Tsuru Yamauchi
published Oct 13, 2018

An Oral History

TSURU YAMAUCHI - Leaving Okinawa and Settling in Hawaii, 1910:
"Is Hawaii a place like this?"

Based on interviews by Michiko Kodama , ESOHP Researcher/ Interviewer.
Translated by Sandra Jha and Robin Fujikawa . Edited by Marie Hara .

A young woman stands looking out at a field of sugarcane, miles of tall stalks reddening under a fading sun. Tsuru Yamauchi had ridden a train which brought her from the Immigration Bureau to her new husband's home, a weathered plank dwelling set far into the Waipahu canefields. Her eyes fill with tears as she remembers her family back in Okinawa. The year is 1910.

You couldn't see anything but cane and some mountains. I felt lost without my parents and sisters. Here you couldn't see anything, no view, no landscape, just fields and hills. Ah, such a place . The sun was already going down . I thought, "Is Hawaii a place like this?"

I couldn't talk to Yamauchi-san, because I didn't know him. Even when he spoke, I couldn't answer. That's how it was, you know. And I was so stubborn then.

He had taken me from the Immigration Bureau where we all had been waiting three or four days. They had all the people who'd been sent for sit on a couch. The people who came to get us saw us on the couch. ''I'm being taken away by a man today," I thought, frightened at the idea. Those who came as picture brides with me were holding me down; I was trembling so much, scared. We'd seen their pictures, so when they came, we thought, "Oh, my husband," and all the people sitting were happy. I saw Yamauchi-san's picture and knew what he looked like too, but I never had much contact with boys, so I was afraid. After all, my parents had strictly warned us girls. When the sun went down, they said, "Don't go out," and they didn't let us out.

But these more experienced women who were holding on to my shaking legs were saying, "When they come to get us, we'll all be taken away, so don't be scared . "Well, Yamauchi-san claimed me when they brought him over, and he said, ''It's her.'' Then they let us leave together. When he took me to Waipahu where we would live in the middle of the canefield, I really felt homesick.

The people there had a party for us, a feast, where each person had cooked something. There were all kinds of dishes; you almost couldn't count them. Well, it was a wedding, right? That's what it seemed like. Everyone drank and sang, but I was scared and couldn't even look at people's faces. There were almost 30 people, but I wouldn't look up. I couldn't enjoy it at all or even answer when spoken to. Afterwards, the others said, "Better not talk to her. If you talk too much, she'll cry." I was really a scaredy-cat.

Early in the morning, I wouldn't go by myself when I went over to the kitchen, which was separate from the house . At first even to start the fire I brought my husband along. That was because it was uncivilized in those days, you know. Since there were so few women, there were many men who might harass us. The hardest thing to get used to was the bachelors saying this and that. I hated it, no matter what, really, I didn't get used to people. Even with my husband, even if we were married, when we went somewhere, we walked far apart. Far apart. It was embarrassing to walk side by side. Now I think back and ask myself, "Was I that hard-headed?" Later on my cousins from Shuri, husband and wife, who were also at Camp 35, helped me. She was pregnant at the time. They taught me the proper words to say for things. We spoke in dialect. There were no Naichi (people from mainland Japan). All were from Okinawa. The uke-bosu (contract boss) in that kompang (sugar contracting group) was my second cousin whose name was Nakahara. The people who had settled in the area were old and young, every sort, and usually they were people with children. We lived crowded together in one big cottage in Camp 35. It was a large partitioned house. Old bachelors used to have what they called a tsugi house with a kind of porch sticking out. The type of room for married people was small, no bed or anything . We slept on futon (thick bedding). It was just a space to lay the futon down and sleep. We didn't have any household things, only our one wicker trunk, not even a closet. We just pounded a nail by the place we slept, a hook where I hung my muumuu, the old kanaka (Hawaiian) style .

If you looked around at the walls, you would see lime on unplaned wood with open knot holes. They called the building a long house, but there were back rooms. No windows. If you went out you would see how everything was just stuck right in the red dirt.

That's why to me it was much poorer than in Okinawa. Even in those days I would think, "Yare, yare" (Dear, dear). I felt I couldn't last ten years, but I stood it as much as I could and stayed. I vowed from the beginning that I was going back to Okinawa in ten years. Ten years at the most. That's how lonely I was then.

I would think back at all the preparations we made in Okinawa for the trip to Hawaii.

