At 81 years old Tamiko Tanaka Asahi remembers the day her father Kameo sat her down on a church bench to impart his heart’s one true desire.
“I was only six,” said the eldest daughter of Kameo Tanaka. Asahi is one of nine children born to Fuyu and Kameo Tanaka, owners of K. Tanaka store located at Koloa Camp from 1935 to 1965. Asahi is one of four surviving siblings.
At the heart of the Koloa Plantation Days is the parade through Koloa tomorrow. One family or individual is chosen each year as grand marshal of the parade — a family honored for their connection to plantation life. This year the Tanaka family was chosen. K. Tanaka store of Koloa Camp served plantation families for 30 years. Kameo Tanaka’s legacy lives on today not as a name in retail, but as representation of the strength of ‘ohana on Kaua‘i.
“My father led me into the church,” Asahi continued. “Then he had me sit.” Her father disappeared into another room and when he returned he stood before her.
“He was in orange robes,” she said. “Minister’s robes.”
Kameo Tanaka had studied to become a Buddhist minister in Japan. But his education was interrupted by a command from his father who told Kameo to join him in Kaua‘i. He was 20 years old.
“He was forced to come to Kaua‘i to help his father support his brothers and sisters,” Asahi said. “He had to leave his studies as a monk and was never ordained — he never forgave his father for that.”
On the day he told her the story of how he had to abandon his studies, she understood.
“Education was very important to him. He always told me, ‘You got to go to school — once you have education it’s there for the rest of your life.’”
Kameo Tanaka tried to support his family as a part time minister and Japanese schoolteacher.
“He couldn’t make ends meet,” Asahi said. “So when the old Sueoka store was vacant he opened a store in that shop.”
This was after he worked as a laborer on the Koloa Tunnel that runs through Haupu Mountain — the tunnel used by Koloa Sugar Plantation as a cane haul road to access sugar fields on the Lihu‘e side of the mountain. The backbreaking work was the impetus for Kameo Tanaka to venture into retail.
Asahi and her siblings worked daily.
“I remember my teacher at school asking me if I was excited for Christmas break,” she said. “I hated Christmas.”
Christmas break from school was when the Tanaka’s took inventory for the store.
“I couldn’t go out and play with the children.”
But looking back now she is aware of the many advantages she had.
“I was never hungry and my mother had fabric to have my clothes made.”
Because Tamiko was the eldest daughter she ran the cash register. She attributes her adept mathematics to the many columns of numbers she had to add on paper. In 1948 her brothers Warren and Joseph took over the store when their father suffered a stroke. Warren Tanaka kept the K. Tanaka store open until 1965 — with the help of his wife Edith and their three children. Wayne Tanaka’s daughter April Shigemoto recalls the hand-cranked register.
“It had those buttons you have to push hard,” she said. “That way when the electricity went out we could still add accounts.”
The accounting brings back some of the harder memories as Shigemoto remembers plantation strikes.
“We had charge accounts,” she said.
At the end of every month it was her job to add up bills.
“These were your friends,” she said. “People had no money.”
Like her Aunt Tamiko, Shigemoto worked every day in the store.
“It was seven days a week,” she said. “The only day we took off was on New Year’s Day.”
When the plantation camp was torn down the store went as well.
“But the road is still there,” Asahi said. “It runs next to the Jodo Mission in Koloa, near Big Save.”
When she and her brother Wayne visit their childhood friend Whitey Pascua’s house, they can look right across the street to where their little store once stood.
The K. Tanaka store is long gone, but the aspiring minister’s adage lives on in his great grand children: “Once you have education it’s there for the rest of your life.”
• Pam Woolway, lifestyle writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 257) or firstname.lastname@example.org