When Mitsuo Aoki, founder of the Department of Religion at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, taught REL 151: Religion and the Meaning of Existence or REL 494: On Death and Dying, their popularity required holding classes in Varsity Theater in the 1970s. For more than four decades, “Mits” showed others how to experience death not merely as an end, but as a vital, inseparable part of life. Instrumental in establishing Hospice Hawaiʻi, Aoki was named a Living Treasure of Hawaiʻi in 2004. When Aoki met the Dalai Lama, his Holiness invited Aoki to “Come, sit, you and I are the same.” Many years later when visiting Hawaiʻii, the Dalai Lama bypassed others and greeted Aoki with “Good to see you again Cosmic Dancer,” a moniker given by Aoki’s students because of his tai chi and aikido like movements in class and his sudden jumping on the table in class to dance.
Aoki brought spirituality and forgiveness into caregiving for those going through the transition of death. His approach is one of ‘conscious dying’ that leads to fuller living. He has profoundly influenced the lives of thousands of clients, their families as well as his many students through his 44 years of UH classes, public workshops, sermons and writings. The works of Aoki are held in two UH repositories; papers in the UH Archives and Manuscripts Collections on the UH Mānoa campus and ʻUluʻulu: The Henry Kuʻualoha Giugni Moving Image Archive of Hawaiʻi on the UH West Oʻahu campus. The resources were held by the Mits Aoki Legacy Foundation, which transferred the collections to each repository.
Production materials and raw footage of the documentary film Living your Dying produced by Lotus Films in 2003 are available in the Mistuo Aoki collection within ʻUluʻulu. In 2020, the Mits Aoki Legacy Foundation donated his personal papers to the University Archives. The collection is comprised of 6.25 linear feet arranged into three series: Courses, 1963–95, which include the development of his highly popular courses; Community Engagements, 1954–2009, containing preparation for the numerous trainings and speeches as well as correspondence; and Research and Publications, containing works both by and about Aoki.
A Preservation & Access Grant awarded by the Hawaiʻi Council for the Humanities in 2021 with matching funds from the Mits Aoki Legacy Foundation supported the digitization of Aoki’s papers and videos for the purpose of increasing access and preservation of the resources. The digitization of these collections provides preservation and significantly increases access to the personal and professional papers of a man whose contributions exceeded academia and touched the lives of thousands through his spiritual guidance through a process of melding Buddhism and Christianity.
A research guide provides access to digital collections at each campus, a video tutorial on navigating the collection, the public presentation of the project, which includes his impact on the humanities, a brief biography accompanied with photographs, and works about and by him.
—By Helen Wong Smith, archivist, University Archives
University of Hawaiʻi Archives and Manuscripts Collections:
- Mitsuo “Mits” Aoki Papers: Arranged into three series: Courses from 1963-1995, includes development of his highly popular courses; Community Engagements, 1954–2009, containing preparation for the numerous trainings, speeches and correspondence; and Research and Publications, containing works both by and about Aoki.
ʻUluʻulu: The Henry Kuʻualoha Giugni Moving Image Archive of Hawaiʻi:
- Revealing the Works of the “Cosmic Dancer” project page: Includes full-length documentary “Living Your Dying”
- Mitsuo Aoki Collection: Descriptions and clips of the interviews and other raw footage recorded for the documentary
“Living Your Dying” (Lotus Films with PBS Hawaiʻi)