) maybe from showa 10 (1935). My father was thirty-one in showa 10 because that was the year I was born. So he was 36 when the Pacific War started."

"Was he ill much when he was young?"

"Yes."

"What was it?"

"Lungs."

"What?"

"I don't know."

"Tuberculosis?"

"Maybe."

"How tall was he?"

"150 centimeters?"

I calculate. "That's four feet eleven inches. That's what my ex-wife used to say. Four feet eleven ."

"He had small feet too. He never put on shoes and always wore kimono. His tabi were 23 [what size is that?], a women's size. And he was thin. "

"When my father was quite ill, before I went to the states, I learned that he had cancer. I got a letter from him. I remember how I longed to see him. And in the letter he told me he'd lived longer than he thought he would. He was then 67. His teacher Gyokujun Soon had died at the age of 55 - that's how old Shunryu-san was when he went to the states. 'I have been working in the states for twelve years since the age when my master died,' he said. 'So I'm not dying young.' I thought that 67 was too young for him to die - but he thought he'd lived long enough. He said that the bond between parents and children isn't lost no matter where you are. I remember my father telling me this very well. He never did such things as give his kids money or take them out to play but he taught us the really important things in life. I think we children have received spiritual assets from him which cannot be replaced by money or anything else. So I regard him as a great father although he was not a good father in the normal sense. I spent my childhood envying other kids' relationships with their fathers. But now I see I have gotten spiritual strength from him."

"When I was in the fifth grade he took me to Shizuoka city."

"I found it difficult to walk side by side with him because I thought he was too superior and I wasn't used to being with him. I felt embarrassed and scared and so I walked on a the other side of the road. I felt like when I was younger, like trying to take the paper from him and not sitting on his lap had continued in my mind. The occasion when I felt closest to him was when I went to America when he was dying. I came back to Japan before he died. I knew I wouldn't see him again. I almost felt like leaving the airplane before it took off. He liked plants and garden stones so he worked with them a lot. He broke one of his fingers and it remained crooked. He caught it between some stones in the garden.[more on this?] It got infected. A scar remained. But he just kept on working with the rocks. He loved those garden stones so much."

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