published Oct 14, 2018

An Oral History

Choki Oshiro

Choki Oshiro, a retired plantation worker and accountant, wrote about his life as he neared his 88th birthday celebration (Beiju) in 1978. He dedicated the writing to his mother.
His original name, Ogusuku, was changed to Oshiro when he was naturalized as an American citizen in 1953.
Edited by Robert Ellifson and Chad Taniguchi.

The younger generation will never understand how the old days were. When I worked in Puunene Plantation, I worked about ten hours a day, from 4 o'clock in the morning, and received $12.50 a month. I told this to my children, but everybody laughed and never believed what I said.

Can You Write Your Name?

According to our family records, I was born on March 9 in the 24th year of Meiji (1891). However, my mother never forgot to remind me that although the official registration came later I was actually born in January. There were nine members in my family: my grandparents, parents, two younger brothers (Shige and Shigeru), rwo younger sisters (Ushi and Fusa) and myself. My grandfather's name was Chofu. I do not know when he was born, but he died about 1871. My grandmother's name was Kan. As the first grandchild, I was her great favorite. I remember her as a very gentlehearted, sympathetic and kind woman. I have no memory of her scolding me, not even once! She sometimes took me to see the Chondara Puppet Show that played in a big hall at the center of the village. I still remember one of the puppet's lines: Jumangoku no uchijo ya, mimi no ha nidu usamitaru (the stipend of 100,000 koku was only a rumor). I recall she carried me on her back all the way from our place at the west end of the village; she did this until I became three or four years old. Whenever I recall this, I am filled with gratitude.

I remember my birthplace, Aza-Noha of Tomigusuku, as a relatively wealthy village. I started school at six years of age. In those days, elementary education was from the first grade to the eighth, consisting of four years of ordinary education and four years of more advanced education. Since the school system accepted everyone who wished to learn and study, there were married persons and others in their twenties among us younger students. When we lined up, quite a few students were taller than our teachers.

I recall one school day I cut class and went swimming with older friends. I almost drowned in the deep part of the lagoon. One of the boys rescued me and hung me up-side-down, by holding my legs, so I could disgorge all the salt water I had swallowed. Then they made a bonfire that warmed and revived me. I have never forgotten this incident. When I was at the bottom of the lagoon, I saw beautiful things. I even thought that so-called Gokuraku-jodo (Paradise) must exist at the bottom of the sea. Anyway, this experience was very significant to me. l had faced death and felt I could face it again without fear.

Besides the lagoon, which was a good playground for us students of Noha to swim and fish in, I recall many famous rivers in Okinawa: Tengan, Kokuba, and Noha. I remember the Noha overflowing when I was small, causing a great deal of damage and loss to the farmers. Also, I understand that the river's origin is near Ozato, and that it was once called Choko, or long river. The Noha flows out of a valley and forms a lagoon. There was a time, before cars and trucks, when people went from this lagoon by boat to Naha to get night soil.

When I finished my first four years of elementary school, my father, Chosuke Oshiro, asked me if I could write my name correctly. After I proudly answered him "Yes," he said: "That's enough for you. Now quit school and help me." My father was a very hard worker, an extraordinarily strong man who could go to work everyday carrying his specially-made, extra-large honey buckets. He was supporting our family by himself. My mother, Fumi Nagamine, overheard us while cooking sweet potatoes in the kitchen and said, "I don't know why you say such a thing, my husband. In the future, the one who succeeds will be the one who has real ability. Kame (as my parents usually called me), you must study hard. Don't give up, don't quit." I am grateful to my mother for allowing me to continue my schooling, even though she was struggling with the family's financial problems.

When I reached the seventh grade, our principal regretfully had us transfer to another school because our village could not afford to hire one teacher for only three or four students who wished to go on to the eighth grade. I wanted to study hard and finish my elementary education so I would not betray my mother's hope for me. But, what kind of school should I choose? I was confused because I needed a school that would fit my parent's poor financial condition and my future plans. I decided to transfer to a school affiliated with a teacher's college. In this way I could become a teacher, earn 12 a month for my parents, and at the same time open up a path to my future success. Fortunately, I passed the examination for transfer students.

The teacher's college had burned down the previous year so students from the teacher's college, girls' school, and technology school were using Shuri Castle as their classrooms.

It was about two ri (seven miles) from my home to the castle. I had to walk to school because my parents could not afford paying 3 a month for me to board near the castle. I carried my books in a furoshiki and tied my geta and zan on my waist. I washed my feet in the river at Kanagusuku in Shuri and wore my geta to school. The water of Ryuhi Fountain was cold as ice, but I felt great because here I was drinking the precious water children of farmers were never allowed to touch in the old days. I considered myself very lucky. I never imagined studying at a place like Shuri Castle - a king's palace where ministers of state and nobles had gathered to discuss politics.