Memories of Home and Childhood: "From the time I was small I wanted to be able to do anything other people could do."

I found out that I would be going to Hawaii when I had my picture taken. In those days, we girls never even heard about what was involved in getting married. I learned about the marriage proposal when we had to exchange pictures.

It came about in the 41st year of Meiji (1908). We had never seen him, Shokin Yamauchi, because his family was living far away from Itoman. The Yamauchis lived in Kanegusuku, in the country aza (village section) of Ahagun. They were samurai from Shuri who had moved out there earlier when they were able to buy country land cheap . They farmed on a large scale, growing cane. Our families had never associated. But one of our relations said he knew the son. The relative said it'd be good; the match would work . It was the parents who made the decision between themselves to marry off the children. I was only 18 when my parents let me go to my future bridegroom's mother.

I was really liked by my parents. They said it was regrettable that I would have to go to Hawaii. They feared that even if you got married in Okinawa, sometimes you'd divorce and become a Chinese man's wife, see? Rumor said that in Hawaii everyone's lifestyles blended together. My parents worried and gave me many lectures. I didn't want to listen then. "What unnecessary things are they saying?" I thought. Now I realize it was true. They said to keep the same man and do everything, sticking together. They said never become separated from your man. So they shed tears of concern when I was ready to leave .

But they heard other stories also about Hawaii being a good place. So I thought I'd work really hard and make a lot of money even if I didn't stay long. A friend of theirs from Shuri who had come back without staying long in the islands told us lots of rumors and whatnot. He was someone who hadn't even worked in Okinawa, so he couldn't stick it out with the Hawaii canefields. If you thought you were being worked too hard in Hawaii, you couldn't stay, since you really had to be able to try anything, willingly. But no matter how poor or rich you are, I found out, there's no place like your own home . Ahagun was way in the country, and Itoman was a town. I would sigh, "Ah ... ," but you get used to it, after all. The people were more warm-hearted in the country. I went to my in-laws without saying much or having expectations. My name was entered in the Yamauchi family register. For a year I made tofu (bean curd) and helped with doing things, such as cooking for the people who came to work in the fields and helping to grow the potatoes - light work.

The Yamauchis were all very good to me. Whenever I wanted to go to my parents' home I could, sometimes every week, because it wasn't more than half an hour's walk away.

My husband was the eldest of four boys and two girls. My parents hoped I would become accustomed to his family before I left for Hawaii. Even if it was only until I left, they said it was better if I stayed with the Yamauchis and got used to his family . My husband had gone to work in the cane fields, first in Ewa and then on Kauai. At the time I came, he was in Waipahu. So even if he was away it was proper to live with his parents. Once you become someone's wife you belong to his family. My parents said once I went over to be married, I should treat his parents as my own and be good to them.

My own parents were really strict, having been samurai in the past. They would speak to us children only in the speech of Shuri. The speech of Shuri and ltoman were different. Shuri speech has too much apologizing. ltoman people don't apologize as much. My parents, whose name was Kamigawa, were of samurai lineage and moved from Shuri to Itoman when I was three years old. I was born in the year of the tiger, Meiji 23 (1890). Although I don't know the entire story, we were told my parents' family had originally been made to leave Japan. Everyone lived then in big houses in Kamigawa, but as the children increased in number my parents couldn't make a living. They had never done work before and had to depend on what the farmers would bring them. So my parents moved to the ltoman countryside where they had friends. They learned to sew from copying what they were shown. They never went to a sewing school. In fact, my father had been well-educated, but from my time when we became poor, we children weren't sent to school.

Even if I liked school there were many younger ones for me to mind. Later the younger ones were able to get some schooling. I wanted to go so much that once, carrying a child piggyback, I tagged along. I never thought of the child on my back getting hungry, or anything. I wanted to go to school like that, but it couldn't be helped. So I thought later, if it's to be that way, I'II do the best I can to let my younger sisters go to school. There were four below me and some above me. Those older ones all went to work at other houses, even in Itoman. They worked for so little, carrying water, gardening; it was like working for free. Just money that'd almost be used up after you ate. But Hawaii was like that, too. We worked like fools but never made money.

At that time, I worked with my parents, helping out when things were busy. People came from all over to have nihongi (kimonos) made. In winter when New Year's came, it was awase (lined kimonos) and haon (coats), and when summer came it was hitori-mon (unlined clothing). They worked into the night using lamps and sewing by hand; no electricity, no sewing machines.

