In Kinichi Ishikawa’s 96 years of life, he has experienced many changes, but one thing that has remained constant is his kindness to others.
Through the years, this kindness has ranged from recognizing the humanity in the enemy while fighting overseas as a soldier in the U.S. Army during World War II, to sending new friends home with bags of freshly picked fruit from his Hanalei orchard.
One of five children of Japanese immigrants who came to Hawaii around 1904, Kinichi has always been grateful for everything in his life. He often remarks, “I’ve been lucky,” even as he recounts times fighting German soldiers in Italy, dodging artillery fire and exploding grenades as a member of the famed all-Japanese 100th Infantry Battalion.
Kinichi’s passion is taro farming and tending to his fruit orchard. He is also a devoted opera fan, and taught himself both the German and Italian languages to understand the stories and songs of the opera.
He reads multiple magazines each month including Smithsonian, National Geographic, Discovery and Popular Mechanics, and every morning completes both crossword puzzles in The Garden Island and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser newspapers by noon.
As a young man, he once read the entire encyclopedia set in his then-employer’s home.
Trim and energetic, Kinichi prefers to be outdoors all day, tending his taro patches, mowing the grass, helping the grandsons of his former employer on their own taro farm, or repairing farm equipment for himself and others.
But one very rainy Hanalei afternoon, he was trapped indoors and agreed to talk story. He’s so humble about his own accomplishments, he said he had no idea what he could talk about that would be of interest to others.
Speaking slightly hoarsely, having lost part of his voice a few years ago, Kinichi punctuates his mostly scholarly comments with a bit of a still-present Japanese accent, a remainder from his childhood.
Joining the war
Kinichi was 23 years old, living at home with his parents in Pearl City, when Pearl Harbor was bombed by Japan on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, an act that plunged Hawaii into World War II.
“Pearl City is looking right at Pearl Harbor. I saw a torpedo bomber drop a torpedo. I think it hit the battleship USS Utah,” he says. “I told my brother, ‘This must be the real thing.’”
Kinichi and his brother went up a hill to better see what was happening.
“While we were going up the hill, we could see one of those Japanese planes come pretty low,” he says. “We looked down and actually could see the pilot was a Japanese guy.
“From the top of the hill, we could see Japanese bombers dropping bombs here and there. Some of those planes got hit and they tried to land on American warships,” he adds. “We could see the battleship USS Arizona burning.”
Later in the day, Kinichi and his brother were asked to help extinguish a building fire on the Pearl Harbor peninsula. American troops saw the brothers’ Japanese faces and, fearing they were the enemy, barred their entry at rifle point. Eventually they were allowed to help.
It was only later that Kinichi learned more than 1,000 Hawaii residents of Japanese ancestry who were priests, schoolteachers and business owners, had been arrested and imprisoned in internment camps, primarily on the Mainland.
“One of our friends, a big store owner, was sent to the States and held in a concentration camp,” Kinichi says matter-of-factly. “I don’t know how they chose who they took.”
Kinichi volunteered to serve in the U.S. Army in March 1943 when he was 24 years old. From the beginning, he had compassion for enemy soldiers, recognizing them as young men caught up in something horrible beyond their control.
During his Army training in Mississippi, Kinichi spoke regularly with young German soldiers who had been captured in Africa and were being held as prisoners of war in America. His ability to communicate with the prisoners in their native tongue was an unanticipated benefit of his love of opera.
“We became a little friendly with the German prisoners. We used to buy them Coca-Cola because they loved Coca-Cola. When they see us, they always say, ‘Coca-Cola!’ We sit together and have lunch, then I speak to them and maybe we sing some songs. I sang that thing in German, Brahms lullaby,” he says.
“I used to read all of the German writers,” Kinichi says. “I asked the prisoners about this and that. One of them asked me, ‘Are you a scholar?’ I said, ‘No, no, no.’ I had to laugh at that. We got along real well.”
After the 100th Battalion was shipped overseas to Italy, his encounters with German soldiers became even more profound.
“One time one of the enemy, he was lying by the side of the road, covered with straw. He came out when he saw our men,” Kinichi recalls. “He took his rifle and pointed it toward us, and he had tears coming down his face.”
