Watanabe’s life a page of Westside history

Unique and special, the Westside is by far one of Kauai’s most cohesive communities.

Residents share a sense of pride in their schools, their churches, their businesses and their history.

Like other places in Hawaii, milestones in Westside history were first made when the alii ruled the kingdom of Hawaii and strictly enforced the kapu system.

Over the years, other milestones have included the arrival of missionaries who introduced Christianity and changed the face of Hawaii, and the era of economic growth, when sugar plantations flourished and immigrants from faraway lands were recruited to work in canefields and mills.

The mass exodus by many workers who had reluctantly left home and family to find a better life for all of them here, became disillusioned by the realities of plantation life and quit was yet another milestone.

Many of the disenchanted started simple Mom-and-Pop stores to provide for their families and meet the needs of their neighbors. These enterprises would become the early foundation of the Westside’s economy. Some would become vital to the communities they served. At least one would become an empire.

The lives of those who grew up in or lived for years on the Westside seem to be more intertwined than in any other section of Kauai.

The connection goes far beyond ohana. Neighbor helps neighbor, friend helps friend, people reach out to strangers, invite them into their homes, welcome them into their “circles.” Many eventually become lifelong friends.

Joanne Watanabe is one of many people who have done all of this and more. The youngest of seven children born on Kauai to Riichiro and Ayano Kanzaki, she now lives in Kekaha but grew up in Waimea.

Fragments of history are woven throughout the fabric of her childhood memories.

Her father was a rice farmer in the rural section of Hiroshima, Japan. Like many before him, he came to Hawaii as a single man in 1905. Waves of Japanese immigrants had already made their way to Hawaii by the time he arrived here, went back to Japan and returned with his wife.

Kanzaki never did work on the plantations but instead held a succession of jobs that earned him entrepreneur status and eventually a place in West Kauai history.

He first worked as a houseboy for the Robinson family (where he learned some English) and later mastered the preparation of Western-style dishes when he worked as a cook for longtime Waimea businessman and circuit court judge, Christopher B. Hofgaard.

The enterprising Kanzaki then founded a market near the site of the former poi mill and ice house, purchased the old Cole residence and opened Waimea’s first hotel in the huge house and cottage on the Crowell property.

Members of prominent families often had dinner at the hotel, Joanne says. Guests also included people from Hollywood.

When the circus was in town, performers would also stay at Waimea Hotel.

“I remember the midgets used to stay in one of the units,” she said.

Her father eventually became a strong Christian, which may have influenced the generous actions attributed to her father and discovered by Joanne when she tried to find out as much as she could about his life on Kauai.

During the Spanish influenza epidemic in 1918, one of her father’s good friends told her they would put a large pot of soup on a wagon and pull it from door to door to feed those who were sick in Waimea Town.

During the Depression years when people were struggling, he would secretly leave brown bags of rice at people’s front doors, never letting on that he was the one who had left them.

The Kanzaki family lived close to the beach, and the young Joanne spent a lot of time sitting on the beach. One day she noticed the water receding.

“It was unusual,” she recalls.

Later she would learn that was the day in 1946 when Hawaii was hit by a tsunami that killed many on the Big Island and caused extensive damage to Kauai’s North and South Shores.

Luckily, she says, Waimea was somewhat protected by Waimea Bay. Homes along the beach were also elevated so water from the waves simply ran under the houses.

Both of Joanne’s parents contracted tuberculosis at relatively early ages. Her father was placed in Mahelona Hospital, which had been established to serve tuberculosis patients on Kauai. He would stay there for 10 years, running his business enterprises from his hospital room until 1935 when his oldest daughter took over running the hotel.

During that time, Joanne was sent to live on Oahu with family friends. She graduated from Mid-Pacific Institute.

After that she stayed with the family of the minister from Lihue Christian Church. She earned a teaching degree from Kent State in Ohio, came back to Hawaii, took more courses Hawaii required, and taught school for 9 years.

“I enjoyed teaching but it was a stressful job, especially when classes got too large,” she recalls.

She was married twice. She and her first husband, James Kimoto, adopted two children, a son, Gregory Jon Tadashi Kimoto and a daughter, Shari Lea Kimoto. Joanne’s second husband was Frank Watanabe.

When her kids were small, Joanne has opened her home to many exchange students over the years through a program started by the East-West Center. Students needed an orientation period before attending Mainland colleges on scholarships so they were sent out to be hosted by outside island families.

Her first student was a young man from a small country named Kyrgyzstan. Rahat Sharshembaev was “a terrific kid and an outstanding person. Waimea High School students and teachers loved him. Eventually he got a dental degree.”

In 2007, she bought an around-the-world ticket and went to visit him and many of her other exchange students in their homes. She and Rahat traveled together to Turkey because she knew that had been one of his dreams.

Among the other countries, she also visited Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

Now 85 years of age, she is researching ways to ensure quality of life for her and others.

“I never expected to reach this age,” she says. “My father died in his 50s, my mother in her 30s.”

For two years until his death at 96, she visited a friend in a care home who had done the same for a mutual friend of theirs. She realized he was happy with his surroundings but sorely missed intelligent conversation. So she started taking him to Hanapepe Library where he could spend time talking with other friends.

She also belongs to a hula halau, is very involved with her church and interfaith council. She lives next to the Hawaiian Homes project in Kekaha and has many Native Hawaiian friends.

Joanne Watanabe’s life is so rich and full it bubbles out of her when you speak to her. There is no way to include all of her stories in this limited space. The Westside and the entire island are fortunate to have her as a neighbor and a friend.

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Rita De Silva is a former editor of The Garden Island and a Kapaa resident.

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