We lived in a small rented house of one room - about six tatami (padded straw mats). We used futon, and the children slept, their heads all 10 a row.

There were seven or eight people altogether since some of the small children died soon after they were born. With them it would have been 12 children. In ltoman they'd say, "You made it, you made one dozen children!" They'd say people with children are lucky; even if you 're poor, you're happy.

It was difficult at first to speak with our ltoman neighbors. But because I was a child I got used to it. Later on the other children used to come along with us, and soon we were able to communicate. We just did anything the ltoman people did by way of custom. There are many fishermen among Itoman people. The people next door might give us some fish, and the neighbors who made tofu sometimes called us over to get some of the burned bottom part. Even that tasted good when there wasn't any food.

You never waste tofu. There was a tofu shop next door. The beans came from the country, Kanegusuku . The farmers sold them cheap by gas (about one-third pint). Each big heap would be about 20 sen. Although the tofu business didn't make money, even if the tofu turned sour, you would eat all of it. You could eat it for lunch, even if you didn't cook miso (bean paste) soup. You can eat okara (bean curd residue), too . Today we're wasteful, aren't we? In the past we never threw it away, so even when we ourselves ate it, tofu benefitted us economically.

When I was about 13 or 14 I also learned tofu making, grinding the beans early in the morning. We ground it by hand and made the tofu. Every day it was one kettleful. In the morning, when we closed up to sell tofu, I got things ready for the next day. I sold tofu on the streets in a place like a sidewalk where things were for sale . Friends who saw me would come to buy. Even if I never went to school I told them the amounts, and they gave me the money right away . One kettleful was very little, though - at least one yen. I never lowered the prices much . Everything was so cheap, but there was no money to buy anything anyway. Still, even if the pay was small, earning a living was easy in ltoman. Status didn 't matter.

In our family we ate something light like potatoes in the morning. We had rice only in the evening. Ordinarily only the old people were given rice. Even the children had only okayu (boiled rice gruel). There was milk but only mother's milk. We didn't eat much meat, mainly fish, tofu, vegetables. My father, although formerly samurai, quickly learned how to grow things from the villagers when he came to ltoman. Anything he looked at, he was able to do right away.

I used to go to my own field, too . I grew potatoes, turnips and other vegetables. I used a hoe and a kowa (digging hoe) to dig out grass. I would grow hay to almost six feet high and cut it down, then in half. After I harvested it, I brought it home to cut until midnight. Early next morning I'd lay it out to dry. I spread the straw out to dry even in the yard next door. In the evening I'd go to take it in. I was never careless about that. Then I would sew the straw together with a yama (mat-making device) to make goza (mats). A friend of my father's taught me how to do it. Then my father asked to learn how to do it, too. From the time I was small I wanted to be able to do anything other people could do. My hopes were to do something - to work as hard as I could, since as long as I worked I could make money. My parents couldn't work and became poor. That's how I thought.

Crossing the Pacific: "When I see a boat today, I feel weak."

I didn't have to ask anyone but my parents when it was time to prepare for Hawaii. I went to Naha and had my papers made. I didn't need so much time, because I just took along my usual clothes, no special crested wedding kimono. People who came to Hawaii wore nihongi, even after they arrived. Only after the war did they switch from kimonos to dresses.

The boat fare, which was very cheap, was paid for me by his parents. Less than the price of going to another island today. First it took from three to four days to go from Okinawa to Kobe. Then from Kobe to Yokohama. There I passed the physical examinations for junishi (hookworms) and for the eyes. In Yokohama I got on that boat, which was called Mongolia. It was old and big. By the time we reached Hawaii, we regretted getting on; it was 15 days of travel. Today! It's so different. See, the world's really changed, hasn't it?

I got very sick, because it swayed, and I couldn't eat the rice that was served; I couldn't even drink tea. Those who didn't feel anything could eat, and it was nothing. I was so weak I couldn't even go in front of a person who was smoking. The smell was so bad for my stomach.

In the boat I just slept in a swing made of thick cloth. I was so weak I couldn't be with the healthy ones talking with their friends on deck. I preferred to stay below. It was the middle level, I think. There were 12 people who came out from Okinawa including me. There were old men and women; their boys had sent for them. And then there were two girls who came as picture brides. With me, there were three. And some other people whose parents sent for them.

