City loses a Japanese pioneer

February 2, 2009

What do you call a woman who was a citizen of the world: Japanese by birth, American by choice, resident of many lands by profession? Fortunately for us, we can call the Rev. Itoko Maeda, who passed away in Indianapolis last year at age 89, a Hoosier.

Maeda's globe-trotting destiny, and her Indiana connection in particular, started early. Her father, a pioneering Japanese aviator training in Italy when Maeda was born in Tokyo, gave her a name meaning "Italy-Tokyo child." She attended a Christian mission high school in Tokyo, administered by the Disciples of Christ in Indianapolis. Tuition hikes and budget cuts, forced by America's Great Depression, were always introduced with the words, "Indianapolis says ... ." Our city sounded like a scary place to Maeda.

Her grandfather, an ex-samurai turned Shinto priest, told her not to "get Christianity" at the school. But Maeda would eventually come to Indianapolis, finding it quite friendly, and join Downey Avenue Christian Church in Irvington, where she was ordained in 1956. Although she traveled the world as a teacher and missionary, Indianapolis became home. After retiring from overseas ministry, she started a Japanese language program at IUPUI in 1984.

Understand: It took guts to do something like that in these parts 25 years ago. As a Japan studies textbook of the time put it, "For many of your parents and grandparents, World War II is the thing that comes to mind when Japan is mentioned." By the early 1980s, Japanese exports were threatening one American industry after another. Recession had recently devastated Indiana's manufacturing-based economy, and many Americans claimed Japan was exacting revenge for "The Big One."

I was one of Maeda's students. We called her sensei, a word meaning teacher, mentor and more. She was tiny of stature; any one of us could have picked her up and carried her home. But we lived in mortal terror of her classroom grammar exercises. She stalked our ranks like a Marine drill instructor. No slip-up escaped her: "Your Japanese is good—but you need MORE STUDY!" Once, displeased with our poor pronunciation, she brought in one student's 6-year-old daughter, who enunciated flawlessly.

But Maeda-sensei was part martinet, part den mother. She would offer students a ride home on frigid nights, and go all out to help a student in trouble.

Then there were her stories. How a "movie date" worked in prewar Japan: You and your date arrived at the cinema independently, took widely separated seats, and got together the next day to discuss the movie! How centipedes swarmed the kerosene lamps she used in a rugged Bolivian mission. The naturalization ceremony that made her a U.S. citizen.

While we learned from Maeda, Indiana and Japan were learning about each other. In 1987, Subaru-Isuzu broke ground in Lafayette. In 1988, the Japan-America Society of Indiana (JASI) was founded to promote friendship between Hoosiers and Japanese. After Maeda left IUPUI in 1991, the program she started kept going. So did Maeda, who continued to teach in "retirement" and counsel local Japanese. She received the Bridge of Friendship Award from JASI in 2000.

Meanwhile, Indiana became the sister state of Japan's Tochigi Prefecture. Japanese pop culture—the "cool Japan"— stuffed our stores with anime (animation) and manga (comics). Toyota came to Princeton, Honda to Greensburg. Presently, 226 Japanese companies operate in Indiana, employing 44,520 Hoosiers.

Ultimately, however, the true value of our state's ties with Japan is measured, not in Toyotas or Hondas, but in Maedas. We of this city whose lives she touched can proclaim, with that once-dreaded phrase from her youth, that "Indianapolis says ... " thank you, Maeda-sensei.

Weir is a local free-lance writer. 

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