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  By Helen Nakano
  Speech to the 442nd Reunion
  March 27th, 2011

Are Our Differences Why We Can’t Get Along with Each Other?

Why can’t we get along? Why canʼt the Christians get along with the Muslims; and why canʼt the Shiites get along with the Sunnis? Why canʼt Republican get along with Democrats?

It is not only religious and political groups and nations, but ordinary people like us… husbands and wives divorcing; parents and children, brothers and sisters suing each other. Is it because we are so different that we cannot get along‽ When I first started with my project of writing an instructional booklet on playing Hanafuda, I had little in mind but teaching my grandchild a Japanese card game I had enjoyed playing when I was a child. Arielle was a little 5-year old hapa-haole child at that time.

She and I are very different. I am the last of five children, brought up by first generation immigrants and taught by nuns, all twelve years at a Catholic school—a very conservative background.

Arielle is an only child. Her parents are San Francisco Liberals working in the high-tech industry, and she is a second grader in a public school.

We are 66 years apart, not only in age and experience, but especially in outlook and attitude. We live 2,367 miles away, in a different kind of community, really, we live in different worlds.

And, in the future, our two worlds are not going to become closer. No, I know that our two worlds are going to be growing farther and farther and farther apart. She is 8 now, more and more, she will be pulled into the virtual world, eager to text and tweet and get her own Facebook account. And I will not be able to follow.

Electronic Games and Social Networking Harmful to Kids

So right now, this mission of Hanafuda Hawaii is very important to me personally. I believe that all this electronic interface is bad for children. Parents are losing control of what their children are watching, what values they are learning and with whom they are in contact. Children are becoming addicted, more interested in their iPhones and iPads than homework, and losing sleep checking and answering their e-mails.

Face to Face Interaction Valuable for Success in Life

There is no substitute for face to face interaction for success in life. I want Arielle to be skilled in interpersonal relations. I want this kid to be able to get along with people of all ages and all ethnic backgrounds and all walks of life. Maybe Hanafuda will teach her how to get along with difficult people who want to play by only their rules. Maybe Hanafuda can help her learn how to deal with wins and losses, and how to cooperate with her partners and compete honestly with her competition.

Card Playing Helpful to Old People

I have learned also that card playing is a wonderful way for old people like me to make new friends, keep mentally alert and socially active. That conversation is a skill that can be lost if you arenʼt talking face to face with people every day.

Three Reasons to Promote Hanafuda

Those were reasons enough to decide to promote the game to a new generation of players. But, when I started giving workshops to teach people how to play, I learned that Hanafuda was not just a card game. Hanafuda was not just a tool to help bring generations a little closer, Hanafuda, I discovered, was a cultural treasure.

Local History

In Hawaii, the first set of cards came with the Japanese immigrants over 125 years ago during the Meiji period, when they immigrated to work in the plantations. They had a tough life. With no money or time to spare, Hanafuda was one of the few games played in the camps. I would guess that it was more popular than any other game that was played by both adults and children. When I asked people of my generation who taught them Hanafuda, the vast majority told me that they learned from their grandmother. Why? With their mother and father working in the fields and canneries, who was left to take care of the kids, but Baachan?

But it was at one of my first workshops, at Mililani Hongwanji, that an elderly woman gave me the name of the man on this card—Ono no Tofu. Really? No kidding? I Googled his name when I got home and that is when the magic took over.

Significance of the One Man in Hanafuda

Ono no Tofu, I learned, was a 10th century calligrapher and Japanese Imperial Court official. The story goes that he had been passed over a number of times for promotion in the Imperial Court and was very despondent. He went walking by the stream and saw a frog trying to climb up the bank of the stream and jump to a branch of a willow tree. Seven times it tried and seven times it failed. Finally, on the eighth attempt, it succeeded. Ono no Tofu took heart and went on to become successful and was, long ago, considered the patron of schoolchildren in Japan. Ganbatte, Persist. Donʼt give up.

But there is more to the story. I learned that he was among the group of scholars during that period who helped popularize the Japanese alphabet, the hiragana and the katakana. Look at these cards of the January, February and March suits. These are hiragana. Not kanji, the Chinese characters. And, because the Japanese developed their own alphabet, their literacy rate surpassed even that of the Chinese. In fact, because of that, the Japanese had one of the highest literacy rates in the world.

Hanafuda, a Cultural Treasure

Once I realized that there was more to Hanafuda than just a card game, I did more research into the symbolism and the mythology of the flowers and the animals used in the cards. I discovered that Hanafuda had so much in common with the other arts of Japan. The common themes of the nightingale and the plum tree, and the white spotted stag and the leaves of the maple tree, and the thousand and one origami cranes flying into the sun. So many of these themes are repeated over and over on Japanese lacquerware, on their brocades, kimonos, silk screens, and in their pottery.