Sometimes during the physical education hours I saw my uncle from ltokazu practicing karate with his teacher, a six-footer. He moved his hands with a great shout, hitting his teacher's chest. I was impressed by his unusual force and skill. I admired him as a karate expert.

Three months had passed as quickly as a dashing horse. Senior students who had been our practice teachers passed their qualifying examinations and became teachers. We eighth graders also ended our education as our families could not afford more schooling.

Tokyo or Hawaii?

One of my senior friends, knowing that I was unemployed, recommended me as a part-time copyist for our Tomigusuku village office. My salary was 15 sen a day. I went to work only when they were busy, carrying my imo-bento (potato lunch), and wearing a worn out hakama (a divided skirt for men's formal wear). This was in 1904. The next year another senior friend advised me to work as a pharmacist for Dr. Seisei Gibo's medical office, where I could live in, eat free meals, and earn 3 a month. So I decided to quit my copyist job.

When I told my parents about the new job, they were happy and proud of me.

After some time, Dr. Gibo wanted me to go to Tokyo and become a medical doctor. He said there would be no worry because he had many friends in Tokyo. After thinking about this offer again and again, I decided to decline the offer and go instead to Hawaii to work. I felt I was not tough enough to work my way through college in Tokyo. Working in Hawaii would be a short-cut for me to make money and financially help my parents, I reasoned.

My mother agreed and helped me get permission to go to Hawaii. She took me to the Emigration Agency; it was during the Bon Festival in the 39th year of Meiji (1906). The people of Naha, seeing me busy preparing for the trip, talked about me a lot. They said things like: "That woman sends such a young boy to Hawaii, you know." Although I was 15 years old and considered myself a mature man, I was still regarded as my mother's helpless child.

Mother somewhere found money to make the trip possible. Support and additional help came from Kyozo Toyama, a well-known man in Okinawa. According to a biography of Toyama, written by Seiyei Wakukawa, he went to see the governor, Shigeru Narahara, several times to request approval to send emigrants from Okinawa. With no luck on these occasions, he made up his mind to talk with the governor one last time. He took a dagger with him, determined to kill the governor if he should deny the request again, and was prepared to commit suicide himself. Governor Narahara, realizing how serious Toyama was, finally gave him approval for a "trial case." It was lucky for us who wished to go to Hawaii, and I am grateful to Toyama.

When I departed Naha Harbor my mother sang loudly and danced with other women relatives until my ship went out of sight. Her song went like this:

Kanyushi nu nashigwa,
kariyushi nu funi ni tabi nu ichi,
ichimudui mudui ichu ni we kara
My beloved child,
on this auspicious ship,
may your journey be as safe and straight as if linked by a silk thread.

I cried grateful tears when friends told me about this later. Our boat first arrived at Naze Harbor, Oshima Island. When we landed, several women boarded and tried to sell kimono materials which we did not need. At our second port, the harbor of Kagoshima, I remember we recited a famous phrase of Saigo Takamori: ten o uyamai, hito o aisu (Revere Heaven and Love People). Also, we visited Takamori's last resting place, and admired his teaching: "One does not buy beautiful rice paddies for his descendents." which means one should not spoil his children by leaving too much material wealth for them.

Next, our boat went to Kobe. On the second day after arrival, we were given eye examinations. Following another two-day wait at a hotel we went to Yokohama to board the Mongolia that would finally take us to Hawaii.

Marooned on Midway

We were told the ship would reach Hawaii in less than 20 days. However, after one week, the ship ran aground near Midway Island. All of us worked to move things from the front to the rear, hoping this would free the ship from the reef. The ship would not move and we began throwing heavy things overboard, keeping records of the things lost. A navy ship, the Anegawa, was in the area but could not rescue us because she did not have enough fuel. So, we landed on Midway and stayed in a tent for about a week.

Some passengers were allowed to stay in barracks at the U.S. Army Camp. It is embarrassing to mention, but the passengers had no knowledge of the western style bathroom with a flush-type toilet. Consequently, when one military policeman came to check after two days, he was shocked and angry to see the toilet bowls overflowing. The whole room smelled bad. It was an unbearable sight! And as a result, they were chased out and ended up living in a tent on the sand with the rest of us.

There was nothing but the Army Camp on this small island. All we could see were miles and miles of water. There were many sea birds that seldom flew. When we chased them, they would escape to the ocean and swim away. It was good exercise because we slept better after chasing the birds. We got fresh water by simply digging about two feet down. And I recall the nights when small crabs came out and pinched our legs and arms. We all wished that a rescue boat would come quickly so we could get out of the mess. In the meantime, we discovered a Japanese cook in the camp and enjoyed visiting with him.

