published Oct 18, 2018

An Oral History

Matsu Kina

An eighty-two-year-old former sugar plantation worker recalls and reflects on his life in Okinawa, 1910s; immigration to Hawaii, Maui and Big Island plantation camps; and World War II.
Based on interviews by Michiko Kodama, ESOHP Researcher I Interviewer. Translated by Kiyoko Endo. Edited by Gary Tachiyama.

Childhood in Taba

In the old days the village was called Taba. I think there were more than 100 houses in my village but I'm not sure . Mainly they were kayabuki (thatch roofed). There were very few houses that had tile roofs, so everyone admired the tile-roofed houses. If you were rich you owned that kind of house. My house was kayabuki.

In the village, it was all agricultural. But there were people who used to sell tofu or sew, or things like that. Even the kucho (district head) was from our area. We also had representatives for the sonkai (village council).

Anyway at that time (ca. 1912), my father was in Hawaii, so only our mother stayed with us. I don't remember exactly how many tsubo (3.95 square yards) our field was, but we were growing cane in an area of about 20 cho (1 cho = 2.45 acres). We also grew potatoes, grains and beans. Mother worked all by herself. We couldn't help because we were small, but I did what I could to kokua (help). I felt I had to do those things, since my mother was the only one working. Our livelihood wasn't any different compared to those of our neighbors. The little ones would help as much as they could. The parents had their children do whatever they could handle.

For clothing, mother used to make for us the winter and summer clothes. Like the other mothers, she made material. What we needed, she would make herself. For the winter, she made cotton material. In the summer she made material using basho (Japanese banana plant). The plant, basho, is like a banana tree, but is short. You go and cut it, and you steam it in a big pot, then get the fibers. But, I don't know the process too well because I wasn't interested in it then. I just wore the material that was made.

Before I came here (Hawai'i) in 1918 - I think I was 17 - it was very popular to make Panama hats. I made them for half a year or so. We did those kinds of things after our other jobs in order to sustain our living. A company provided the materials, and we worked for them. Then, they came back, and they priced the finished hats. We could sometimes finish one hat in a day, if we worked very late. The payday was a certain day, so before payday, we would work all night. On those days we could finish one hat. It was about 30 sen (100 sen = one yen) or something like that, in Japanese currency.

We had school back in the old village. I went to the Gushikawa jinjo-koto-shogakko (higher elementary school) up to the sixth grade. My first four years, I studied very hard; but in fifth and sixth grade I was big enough to help my mother, so I only went to school three or four times a week. I liked school, but I had to help my mother. In school we learned reading, arithmetic, arts and crafts, geography, and history. I liked arithmetic, composition, and artS and crafts. I think I was suited best for those things.

It wasn't difficult to learn the standard Japanese in school because the students spoke Japanese. We couldn't use Okinawan at school or else the teachers would punish us, so we learned quickly. We had to learn Japanese.

The teachers were very strict, but I like strict teachers. Once I did a bad thing in school and a strict teacher reprimanded me. I was tall for my age. I was sitting in the back of the class. I couldn't see what was being written on the board and I hit the boy in front of me, but the teacher saw. Then I was reprimanded. It may seem unusual to feel this way, but I like the teacher to this very day.

To Hawaii as a Yobiyose

When I quit school I had a hope that I would go overseas and make a lot of money, and then I would return to Okinawa and build a fine house. The rich people, I don't think had those kinds of dreams, but for the middle and lower classes I think they had the same kinds of wishes. In those days, there was a big difference between the important people and the common folk. The rich people used to look down upon the poor people.

My old man was in Hawaii, so I came here as a yobiyose ("summoned immigrant"). My father had come 6 or 7 years earlier. He worked for three years in Hawaii and then returned to Okinawa. Then he came back to Hawaii.

I didn't know anything about Hawaii before I came here. There was no one who could tell me anything. My father didn't write letters about the place. He just sent papers for yobiyose. All I know was before his second trip to Hawaii, he used to say that Hawaii was the nicest place in the world. But he didn't talk about the conditions or anything like that. So I couldn't imagine how it would be. After I came to Hawaii I learned.

From Hawaii they sent a passport, a certificate for yobiyose, and we had to take it to the mura-yakuba (village office). Then we had to go to the police station to get a certificate, because at that time, although the yobiyose certificate was sent, different people other than those called for would go to Hawaii. It was a common occurrence. So the policeman investigated your identity. I was once suspected by a policeman, so they didn't give me the certificate right away. I didn't know if the policeman was investigating me, but he was asking about me like a detective. I asked many times if the certificate was ready, and they always told me that it wasn't. Finally, I told them it had better be ready or I would go to another police station instead. You come here if you had the certificate and passed the investigation, but the investigation was very thorough.

I left in 1918 from Naha to a place in Oshima, then to Kobe, from Kobe to Yokohama, changing ships at those places. From Yokohama to Hawaii I was on a ship called Tenyo-maru. In Kobe, I was given examinations. One for hookworms, a physical, an academic test and an eye test. The academic test was very easy in Japan. They have these books laid out and they ask you to read. That was it for me. The eye test was rather severe then, because there was widespread trachoma.

