Baby boomer, Buddhist, accountant, peace activist. A very Californian sort of life, you may think.
But David Seima Aoyama (青山 世磨, AOYAMA Seima), or Seima David Aoyama, as some list him) was born up north in Hokkaido, Japan in 1953. At the time of his death, he was 48. Life was probably still a little tough for his parents in post-war Japan, but it was also a time of hope as well as hard work.
His family name, Aoyama, means “green mountain” or “blue mountain”. It’s probably from a town name or place name. His given name, Seima, is written to mean something like “improve the world”, or literally, “polish the world”, like a swordblade or a soul. David seems to be his chosen American use-name, though of course there’s a possibility that his parents were Japanese Christians.
Like many baby boomers, he probably dreamt of a wide open future of world peace. Japan had its own student unrest. But at some point he seems to have turned to seeking inner peace, becoming a member of the modern Buddhist sect called Soka Gakkai.
Soka Gakkai needs to be explained at this point, because Aoyama’s life was built around it. It was founded as a protest against the extreme nationalism and encouragement to war found in State Shinto, by a man who died in prison for it during WWII. It grew hugely during the Sixties and Seventies. It also became more controversial in Japan as it grew. (And in the US, at least in the immediate area where groups of adherents were found.) As with many controversial religious groups, the overall leader, Daisaku Ikeda, is very wealthy. He has a lot of business interests connected to Soka Gakkai, and he also heads a fairly powerful political party called New Komeito.
The stated goal of Soka Gakkai is to create an “inner revolution” in each of its followers, which will bring world peace, and they believe that they can receive whatever they want by chanting the right Buddhist chants. This puts them pretty far out on the esoteric Buddhism scale. They count as a “New Religion” for Japanese law purposes. Some even call Soka Gakkai a cult.
So for good or evil, joining such a group and staying in it was not exactly the plain vanilla Japanese thing to do. It might also have been a definite statement against the rise of the bizarre Japanese hardcore nationalism movement of the Sixties and Seventies. (The nationalism that led to a bestselling author leading a short-lived coup.)
It is also part of the proud and freaky American tradition of people coming to America, as immigrants or refugees or resident aliens, to live out their beliefs. Very often, they’re unusual beliefs. But from the Pilgrims and Puritans and Quakers (and recusant Catholics), to the Shakers, Spiritualists, Moravians, Mennonites, and Mormons, to all the many different religions found in today’s America, people have a right to “the pursuit of happiness” and inner peace. Here, they build and do good and prove themselves good neighbors, and help make America great. Or they break the laws, and find themselves meeting up with law enforcement. Or they don’t do constructive things, and fade away into obscure memory as the members get bored with it. Everyone has a chance to live and spread the word of what their beliefs demand, just as they do in commerce or science or art. Mr. Aoyama was a perfect example of someone exercising these rights.
I didn’t find out when he joined, and whether it were before or after he left Japan. What did his parents think? Were they still alive? Did he have any other siblings? All this is a mystery. I do know that he first emigrated to the US in 1977, and managed restaurants in Dallas and Memphis.
At any rate, Mr. Aoyama believed strongly enough in the group to join its administration, and to work at Soka Gakkai’s American branch in California, from 1983 on. There, he became the Director of Accounting for the whole American branch. People still remember his goofy grin.
His former office subordinate, Mr. Hamaguchi Kyota, remembers his determination to meet challenges, never intimidated by them. That determination continues to inspire him to make the most out of life. The only thing he thinks that would have frustrated Aoyama about dying so young was that he was dedicated to taking care of his family.
Mr. Aoyama lived in Culver City, California. He was married, and he had two children: his daughter, Emily, and a younger son. Apparently his wife and his daughter are also members of Soka Gakkai.
He was on board American Airlines Flight 11, on a business trip for his religion. None of his remains or belongings had been found, as of 2002. His daughter said that, at first, she had wishful thoughts that he had flown away from the plane like Superman.
She attended Soka Gakkai’s small liberal arts university in California, and hopes to follow in her father’s footsteps, working for peace.
He was born in Hokkaido. He lived a Californian. He died a New Yorker. He died exercising the natural law rights of every human being, because al-Qaeda wanted him deprived of them. But they did not stop him being what he chose to be.
USA Today’s brief profile of Mr. Aoyama.
2996 post by Paisley Amoeba.
CNN’s Memorial page, featuring tributes from those who knew him.
A tribute by Mr. Hamaguchi Kyota, who knew him personally. In Japanese.
Kenichi’s Japanese blog tribute to David Seima Aoyama.
A YouTube video of his picture.
A lady praying for him.
This post is part of the 2996 Project, an effort to commemorate all the victims of September 11, 2001.
This post has been extensively updated to add material and in response to a combox critique.