Kaua’i’s multicultural melting pot draws attention from Tokyo university

WAIMEA — As recently as a few decades ago, a Tokyo university’s oral history

of how Japanese immigrants to Kaua’i live peaceably in a multi-cultural society

would probably not have been allowed by Japan’s single-culture government


While the native Ainu people of northern Japan still experience

some discrimination in their own country, the mono-cultural mood of most in

Japan has mostly melted away, according to a sociology professor who led a team

of student interviewers on an 11-day study at the Waimea Higashi


Japan today is in an “era of multinationalization. There is

valuable information here to allow Japanese to learn multiculturalism,” said

Dr. Hayato Yamanaka, professor of sociology at Tokyo’s Chuo


Kaua’i’s plantation style of life meant immigrants from

Portugal, Japan, China, the Philippines, Europe, mainland America and elsewhere

worked and lived together. They still, largely in peace and harmony, as the

Japan students and their sensei (teacher) found during their second of three

visits to conduct oral histories.

“The Japan community,” Yamanaka said,

“needs to learn of the experiences of Japanese in Kaua’i and Hawai’i: How they

communicate with different cultural groups in daily life, how they develop

trustful relations and relationships in the community.”

The study found “a

positive example of how Kaua’i has mixed races in peace,” he said.


brought 14 students along on his sociology seminar entitled “Kaua’i Oral

History Project: Life in Kaua’i’s Sugar Plantations.”

The students are

sociology or anthropology majors.

On Kaua’i and in Hawai’i, collaborators

in the project are the Rev. Noriaki Fujimori, of the Waimea Higashi Hongwanji;

and Junko Obayashi, a graduate student in the Center for Pacific Island Studies

at University of Hawai’i-Manoa.

Oral histories of Issei (first-generation

Japanese immigrants to Kaua’i) and Nisei (second generation), done last year in

Japanese, have been committed to CD-ROM. An English version is still to


Yamanaka said there are many English-written oral history projects on

the Nisei, and he is collecting a Japanese-language history. It is, for the

Japanese Kauaians, “a good occasion to remember the Japanese language,” he


But, he said, the language is kept alive on Kaua’i in several

households and by several generations.

The Issei speak Japanese as their

first language, and the following generations speak it as a first or, more

often, second language to English. Issei is from the Japanese words is, meaning

“first,” and sei, meaning “generation.”

The Issei are 90 years of age and

older. Nisei are 70 and older, with the third generation called Sansei (ages 40

to 69), and the fourth generation known as Yonsei (ages up to 39).


knows this could be the last chance to interview the remaining Kaua’i Issei in

their first language.

On Kaua’i since Sept. 1, the group left Sept. 12.

During their stay, Yamanaka hoped they would conduct as many as 40 interviews,

recording the conversations on video and audio.

The students worked in

pairs on one interview subject at a time. Last year, 20 interviews were

completed, including Masa Nonaka and others in his family.

The students

and sensei stayed at the Hongwanji here, and often had the

80-something-year-old ladies they interviewed drive them to their homes for

interviews, then drive them back to the Hongwanji for more talks.


ladies seemed to love the attention the students paid them. The students in

return got an education about how Kaua’i had changed since the Isseis arrived

around 1920—and about how life was on Kaua’i, particularly during World War

II, when Japanese church ministers, teachers, even a postmaster, were taken

away from their families and communities by U.S. military officials and

interred for some or all of the war just because of their national


The uncle of former state senator George Toyofuku was a Japanese

School instructor at Kekaha and on O’ahu, and was interred, said Lillian

Yamasaki, 86, of Kekaha.

Yamasaki was one of the Nisei interviewed by the

students. They spent a pair of two-hour sessions with her and were planning to

do more taping. Not surprisingly, Yamasaki, who retired from Grayline as a tour

driver in 1969, is known among her friends to be a talker.

Her father and

grandfather worked for Kekaha Sugar Co., and she recalled a time when its own

train system hauled cane from the fields to the mill.

Others interviewed

included Hisako Nitta and Hajime Masumoto, 79, also of Kekaha.


plans to return next year to complete the project. The Waimea Higashi Hongwanji

is celebrating its 100th year on Kaua’i, and the oral history project is part

of that celebration.

Yamanaka said he may return to conduct oral histories

of the subsequent generations, probably in English. Maybe about half of his

students on this latest trip speak English well, he said.

The plantations,

Yamanaka observed, offered employment opportunities to people from all over the

world, and plantation camps provided places to meet, socialize, worship, shop

and generally get along.

Two of the group’s graduate students, Misato

Sekita and Megumi Tsuruta, both 23, said sociology majors in Japan sometimes

find jobs in journalism, broadcasting and public relations.

Sekita wants to

work for the United Nations.

The economy in Japan, they said, is still

floundering, so jobs are hard to find for recent college


Staff writer Paul C. Curtis can be reached at 245-3681

(ext. 224) and pcurtis@pulitzer.net


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