Tenyo-maru was a big ship. It was the top-rated ship for sea travel. It was really big. There was nothing like it. She held many passengers, many kinds of people from mainland Japan, China, and I guess other Asian countries, too. There were also different fares: first class, second class, third class. I was in third class, the very bottom. The ship had bunk beds. It was just like sleeping on shelves; I was in the third or fifth bunk from the floor.

There was a doctor on board, so if you got sick, you didn't have to worry. But, I was well all the way. Since I was from Okinawa, I was used to very plain food, so the food on board seemed very good. There were various types of foods, and to me, it was like a feast. Since I was young and not working, it took a long time for me to fall asleep after a meal. When it became too long, I would get hungry. There was a place that would sell somen (vermicelli) and soba (buckwheat noodles) and all the young people used to go there and eat. I guess it cost about 10 sen.

The person that I came with was named Saito, so I used to talk with him all the time. He told me all about Hawaii - like what kinds of jobs there were. But I didn't think too much about work. I learned about the jobs after I came here. From just talk, you couldn't really tell about jobs.

We landed in Honolulu Harbor in December of 1918. From Yokohama, it had taken 8 days. I was glad that I arrived. At the immigration office I was given mainly examinations, just like the types I went through in Japan. Physical, eye, and academic, those three. Anyway, the eye and physical tests were the same, but the academic test was very different. You were given a card and you were supposed to follow the instructions on the card. For example , when it said raise your right hand, you raised your right hand. You didn't have to say anything. If you spoke you couldn't pass.

After I passed the examination, I went to Kawasaki Ryokan (inn). I was of age so my father didn't come to pick me up at the immigration office. Kawasaki Ryokan sent presents like mikan (oranges) and so forth to the immigration office where we were. I thought it was strange, but when we were ready to go, they came to pick us up, so there was no worry. Kawasaki Ryokan was good. They treated us very well. They all spoke in Japanese, so we could understand. I guess I stayed there about two days. And though that ryokan was in the city of Honolulu I didn't see the city, except for the area immediately around the ryokan. Honolulu is a city, and I was from a country place. Well, a city is a city. It wasn't much different from Naha, but it was an occidental city, since it was American.

First Stop: Puunene #6

From Honolulu we got on board a ship called Mauna Kea, and went to Lahaina. From Lahaina, we rode through different plantations. In the beginning, since my father was in Puunene #6, I went there. Then I went to Kihei for a job. I also had a cousin there, my mother's big brother's son. So, I went to Kihei for a job, but the job in Kihei wasn't too good. It was ukeoikibi (contracting to grow sugar), it was hanawai (irrigation). They only had that job there. Since I wasn't used to that kind of a job, I couldn't handle it. I was there for one week.

I thought the jobs weren't suited for me, so I soon moved to Mill Camp and I did hapai-ko (carrying cane). In Mill Camp the people there were mostly Japanese, including Okinawans. There were quite a few people from Okinawa and there were many Naichijin (mainland Japanese). It was a big camp, filled with totan (corrugated iron) roofed houses. I don't know if the Okinawans were segregated because I wasn't there very long. But it didn't seem like it was mixed.

Although I was single, I didn't stay in a single-man's house because there was this couple from my home area, named Ura who gave me one room. In the camp there was an ogokku (big cook, chief cook). He cooked for the Okinawans. The food was really good. We paid as much as $15 per month for our food, at that time. It was like a feast every day . Ogokku made various things, mainly meat dishes and fish too. You could drink milk as much as you liked. And for about three dollars extra, the cook's wife did the laundry. There was a common toilet in Mill Camp but it was separate from the bath area. For the bath area there was a woman who boiled the water. I think I paid $1.50 per month for bath use, but I'm not sure.

In Mill Camp it was mostly hapai-ko for men. It was the most strenuous job I had in Hawaii . I wore ahina (denim) from the jacket to the pants. Since I was young I worked hard. I couldn't get used to the work so I couldn't work as a full-fledged worker. But it was better than hanawai, because I worked on my own. I could rest whenever I wanted to. There weren't lunas (overseers) looking over us all the time. The lunas would just look over what we did from time to time. We really worked on our own. They wouldn't say anything no matter what you did. If you wanted to work, you worked diligently.

Then at the end of each pay period they paid me according to the tons of cane I carried. I had to pay the ogokku for food, my laundry, and my bath. I had only a little left after that. Since I wasn't used to the job, I couldn't earn a lot. While I was on Maui for maybe three months, there was no money to send back to Okinawa. And I had expenses, like my clothes, so I couldn't save anything. I saved quite a bit and sent money home only after I came here to the Big Island.