Even when I see a boat today, I feel weak. At the time, whenever I thought of reaching Hawaii I was always figuring out how many days had passed or what day we'd land. At the Immigration Bureau, they served us some nishime (meat and vegetable dish). I remember to my surprise what was in it; ''Oh, they have konbu (seaweed) in Hawaii, too,'' I said, surprised.

Daily Life on the Plantation: "It was tough in the old days."

I finally got accustomed to things when I realized that I didn't have to worry that much. The ladies who cooked with me, because they lived right next door, taught me a lot. They even loved my children. It was 1911 when I had my first child, my eldest daughter.

For six months we had stayed at Camp 35 where I watered and hoed and cooked. Hanawai (watering) and ho hana (weeding) were part of the fieldwork . The o-detchi (big ditch) was where the water first came in, and they ran that water through the small ditches. The line of ditches had water that would go downhill. I'd turn the water the right way. When it went uphill I'd shake the dirt off to make the water go to the cane. It would go up, down, up, down. Those who couldn't do it would find the dirt covering up the way to the cane and the water flowing over. They let the water spill out. At the foot of the cane you stepped on the opala (dried leaves). Then you held the dirt back with the hoe, and after pushing it down, you were able to switch the water to another place. The water wouldn't flow away. If you let it spill over the water luna (foreman) would see it.

I didn't hanawai very long. I would just do that much, see. I would be there in the morning before the water came, when it was still dark. I almost couldn't see because it was so early. It was ten hours of work. I'd reach there before 6 o'clock in the morning.

Ho hana time was when it rained, and the cane didn't need watering. So I'd cut the grass along the sides of the cane with the hoe. Everyone worked in rows when we hoed in the fields. Where husband and wife were allowed to work together, I worked with him. That's where married couples worked, and each couple moved from one place to another. After I watered, I worked with him.

The rest period was kaukau (food) time . We took our bento (lunch) and had about half an hour to eat. In those days lunch wasn't much. If we had rice we were lucky. The side dish was only shiosake (salted salmon), like the kind used in lomi-lomi (kneaded) salmon when you eat poi. We just had a little of it. It was really cheap then, not expensive like today. If we had that, we'd eat a lot of rice. We used to make tea. That's all. Many different things were eaten, but even for a side dish in a lunch, there wasn't anything decent.

For dinner we always had koko (pickles), and we bought udon (noodles) a lot. Okinawans cook with udon. That's why we were very active; we ate rice and udon soup.

As for our salary, it was like free labor. It came by contract. It all depended on the cane. When they grew and cut a lot, the money came in. If they didn't, we bought on credit. That's why we had no money. There was a plantation store . When we had money, it was cash we had to pay with. We didn't even think butter was something to eat. We called it fat. Bread was just one cent, that's all . And we just ate it without putting butter on it. Back then the children were given Eagle Brand (condensed) milk. So the milk wasn't very good, because it was sweet.

We ate tofu once a week only. We had it twice in one week only about once a month. The people who made it carried it by foot from Waipahu to sell it to us. The ingredients in tofu were cheap.

We were always on our guard when working. If we thought the lunas were coming, we were afraid . We weren't used to the work and couldn't take time to let up a little. We had to work hard. The lunas might or might not come once in a day, but we were always scared that they'd come. We couldn't understand their speech, and so we couldn't answer at all. Both men and women worked very hard, because we were scared. We thought it would be all right as long as we did our work. The cane fields were big, and the workers all had their jobs to do. That's how it was, so everyone did his own job, and there weren't many complaints. We worked, always watching.

Only on Sundays was I free. I did laundry for others. After the laundry, we had to walk everywhere, no matter how far away. From time to time, if I wanted to, I sewed my own things, but I hardly had the chance to do much since I worked Saturdays. Everyone else had their own work to do as well, so we didn't have much time to meet with others and talk story. We moved to Camp 1 when I became pregnant. I didn't want to have to walk in the watery parts of the canefield. It was dangerous. So when there was a job opening for a cook, I thought that would be better, and we moved.

But Camp 1 was the same kind of place as Camp 35. It was newly built and in the mountains near Waiau . It also had Koreans and Japanese. If we had settled down in that place, then I would have been hired for the fields again. But I wasn't there long enough.

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