Born: Aug. 1, 1911. Resident of Woodbridge. Died: Sept. 27, 1999.
When Akiko and Satoru Iwata were a young married couple in California during World War II, they and their four children were forced into the bare barracks of a Japanese internment camp in Arizona. Akiko kept her family's spirits up, telling them they'd have to make the best of it.
It was a philosophy she was to draw on many times in her life, such as when her husband, who had directed the family's finances, died suddenly in 1959. The grieving Akiko, who didn't even know how to write a check, marched to the bank, learned, and took over where Satoru had left off.
A few years ago, advised that she should no longer drive, she began matter-of-factly arranging for bus and car rides to her Buddhist temple and anywhere else she wanted to go. And when she was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer in September and moved to a nursing home, she made plans to participate in exercise classes.
It was vintage "Aki," as friends and family called her. Nothing got her down.
"She had such a zest for life," remembered her daughter, Shirley Ross, of Woodbridge. "In every picture I've ever seen of my mother, she's smiling."
Even now, it's hard for her four children, 13 grandchildren, 16 great-grandchildren and many, many friends to accept that she is gone. Akiko Iwata died Sept. 27 at the age of 88, just 12 days after her diagnosis.
She was born in August 1911, in Guadalupe, Calif., north of Santa Barbara, to immigrant parents who farmed broccoli and turnips. Her mother died in a flu epidemic when Aki was 7, and she and her three sisters then went to boarding school. When she was 18 and still in school, she was introduced to her future husband.
Theirs was an arranged marriage--she didn't see her betrothed again until several months later, on their wedding day--but it was a good marriage, their children believe. "She said love came later," recalled Shirley Enokida, a daughter living in Springfield. A photo of himself that Satoru sent his bride-to-be contains the handwritten inscription: "Friendship, above all ties, does bind the hearts, and faith and friendship is the noblest part."
When thousands of Japanese Americans were ordered to relocation camps in 1942 after Pearl Harbor, the Iwatas left their three-car-garage home, carrying a single suitcase each, and moved to a camp on an Indian reservation near Parker, Ariz.
Many internees were devastated by camp life, but Aki Iwata told her children: "You just have to go with the way things are. It's no point looking back."
She followed her own advice, and the family never returned to California. Instead, Satoru became a translator for the Army Map Service (now the National Imagery and Mapping Agency) and, after a stop in Ohio, the Iwatas came to the Washington area in 1945. A few years later, Aki became a librarian at the mapping agency, working in the same building as her husband.
It was there, seven years later, that he suffered a fatal heart attack at his desk. He was dead before his wife could reach his side.
Aki never remarried, telling her children that "she couldn't find anybody like my dad, so it was no use looking," one of them recalled.
She retired in 1976 and several years ago moved from Wheaton to Alexandria. A faithful member of the Ekoji Buddhist Temple in Springfield from its inception in 1981, she attended two services and a meditation every week. Her cabbage salad--made with seasoned ramen noodles, cabbage, sesame seeds and green onions--was a favorite at temple potlucks.
While Aki stayed rooted in the religion of her childhood, she seemed eager for her children to blend in. She gave them all American names--her husband had earlier changed his name to Harvey--and the family spoke English at home. Having their children learn Japanese, the Iwatas thought, would leave them open to teasing.
In retirement, she devoted herself to volunteer work: at Meals on Wheels, at local elementary schools, at local libraries.
In July, she began complaining of swollen legs. As it became harder for her to move, she checked into the hospital for tests in September. The diagnosis was as swift as it was shocking: colon cancer, with little chance of survival. She died 12 days later, her family by her side.
"Every day was an adventure," said Enokida, summarizing her mother's life. "She never, ever looked back. She always looked forward."