By JUDD MATSUNAGA, Esq.
In a world where promises can be empty and divorce is common, what an inspiration it was to chat with (quite possibly) the Japanese American community’s longest-married couple. Sam and Esther Kawata promised to spend a lifetime together, and for 72 years, they have done just that.
This Valentine’s Day, I asked them to share their decades of marital wisdom and experience to help all of us younger married couples. They said the secret to their long-lasting marriage is pretty simple.
“You have to just get along and be happy. We’ve never had a fight,” Esther said. She smiled and added “Yet.”
The Culver City couple, who are now 96 and 94 respectively, were married on Dec. 3, 1944 in Colorado. Sam was raised in Baldwin Park, Calif., but moved to Colorado during the evacuation around 1941-1942. Esther was born in Colorado, where her family owned a 400-acre farm. They grew cantaloupe, onions, sugar beets, barley, and wheat.
Sam said he immediately fell in love with Esther. “She was so beautiful.”
Esther said, “Sam was always friendly. All the other boys were Buddhist. I didn’t want to marry a Buddhist man – they were mean to their wives, they treated them like trash. Sam was a Christian.”
Esther’s parents liked Sam and after two years of courting they told Sam, “If you’re going to get married, we want you to stay and help run the farm.”
Sam replied, “I can’t get married, I don’t have any money.”
Esther’s parents said, “Money is the least important thing. If you two can get along, and start a family, you can always make money later on.”
I asked, “What is the one secret to your lifelong marriage?” Sam thought for a moment, and then said, “You have to believe in God. I’ve been a Christian since I was a kid in Sunday school.”
Esther added, “Never go to sleep mad at each other.”
To that, Sam said, “Every night she holds my hand until she goes to sleep.”
I followed with this question: “Do you have any marriage advice for a younger couple?”
Sam answered: (1) Love each other; (2) Christian living, i.e., got to believe in God; and (3) It helps to have strong family ties.
“Our daughter calls us every day, once in the morning and once at night. She also drives down from Simi Valley to Culver City almost every day,” said Sam.
Sam and Esther left the farm and moved out to Los Angeles in 1955 after a spinal injury wouldn’t allow Sam to work the farm any longer. They raised three children together and have twin grandchildren. “I couldn’t ask for a better family.”
Since Esther was diagnosed with dementia 10 years ago, Sam does all the cooking and all of the hard work. As far as their future plans, Sam said, “God willing, I hope we can live for a few more years. And I’d like to live at my home as long as I can.”
I once heard a motivational speaker say, “A man can do the most amazing of things if he only had enough reasons.” In my opinion, one of the main reasons Sam keeps going is to take care of his wife. He passed his driving test at 95 and brags, “It’s good until I’m 100 years old — no restrictions.”
So Sam stays physically fit by exercising. He takes regular walks with Esther. He said one friend commented, “Hey look, a Japanese couple holding hands.”
Esther explained, “We hold hands to support each other.”
Sam also stays active in community events and has served as an officer of the Seinan Senior Center for many years.
At 96 years of age, Sam is still “sharp as a tack.” He said, “It’s never too late to learn something new.” Sam recently joined the Karaoke Club at the Seinan Senior Center, where he learns to sing Japanese songs translated into English. “I really enjoy it,” says Sam.
If you would like to join Sam singing Japanese karaoke songs, Sam says, “Anyone is welcome.” The Karaoke Club meets every Monday and Friday at the Seinan Senior Center in the Crenshaw district. For more information, call (323) 734-2175.