Did you know, for example, that months of the year are represented by different plants? That the sakura, beloved flower of the samurai because it reminded them of the brevity of life, represented nationalism and that some of the kamikaze pilots painted sakura on their bombers before plunging to their deaths? At the Hongwanji Betsuin I learned that there are two kinds of wisteria—the agari fuji (upward blooming wisteria), and the sagari fuji (downward blooming wisteria)—The Hongwanji chose the sagari fuji as their mon to represent respect for the dharma and the need to always be humble. I also did not know that the “chicken” on the December card was really a phoenix, and that if a phoenix ever came down from the heavens to land on a paulownia tree, that it heralded an era of peace and prosperity.

Significance of the Rabbit in the Moon

I had the audacity to add yet another symbol to my Hanafuda. I asked the artist who designed my cards, my son Jason, to put a rabbit in the “bozu moon.” I remembered looking for the rabbit whenever there was a full moon in the sky when I was a kid.

This is the story. The Man in the Moon wanted to test the animals in the forest as to which of them was the kindest of all. He changed himself into an old beggar and visited a fox, a monkey, and a rabbit. He asked for food, as he was very hungry. The fox hunted for fish, the monkey picked him fruit, but the rabbit could not find him any food. So, he asked the beggar to build a fire and when it was ready, he was ready to jump in and sacrifice himself to feed the beggar. When the beggar saw this he changed himself and told the rabbit not to hurt himself, but instead, rewarded him for being the most compassionate of all the animals.

Who are Our Rabbits?

Who are our rabbits? Those thinking of others before themselves. Someone willing to put oneʼs own self in danger for the welfare of others. Someone willing even to sacrifice oneʼs own life. Those are the heros we see at the nuclear plants in Fukushima right now, where workers stay at their stations at great personal danger of radiation to themselves.

And in Hawaii, some seventy years ago, who were the thousands of young men who volunteered to fight in a foreign land to protect their families and the American way of life? In my husbandʼs motherʼs family, the Iwamasas of Kohala on the Big Island, three of the brothers volunteered with the 442nd and left one brother to take care of their mother and sisters. Ordinary people, teenage boys really, willing to put the welfare of others before their own. And now, they are all our heros, and that includes Uncle Take who had to stay behind and take care of the family.

Compassion is not a Japanese-American Value, It Is a Universal Human Value

Then I happened to see a series of manga books on the Life of the Buddha. To my amazement, there was a dead rabbit being offered up to the moon on the cover of the first volume. I discovered that the story of the rabbit in the moon was not a few hundred years old, it is not just a Japanese childrenʼs story. The story of the rabbit in the moon is Indian in origin, and over 2,500 years old. It was a story used by the great teacher Buddha to teach about a universal human value.

What Happens When We Rely on Science and the Belief in the Superiority of Man Over Nature

The final discovery I would like to share with you about Hanafuda is probably the most significant of all. Let’s step back even further and learn how Hanafuda might teach us an even more important lesson on how to live. If you ever really looked at the artwork of Western playing cards you will see that they reflect the values of the power and material wealth of the monarchs. We in this modern society believe that Man is the superior species and we have dominion over the rest of nature—that the resources of earth are for our use. We believe that our intelligence is so great that through science we will discover all the vast secrets of the universe and be able to harness all for our own use and pleasure.

And look at what we have done to ourselves as a result of that attitude of superiority, of greed and pride. We have polluted our food and our water so much that our world is becoming uninhabitable. We are killing with violence and cruelty for the oil we need to run our cars. What we have done to ourselves is created one unholy mess of our world.

Hanafuda Teaches Us the Importance of Living in Harmony with Nature

Now, look at the Hanafuda. 48 cards—filled with beautiful plants and flowers, birds and animals, and just one man. The plants reflect the seasons: spring, the season for rebirth; summer, when we are in abundance and in the the fullness of our lives; in the fall when we harvest and begin to store; and finally, winter, when we go dormant or die. We are reminded that life is short, and no matter what we do, we will die like all the rest of the plants and animals.

In the game of Sakura, which is how Hanafuda is played in Hawaii, the Gaji, represents the great forces of nature, like the wind, and the rain, and the thunder and the lightning. The Gaji is all powerful and can capture any card in any suit or family. But there is a rule called the “hiki.” If a player has all the cards of one suit, either in his hands or on the table, the Gaji cannot overcome the power of the hiki or the family. The Gaji cannot take a card of that family. That rule might apply to our lives also. If our family or nation is united and strong and we work together, even though we may be harmed by the great forces of nature, in the end, we will endure and prevail.

How I Hope to Use Hanafuda to Teach My Granddaughter About Life and How I Hope Hanafuda Will Keep Us a Little Closer

As I play Hanafuda with my granddaughter, Arielle, as long as she will still want to play, perhaps there will be some teachable moments. It will be during those moments that I intend to explain:

  1. the need for man to live in harmony with nature
  2. that there are seasons in our lives too just like the plants and other animals
  3. to get along we need to minimize our differences and emphasize the common humanity we share
  4. that like the rabbit, she needs to be brave and strong in order to help others

And as for Arielle and me, despite the two generations of differences that separate us, I am hopeful that Hanafuda will help keep us a little closer than we would otherwise be.