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Kizuna 2020: Nikkei Kindness and Solidarity During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Keeping Family Ties

For some of us, an unexpected side effect of COVID-19 has been the increased importance of relationships. As the epidemic progressed, keeping in touch with loved ones has proven challenging. But for Rex Ishikawa’s family, virtual gatherings have been a weekly practice for the past seven years – first via Skype and more recently by Zoom.

Several years ago, Rex moved back to Käne‘ohe after living in Oklahoma for 28 years. He currently helps care for his 93-year-old father, Walter, who is still working at the airport Blind Vendors Ohana! Rex is the father of five adult children and six grandchildren who are spread out across Hawai‘i, Oklahoma and New Jersey. Even though everyone is busy raising children and working in the fields of heath care, engineering and the ministry, they still make time for weekly virtual gatherings.

Over the years, family members have participated in the births of two babies, the re-marriage ceremony of Marvis (mother of the five Ishikawa children fathered by ex-husband Rex), tours of relatives’ new homes, travels abroad (Taipei, Okinawa, etc.) as well as the mundane activities of everyday life.

On a recent Friday afternoon in January, I dropped in on one of their Zoom gatherings. I came away with a renewed appreciation for how simple yet profound this time of connecting can be. Jumping online from Oklahoma were two grandchildren — Titus, 6 and Juno, 5 — who shared their artwork with dad Jerry supervising. Also online were Grandpa Rex, and Aunties Yuke Kee (New Jersey) and U‘ilani (Hawai‘i). Then, “Popo” Marvis and spouse Jerome joined the ‘ohana online after eldest daughter Michi brought them home from the airport in Oklahoma City following a month-long trip back to Hawai‘i.

Through weekly online gatherings this blended, cross-country family is able to cultivate and sustain their relationships. The Japanese value of gaman (quiet endurance) and the deep meanings of aloha and ‘ohana as shared by the late Aunty Pilahi Paki, keeper of Hawaiian cultural practices, and by Pono Shim, a contemporary aloha proponent, are clearly woven throughout these inclusive gatherings.

The roots for the gatherings can be traced to the family Facebook postings about “good movies to watch, foods to try, etc.” This evolved organically into the weekly sessions as the family utilized the latest technology to connect with each other. Over the years, members have had to adapt to changing circumstances, recognizing the different needs of age groups represented in this inter-generational family. One example was younger members not being interested when adults started talking about religion and theology matters, so a separate time was set up for younger cousins to meet. Currently there are discussions of adding a weekly game night for older cousins.

U‘ilani is a field minister with the Community of Christ church assigned to the Pacific and East Asia regions. Growing up in Oklahoma, she kept in touch with her grandparents in Hawai‘i through letters and visits, and believes nourishment of relationships is an important reason behind the family gatherings.

Last fall, Rex and U‘ilani conducted a six-week class on utilizing the Zoom video-conference platform to maximize its usage for church participants. This Zoom class gave impetus to begin the Chinen ‘Ohana Talk Story, or COTS, with my own family.

Inspired by the Ishikawa-family gatherings, COTS meets every other month via Zoom. Each gathering has a theme — e.g. the sharing of cherished childhood memories, people who impacted your life in a positive way and favorite foods and stories. This structure was suggested by cousin Earlyn, who hopes to create a family-history book; it also helps to bring some organization to the talk story. The idea for a family-history book came from my trip to Okinawa in 2019 with the Hawaii United Okinawa Association study tour, which I took together with my brother Stephen Chinen who wrote an oral-history research paper about our family roots for an UHM Ethnic Studies Program course in 1980.

The sessions have drawn 12-15 family members together, from our 90-year-old matriarch Aunty Take living in California, to my 27-year-old grand niece Ellie and her spouse Tim residing in Massachusetts. COTS is about connecting, learning about family history and having fun!

Relationships are the core of life, and tending to them on a regular basis has been an important and empowering experience for the Ishikawa family. The ultimate barometer to evaluate these weekly meetings will be how these relationships support and sustain the family in the future and provide a solid foundation for members to strengthen their commitment to one another. Sharing our stories is one way to bring forth community in our tech-oriented lives, reminding all of us of our connections to family.


*This article was originally published by The Hawai‘i Herald on March 19.


© 2021 Merton Chinen

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About this series

In Japanese, kizuna means strong emotional bonds. In 2011, we invited our global Nikkei community to contribute to a special series about how Nikkei communities reacted to and supported Japan following the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Now, we would like to bring together stories about how Nikkei families and communities are being impacted by, and responding and adjusting to this world crisis.

If you would like to participate, please see our submission guidelines. We welcome submissions in English, Japanese, Spanish, and/or Portuguese, and are seeking diverse stories from around the world. We hope that these stories will help to connect us, creating a time capsule of responses and perspectives from our global Nima-kai community for the future.

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Although many events around the world have been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have noticed that many new online only events are being organized. Since they are online, anyone can participate from anywhere in the world. If your Nikkei organization is planning a virtual event, please post it on Discover Nikkei’s Events section! We will also share the events via Twitter @discovernikkei. Hopefully, it will help to connect us in new ways, even as we are all isolated in our homes.