Finally, after a week, a boat named the Siberia, came and rescued us - our dream come true. Then as the boat started to sail a strange thing happened: the Mongolia, which had remained stuck on the reef, started to move. She sailed with the Siberia all the way to Honolulu.

Burning Blisters Over A Fire

After one week, we arrived in Honolulu and were sent to the Immigration and Naturalization Bureau. There were some "picture-brides" on our ship who met their husbands-to-be for the first time. Some were happy because their husbands were as handsome as they had expected. Others were disappointed when they found husbands who did not look like their pictures. Finally our turn came to be interviewed. My interviewer was Mr. Katsunuma, a very humorous man:

"Are you Choki Oshiro? "

"Yes, I am."

"You went to school wearing hakama didn't you?"

"Yes, I did ."

"Why didn't you come wearing hakama today?"

" I didn't because I thought hakama was not proper for work here ."

That was all he asked me. Having passed the interview, I was sent to Kawasaki Hotel. I found out I was assigned to Spreckelsville on Maui. It is part of Puunene Plantation now. It was decided that I would work in East Camp, No. 5.

Mr. Kawasaki, the hotel owner, asked if I would like to work for him. He thought I was too young to work in the camp and said I could go to school from his place. I did not have an ear to listen to his kind words and told him I was a son of a poor family who needed to work to send some money home to help my parents. Thus, I politely declined his offer. This was just a few days before the Emperor's Birthday, the third of November, 1906.

To become plantation workers, we had to get numbers from the plantation office. When I went to get my number, a Caucasian officer looked at me, took my hands, and then shook his head. Later I learned that whether we were under a good haole foreman or not was actually a matter of life or death for us plantation workers. I was unlucky; the foreman who gave me the number was a bad and mean guy. He had given me a non-adult number.

Unfortunately I did not realize this until my first payday when I found my salary, $10.00, was not full payment. Since the work there was hard, we could only work about 20 days a month. From my $10.00 salary, I paid $7.00 for meals, $1.00 for taking a bath, $1.00 for tabi (Japanese foot-wear), and $1.00 for a bento box. It was unfair; I had to work as an adult worker, yet the salary was paid according to non-adult rates.

We ate breakfast at 4:30 a.m. and started work at 6:00 a.m., going to work by train. We suffered from blisters on our hands all the time. Because we did not have any medicine, we tried to cure them by burning them over the fire, at night, while we prepared for the next day's work.

I remember I cried, regretting I had come to the camp. I thought I should have listened to the kind owner of Kawasaki Hotel. I worked about 20 days a month, and yet I could not send any money to my parents. There was no money left for me to save.

"Four-Finger" Counts "Animals"

One morning, when I went to work, a kokua luna (assistant foreman) asked, "Hey! How many Okinawans came?" He counted us as if counting animals. Since he used the Japanese counter for animals (hiki), I did not comprehend what he had said. I asked him politely, "What did you say?" He yelled back at me angrily and became more aggressive. I remember asking myself, why? I was taught we Okinawans were also subjects of Imperial Japan. Also, I remembered the advice of one of my senior fellows: "If we should stumble down, we get up again. Thus we make Okinawa known to the world." And yet, this foreman was treating us like cats and dogs. Why? I was very, very hurt and before I noticed it, I was crying angry tears. I grabbed my lunch bag and rushed back to our camp. I did not see anyone on my way because I was crying so hard .

When I got there, an old man who shared a room with me asked, "What happened to you? Isn't it too early for you to come back? What's wrong?" With tears, I told him what had happened - that I could not stand the nasty, cruel foreman and his insults. The old man held four fingers straight up in front of my eyes and told me the foreman was a Chorinbo. I had never heard that word. There were no Chorinbo in Okinawa.

He said, "These Chorinbo are not allowed to sit with us ordinary people. Never mind what they say. Don't pay any attention to them."

What he told me then jarred my memory. Our teacher in Okinawa, Tokiwa, once told us there were millions of Chorinbo who did not have any family registers in Japan. Their ancestors were from Korea. They had come to Japan in groups as instructors in ceramics and other things at the invitation of the Japanese Government. Their descendents became butchers and were discriminated against as pariahs or outcasts in our society because they broke the Buddhist code against killing. Consequently, they lost their dignity and society's recognition of them as human beings. Since I was unfairly treated by one of these people at the plantation, I thought I had to work and study harder to be able to compete and surpass them - to be equal or better than they were. Thus, at every possible opportunity I read newspapers and magazines to improve myself.

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