Rafu Meets New Challenges Amid COVID Deaths

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By ELLEN ENDO, Rafu Shimpo

Nowhere is the COVID-19 death toll more profoundly real than in the pages of a community newspaper — this newspaper.

There was a time not so long ago when The Rafu typically published one or two obituaries per issue. Today alone, there are 15.

Since March 2020 when the first COVID deaths were announced, there have been over 300 pandemic-related passings in the Japanese American community.

A factor in the rising mortality numbers is the longevity of persons of Japanese ancestry and the fact that the virus can be particularly devastating for elders. According to the U.S. Census, one in five persons of Japanese ancestry is over age 65. With a total Japanese population of 1.5 million, there are over 300,000 JA seniors in America.

Each day, Rafu’s editors and staff see the names of those who have passed and are struck by how unfair it all is. Friends, parents, and grandparents are passing away in an ominous, dark wave of loss. While the community reels with shock in the unrelenting era of COVID, this nearly 118-year-old community newspaper must work to meet the challenge.

In the absence of funerals and religious services, the obituary has become a unifying touchpoint for surviving loved ones and often carries a deeper meaning than it might have a year ago.

Obituaries have become more than news items. They are life stories, expressions of respect, and a touchpoint that allows those who care to grieve together. The importance of attending funerals, of saying goodbye, is a concept taught to Asian Americans through the generations. The practice of giving koden as a condolence to the bereaved family is an example of a Japanese tradition that has transcends religion and has endured through time.

The task is daunting not only from a professional standpoint but also emotionally for the staff, each of whom realizes that Rafu’s role has grown in a way that was neither sought nor anticipated. But the mission is clear.

Like everyone else, the staff is waiting for the day when the pandemic is behind them. In the meantime, they are determined to treat each obituary with dignity and honor.

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