Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023 |
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CIRA de CASTILLOTGI Staff Writer
The history of Kaua’i’s Big Save Markets begins at the turn of the century when
Japan was a poor country, struggling to catch up with the West after 200 years
of isolation under the Shogunal Feudal
Fukujiro and Kiyo Kawakami,
rural farmers from the Soneda Village of Fukuoka Prefecture in Kyushu and their
four sons followed a traditional farming lifestyle, much like their ancestors
of hundreds years ago.
Life for the sons, Fukutaro, Sakuichi, Saburo (H.
S.) and Chuyoshi held little opportunity. Japan was in an economic depression
and the Kawakami family was burdened with debt.
Fukutaro, the oldest
son, emigrated to Hawaii in 1904 so he would be able to financially help his
In Hawaii he found a better life. Fukutaro wanted his brothers to
have the opportunities of an open society but under U.S. immigration law only
a parent could secure a visa for a minor child, a brother could not.
arranged for his father to join him in Hawaii. The elder Kawakami secured visas
for his other two sons, Sakuichi and Saburo. The youngest brother, Chuyoshi
stayed in Japan with his mother. As soon as the two sons came to Hawaii,
Fukujiro returned to Japan. The boys would never see their parents alive
The journey to Hawaii for Saburo, who would later change his name to
Harvey Saburo Kawakami and become known as H.S., was one of the hardest
experiences of his life.
Before leaving on his month-long voyage he had
not traveled more than six miles from home. On the trip, the boy of 12 years
would suffer from severe sea sickness, but he developed a strength of character
that would guide and drive him to success beyond his imagination.
after arriving in Hawaii, the young Kawakami entered Mid Pacific Institute in
An average student and superior athlete, nicknamed “Savage”
because of his fierce competitive spirit, Kawakami excelled in basketball a
talent that would lead to many opportunities. He was also industrious and in
reading his autobiography, From Japan To Hawaii My Journey, a bit of a rascal.
Kawakami, following the example of his older brother, was an industrious
worker. Supported by Fukutaro, he received an American education and, while in
Honolulu working at Kunikiyo’s flower shop on Fort Street, learned that “a
family business is something good.”
These qualities make up the heart of
the young man who would start a business dynasty known as Big Save Markets that
would live beyond him and become a part of the fabric of life on Kaua’i.
After graduating in 1922, Kawakami took a clerk position with Makaweli
Plantation Store. He was hired because the plantation wanted to have a “first
rate” basketball team, an activity that was encouraged by the Hawaii Planters
Associations. He took advantage of this opportunity to learn how to operate a
Kawakami’s other brother, Sakuichi, died during the 1918 flu
epidemic and left behind his picture bride of 2 years, Tomo.
At the urging
of his other brother, Fukutaro, Kawakami married Tomo. They shared a 35-year
partnership, had seven children—George, Ellen, Gertrude, Richard, Edward,
Edith and Charles.
After Tomo’s death in 1955, Kawakami would again marry
a young widow, Michiko, from Kyoto. His second wife, sophisticated and smart,
came to Hawaii and changed her name to Elsie. This would be his last marriage.
Kawakami had been working long enough at the plantation store to know
there was no opportunity for him, a Japanese immigrant, to progress.
encountered a system which to me seemed openly discriminatory,” he said.
remembered the excitement I felt when I worked in the Kunikiyo Store. I wanted
to have my own business.” Kawakami turned to his older brother for a loan and
advice. He was given both. The money, $2,000, the advice,
Fukutaro told his younger brother, “Even if you have to carry
two baskets on your shoulder, it’s far better than to work for someone else.
Take care of your health, if you are strong you can succeed from hard work. A
small crack in dam can damage a whole reservoir, tend to the details.”
Kawakami said he always remembered those three points. With that advice and his
$2,000 loan, Kawakami started his own store in Waimea selling door to door in
the plantation camps.
He encountered adversity that may have caused a less
determined person to quit, but not the “Savage.”
The plantations tried to
shut him out. He developed new markets. He kept a back door opened on Sunday
in violation of the missionary Blue Law, and had some of his strongest sales
tapes on those days. While other business failed the Kawakami’s, working
“We work harder,” he said.
Kawakami was a keen
business man who would just keep on breaking down trade barriers, and creating
new markets. He started buying goods directly from the Mainland and instead of
putting the old stuff on sale, he would discount the new items. That attracted
customers from Kekaha to Lih’ue.
He sold his merchandise “open counter.”
Other shops had every thing in display cases that required more labor to
Kawakami opened branches in Lih’ue and Kapa’a and bought the land
under his stores. He was setting his own pace, establishing himself as a
social and eventually a political force.
He became an associate of Charlie
and Philip Rice, who later became his attorney. He made contributions to
political campaigns; even though he was an alien and could not vote.
Kawakami was astute to the ways of business and power and was a tough
negotiator who took little guff from anyone, even powerful haoles.
the war broke out Kawakami wanted to show his support for his adoptive home and
even though he was well over 40 years of age he was able to get himself
inducted into the Army. His induction is a fine example of the “Savage” style
that was Kawakami.
“I was virtually blind in my right eye, the result of a
virus from many years ago. I had to pass the eye exam to get into the Army, so
about 15 minutes before the exam I spied the chart and memorized it by making
the letters into a sentence.”
This is a classic example of the way
Kawakami get it done anyway you can spirit. He served along side his son
George, the only father son team from Kaua’i.
Equally important was this
gave Kawakami the opportunity to become a U.S. citizen. Saburo needed a legal
American name. Having read the biography of Harvey Samuel (H S) Firestone, the
rubber tire magnet, he decided on Harvey Saburo, and became know as H.S.
Kawakami. He became naturalized citizen in May 1945.
After the Word War II
business continued to prosper. Kawakami’s older brother, Fukutaro, had started
a small store in Hanapepe in the1930’s, named after his first son, Norito
Fukutaro (the late Judge N. F. Kawakami).
In 1955 Alexander & Baldwin
built the Ele’ele Shopping Center and N. F. Kawakami moved in as a combination
grocery and variety store. It was the first “cash and carry” store on the
Westside of Kauai. Fukutaro forged a partnership with Ben Franklin and by now
there was a Kawakami store in nearly very town on Kaua’i.
enterprises, like Kaua’i itself, expanded and grew. More paved roads were
built, people could afford their own cars, and gone were the days of stores
servicing plantation camps with door-to-door deliveries.
In 1958, to meet
the changing needs of Kaua’i shoppers, and so as not to compete with each
other, all the Kawakami enterprises, consolidated into one corporation as Big
Kawakami went on to enter the political arena as a delegate to
the Constitutional Convention winning a seat over the more experienced Noboru
Miyake, who was a legislator and would have a vote of approval on the
Kawakami, in a heated campaign, used a business analogy as
to why he should be elected over the more experience Miyake.
corporation you should have one treasurer and one auditor. The two positions
should be held by different people. Let me do one job and let Noboru do the
His savvy won the election. To his delight, his political success
was eclipsed when his son Richard became a state representative in 1968.
the end H. S. Kawakami said, “From my experience I decided, contrary to many
people’s feelings, that whether you’re in a minority or majority group, success
and achievement depend mostly on the individual effort and individual
behavior.” This is his legacy.
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