Kaishun Nishigaya, 82, is very modest about his life, filled though it is with voyages into the unknown, adventures in new and contrasting lands and seemingly insurmountable challenges.
As a university graduate, he set sail from Yokohama to California to chase his dream profession and settled in Seattle, where he realized he “couldn’t really speak English.” The appeal of the “last frontier state” drew him to Alaska at the time of its rapid development and, later, he was dispatched to Saipan where he contributed in breaking records for the island’s tourism.
Yet, “the most wonderful thing about my life,” he says, “is that I’m still alive.”
Born in 1935 and raised in what he describes as Japan’s “very poor” postwar period, Nishigaya was a sickly child whose parents were told he would not live to see his 10th birthday.
Life for Nishigaya therefore has always been about positive thinking; culture shock, linguistic problems and extreme changes in his living conditions were never going to affect that. While he admits that “starting from zero at each place was a challenge,” he has no complaints or regrets.
“No matter my situation, I always strive to improve it,” he says. “I don’t see things negatively and always look for the best way forward.”
He attributes much of his pragmatic philosophy to his devout Buddhist faith: his reason for leaving Japan.
“I was going into hospital almost every month as a child and it was very hard on my mother; she prayed a lot. When I started to get stronger, at age 11, she said that if I was still alive at 16 I must become a monk,” Nishigaya explains.
Faithful to his mother’s words, at 16, he went to a monastery on Mount Minobu in Yamanashi Prefecture where he spent four years studying and serving visitors. To complete his training, he transferred to Tokyo’s Rissho University, which was founded as a learning center for young monks.
But Nishigaya had dreams beyond being a monk in Japan where, at the time, they “were simply sitting in temples waiting for visitors.” He wanted to experience life in America, interact with his congregation and help spread Buddhism.
Upon graduation, Nishigaya was offered a resident ministry at Seattle Nichiren Buddhist Church and, undeterred by the 14-day journey by ship to reach the United States, snapped it up. It was his first time abroad, and he recalls being afraid but excited about the impact he could have, ready for any obstacles he would need to overcome.
Started in 1916 by Japanese immigrants, the church was particularly active when Nishigaya arrived in 1958. He became its eighth resident minister (there have only been 15 resident ministers in the church’s 100-year history) and threw himself into church activities.
Most members of the church were first-generation Japanese so things went smoothly, but he soon realized that if he were to interact with their children, who couldn’t speak Japanese, he would have to tackle his “English language handicap.”
“I didn’t experience culture shock so much, although I was surprised to see so many foods — and fruits in particular. My problem was English,” he says.
The 23-year-old soon started attending a local community college. He sat the entire high school curriculum with repeating high school students even though he had studied the subjects in Japan. “It was a good chance to learn a lot of English, naturally,” he says.
With improved communication skills and a feeling of being settled, he continued to minister at the church for 11 years. He held services for groups of young people, women and children as well as the congregation, and visited sick people. His other critical work was visiting each family in the congregation and supporting them with any problems, “advising them how to solve issues in the Buddhist way.”
In 1969, Nishigaya was drawn to what he describes as the “bright state of the future”: Alaska. The state was undergoing rapid development with a plan to construct a 1,300 kilometer oil pipeline connecting the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Alaska.
“It was a place of hope,” he explains. “People and money were moving there so I thought we would have lots of chances to introduce Buddhism.”
His church agreed but were unable to fund a job for him. Anchorage was booming as a stopover point for international carriers flying between Asia and Europe because of restrictions on traveling through Chinese and Russian airspace so Nishigaya found an administration role with Japan Airlines, which was offering many flights from Seattle to Japan as well as Japan to London, Paris, Amsterdam and Dusseldorf, Germany.
He recalls Alaska’s “wonderful summers when everything turns a beautiful green” and his wife could grow vegetables aplenty in their greenhouses. But, in the same breath, he explains that the winters were severe and hard on the family.
Yet, he remained passionate about his Buddhist missionary activities. One highlight of his time was performing a wedding ceremony — a privilege because weddings are not a sacrament in Buddhism and therefore rarely performed.
As Anchorage declined as a stopover station in the early 1990s, so too did the Japan Airlines station there and Nishigaya was transferred to Saipan.
Again, positive about his move — this time to a “place with a year-round summer” — he set about making a home for himself and his family. And he soon found his feet.
He was so successful in his new role as sales manager that, on his retirement in 2000, he was recognized by the Commonwealth Ports Authority for his “dedicated service in promoting tourism in the Northern Marianas Islands.” Under his watch, more tourists from Japan had visited Saipan than at any time in history.
In the church, too, Nishigaya was able to receive the fulfilment he sought. He provided memorial services for the large number of people from Japan who had traveled to Saipan to commemorate friends or relatives lost in World War II.
On retiring, Nishigaya stayed in Saipan for many years but has since moved to Oregon, for “its countryside as well as its peace and quiet.” It’s a nice place to live, he says, while Japan is a “good place to visit.”
He still goes to a local Buddhist group to assist special service days such as those during the Bon holiday, and enjoys gardening every day. The best thing about his life so far, he says, is that he and his family are healthy and happy: a cornerstone to his Buddhist teachings.
“All human beings — of different colors, languages, characters, races and so on — have potential if they become awakened. And, if everyone recognizes each other’s best qualities, people will understand themselves and each other,” he says. “Once everyone is happy, society is happy.”
Name: Kaishun Nishigaya
Hometown: Katsushika, Tokyo
Key moments in career:
1958 — Departs for Seattle to become a Buddhist minister
1969 — Moves to Alaska for missionary work
1991 — Transfers to Saipan with Japan Airlines
Things I miss about Japan: Onsen and seafood
Word to live by: “Everyone has potential; recognize others’ best qualities.”
1958年 シアトル日蓮仏教会で住み込みの 僧侶になるため渡米
1969年 日本航空の事務職に就き、アラスカ に移り住む