Catherine Toth Fox: What I Learned About My Heritage And Happiness From Lillian Yajima - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Catherine Toth Fox

Born and raised on Oahu, Catherine Toth Fox is an editor, writer, children’s book author, blogger and former journalism instructor. She is currently the editor at large for Hawaii Magazine and lives in Honolulu with her husband, son and two dogs. You can follow her on Instagram @catherinetothfox. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

The first time I met Lillian Noda Yajima was the way hundreds of other young Japanese American women did, in her kitchen.

The retired public school teacher was leading a class on manju, a Japanese confection made from flour, sugar and water. So simple, she explained, and yet so many local Japanese families didn’t know how to make it anymore. She wanted to make sure this, along with other oft-neglected Japanese traditions, weren’t forgotten.

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This was more than 20 years ago, when I was 25 and basically clueless about my Japanese heritage. As a fourth-generation Japanese American I was pretty removed from my mother’s culture. Sure, I had taken a few classes in ikebana (Japanese flower arrangement) and completed two years of Japanese language in high school, but that only resulted in my ability to count to 10 and ask where the bathroom is. Not super helpful.

So I signed up to be a contestant in the annual Cherry Blossom Festival to learn more about my heritage and met Mrs. Yajima.

She had been with the festival since it began in 1953. Her husband, Tad Yajima, was active in the Honolulu Japanese Junior Chamber of Commerce which organized the festival. She’d done everything from recruit contestants to sew feathers in the queen’s cape. And for decades, she taught young Japanese-American women how to fold origami and make manju in her Hawaii Kai home.

But that’s not how she’s most impacted me and many others.

Lillian Yajima was one of the happiest, most generous people I’ve ever met. And she had more energy than my 6-year-old son, volunteering and teaching classes well into her 90s. For decades, she was active in various community organizations, led programs for the residents of Hale Pulama Mau care home, taught hula to anyone who wanted to learn, helped create an award-winning book about Japanese traditions, and started scholarships to perpetuate the Japanese culture. She earned the Living Treasures of Hawaii Award by the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii and honored at the Japanese Cultural Center’s Spirit of Aloha Gala in 2022, the year she turned 102.

Lillian Yajima with guests taken at her 100th birthday at her home in Hawaii Kai. Catherine Toth Fox

At her birthday party at the Waialae Country Club this past August, Mrs. Yajima got up in front of a ballroom full of people and danced hula to “Lovely Hula Hands,” one of her favorites, wearing a haku lei and a pink muumuu. She was 102 and maybe just a little slower but still smiling and laughing, sharing stories and thanking everyone who showed up.

“I can’t believe all these people are here for me,” she told me, leaning close.

“Of course they’re all here for you,” I said. “You mean a lot to a lot of people.”

She shook her head, smiling. She wasn’t one for compliments, but she did bask in the love and admiration that surrounded her that morning.

She was 102 and still dancing hula. She was 102 and still walking around her neighborhood with her grandkids. She was 102 and still shopping at the mall and going out to dinner with her friends.

She was 102 and still eating sweets and operating a cell phone.

Lillian Yajima died Oct. 25 at age 102. Catherine Toth Fox

She was 102 and still planning to teach the latest batch of Cherry Blossom Festival contestants how to make origami boxes and Halloween-themed manju.

Mrs. Yajima died on Oct. 25, just two months after her birthday party and a few weeks short of teaching that class.

It’s strange to think of a world without her cheerfulness, her zeal, her energy. She charged into this world in 1920 to make a difference — working as a teacher for 30 years and serving her community for many decades then quietly slipped out. She was disruptive in all the right ways. If you met her, you were changed by her. Maybe she inspired you to volunteer, to take hula classes, to fold your own origami cranes for your wedding. Or maybe it was more subtle than that — you were inspired to live fully, to ganbare (do your best).

I don’t fold origami boxes or dance hula, but I’ve volunteered with the Cherry Blossom Festival for more than 20 years because of her. I made a point to learn my mom’s recipe for manju because of her. And I value my Japanese heritage because of her.

There’s a Japanese saying — “okage sama de” — that means, “I am who I am because of you.”

It’s a saying that embodies my friendship with Mrs. Yajima perfectly.

Memorial donations may be given to the UH Foundation Tad and Lillian Yajima Memorial Fund, which helps perpetuate Japanese culture and volunteerism.


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About the Author

Catherine Toth Fox

Born and raised on Oahu, Catherine Toth Fox is an editor, writer, children’s book author, blogger and former journalism instructor. She is currently the editor at large for Hawaii Magazine and lives in Honolulu with her husband, son and two dogs. You can follow her on Instagram @catherinetothfox. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.


Latest Comments (0)

Yes many cultures learn from their elders

Swimmerjean · 1 month ago

Wonderful story of a life well lived.

Nonna · 1 month ago

Always great to see a good person live a long, happy, productive life. I've always admired people that have the energy and optimism that I don't possess.

SleepyandDopey · 1 month ago

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