Another time, while charging up a hill in Italy, German soldiers began shooting at him from the second floor of a building.
“I was looking for a place to hide, so I was going straight for this tree. Then a grenade exploded nearby. Another guy in back of me, he threw a grenade and that thing rolled down into a hole that a German guy was in,” Kinichi says. “I ran over there and pulled that guy out alive.”
Kinichi had more compassionate encounters with German soldiers, all common in their theme that, while he knew a war was going on, he still treated the young men fighting for the enemy with dignity.
“In my discharge papers, has all the major battles. They describe three different places, but in between were all the small ones in which I was lucky,” he says.
Characteristically, Kinichi even views his military career-ending injury as a blessing. He took shrapnel in his leg from artillery fire, was shipped from hospital to hospital for two months before military doctors finally put a cast on his leg. He underwent 13 months of recovery before he was honorably discharged and sent home to Hawaii.
“That shrapnel saved my life,” he says. Despite his injury, he has no regrets. “I was lucky to join the Army. It was good.”
Lihue was a small town
After the war, Kinichi returned to Oahu and then to Kauai. He recalls the 1940s and 1950s as a time of complete trust on Kauai.
In 1942, he flew from Oahu to Kauai with Samuel Whitney Wilcox II, a descendant of one of the earliest missionary families to settle on Kauai, and Kinichi’s employer at the time. (It was in Sam’s home that Kinichi had previously read the entire encyclopedia set.)
Sam had just been appointed manager for the new Kauai branch of Bishop Bank, the precursor to First Hawaiian Bank. The two men flew to Mana Airport on the Westside of Kauai, the island’s primary commercial airport until 1950, with $200,000 in cash, seed money for the new bank branch.
“Mr. Wilcox drove us in a station wagon to collect the cash,” Kinichi recalls. “When we got back to Lihue, he just parked the car on the street in front of the bank and we carried the money inside. Those days, you didn’t have to worry about anybody stealing anything.”
Another time, Sam bought a 1942 Roadster for Kinichi to drive. When a friend of Kinichi’s was discharged from the Army, he didn’t have any transportation.
“So I left the Roadster in Lihue. I told my friend, ‘You can pick it up. The key is there.’ Nobody took that car for two days parked on the highway. Lihue was small town in those days,” Kinichi says.
“The policemen never arrested anybody,” he says. “In the old days, nobody used to use knife or gun to hurt somebody.”
You don’t worry
When Kinichi was overseas during World War II, he had exchanged letters with Sam, who recently learned that he had inherited 400 acres of land north of Hanalei on Kauai. He invited Kinichi to become partners with him, “but I didn’t have any money, so he gave me $200 a month,” to get his start as a farmer, until Kinichi could support himself.
The land was all swamp and hau bush, but Kinichi had always been a hard worker. Undeterred, he soon cleared the hau and parlayed his opportunity into a successful farm. Through the years he purchased large equipment, including a bulldozer and two cranes, and branched out into heavy equipment repairs. His reputation grew until he was known for being able to repair anything for anyone.
At 96, Kinichi has barely slowed down. In addition to tending his own orchard, often picking oranges, tangerines, grapefruit and jabong (a citrus fruit) to give away to friends and acquaintances, he helps Sam’s grandsons, David and Hobey Beck, tend to their 25 acres of taro.
Though he never married, Kinichi has been a part of the Wilcox family for four generations. David, Hobey and their families, look in on the ever-independent Kinichi. They bring him daily newspapers, drive him to appointments, to the grocery store and to attend funerals, where he enjoys greeting people he doesn’t otherwise get to see. He always keeps Coca Cola, chocolate pudding, popcorn and candies on hand for visits with the great-grandchildren.
He says it’s easy keeping his mind active, “as long as I have something to read.” And as long as he’s working.
“I can’t stop working. I can’t stay inside the house. Nobody catch me here, except for lunch hour and the late afternoon when I come back.”
Kinichi’s secrets to his long, healthy life?
“You don’t be angry at anything. You don’t worry.”