In my free time at Mill Camp, I read used magazines. The Ura couple had a shamisen (stringed instrument) so I played it and I had a lot of fun. I liked the shamisen. At night, I played around with it. I didn't learn how to play the shamisen from anyone. I just listened to people and learned by myself. In our area back in Okinawa at that time, they played mostly folk songs. Young people gathered in the fields and had fun. So from the time I was very small I practiced the songs that we sang in our groups. In Mill Camp, the young people gathered and I played the shamisen.

Sometimes I felt homesick at Mill Camp because I had just come from Okinawa. Although the food was good, I wasn't used to the job, so I missed Okinawa. At one time I was determined to go back since I couldn't get used to the job. But I didn't tell anyone. If I told anyone that I felt like that, then they wouldn't feel too good either.

Life in Kukaisen, Big Island

I left the Puunene area after two or three months because I felt I could do hapai-ko for only a short time. It was easy to do this because I was a free immigrant. I was on my own, so even if I didn't say anything and just left, the plantation couldn't say anything.

I went to look for my aunt at Kukaisen in Amauulu on the Big Island. I think Kukaisen got its name, meaning "ninth line ship" because many of the families at Kukaisen traveled on that ship on their way to Hawaii. There were many Okinawans and some gaijin (non-Japanese) in Kukaisen. There were Koreans, but they lived in a camp above ours and had different kinds of jobs. Their uke-boshi (independent contractor-boss for sugarcane cultivation) was different too.

The houses in the camp were made of one-by-twelve boards, and we sprinkled lime over the boards. I don't know why we did that. Compared to today, the houses were worse than chicken coops. The toilets were also terrible. All of the camp people went to the same toilet. You had to wait in line, while the people sat. We didn't even have a place to wash clothes. We went to the river for that. After some years, though, because of the sanitation problems, they built one toilet per two households, or something like that. Those toilets were the flushing type. They also built us separate laundry facilities. The government wouldn't allow the old sanitary conditions.

Anyway, there was an uke-boshi there who got jobs from a plantation, and I went to ask for a job. I was given a bango (employee identification number) and I worked for him. The uke-boshi was from Okinawa, so we were all Okinawans. He had workmen under him. He contracted with the plantation the price per ton of cut cane. So, he had his men work for him, and at the end of the month if you cut three or four tons a day, and if you worked for 10 days, you would be paid accordingly. There weren't any lunas around, just the uke-boshi. There was no need for a luna. If you cut more you would get paid more. We were to compete with each other, so we worked very hard. There were mainly men working in our group because it was hard work. In Hawaii, kachi kane (cutting cane) and hiipai-ko were the hardest jobs, and they were not for women. Also, women had babies, so they couldn't possibly work that much. We worked from 6:30 to about 3:30.

There weren' t any stores, but there was a kobai (cooperative store). This kobai had been there a long time. It was a house that the plantation gave to the workers and made into a store. We called it either kobai, or kumiai, short for kobai kumiai (cooperative association for purchases). The workers gathered and elected the people who worked at the kobai kumiai. We had an election and elected one boss and two clerks. These three bought things at wholesale prices, took a commission, and sold the goods cheaply to us.

I worked at the kobai later. The first year I was elected clerk. The second year, I had to rest. You could not serve there every year. You had to take an inventory to determine the profit. I was chosen to be boss, the year after. I was re-elected many times.

Since I was young, it wasn't difficult to work at two jobs. There were really few things to do anyway. If we needed certain goods we wrote to the supplier and he sent them through the mail. The salesclerk wrapped the goods, and the boss kept the books. We didn't have to deliver. We were open two nights a week. People waited for those nights and came to buy. Since there were many people, we had good sales. We used to sell 30 100- pound bags of rice.

The Okinawans made the kobai. We all benefitted from it. We could buy clothes at prices near wholesale, and we didn't have to pay cash. We kept a book, and we paid at the end of the month. We wrote down the customers' names and did not identify them by bango like at other plantation stores.

The people got along well at Kukaisen. We were all from Okinawa. I think there were many people from Gushikawa, and some from Nakagusuku. But, most people came from Gushikawa. Some years later, around 1938, they organized sonjinkai (clubs based on Okinawan home villages).

We organized seinenkai (a young people's club). We had to have the consensus of the camp, so at the camp's general meeting, we brought up the idea of starting a seinenkai. We felt we had to improve the way we lived. We had to do something about it. The seinenkai was proposed to take a leadership role in this. If you wanted to have a public celebration, you had to report to the seinenkai, and state the reasons. If it had to be done, we would approve it, but the celebration had to be under $50. That's the way we decided. Otherwise, the poor people donating funds for the celebration would suffer more. Later, as time went on, people wanted to spend more money.

Tenchosetsu (Emperor's birthday) and New Year's were the two big celebrations we had. During Tenchosetsu there was a big area by the camp and we would build a big gate. We built it in one day. It was big, it was just like a torii (a Shinto shrine archway) and each family made special foods and celebrated. Sometimes we had sumo (wrestling) at Tenchosetsu. I heard that earlier it was very popular, but it was not that popular when I came. The young people didn't participate in wrestling too much.

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