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  • The Dawning of an Okinawan
  • Jon Shirota (bio)

The sandy, rock-strewn path to the gravesite of my father and mother is up a sharp incline bordered by tangled tropical weeds and sharp thorny bushes. The steep, arduous climb seems to symbolize the hard, grueling lives Otōsan and Okāsan endured so that their children might one day climb up to their graves and appreciate the spectacle of peace and serenity below. Where dry, flammable sugarcane once grew, wavering in the wind, are now groves of sturdy blue-green macadamia trees. And where patches of red-brown mud blighted the meadowlands, now sparkling white homes stand, surrounded by majestic cloud-draped mountain peaks.

Happy, lilting voices of young children down at the St. Anthony High School football field suddenly evoke bittersweet memories of my own childhood, and momentarily distract me from the headstones.

Kamata Shirota,     Uto Shirota,
1888-1950          1891-1950

Forty years ago!

It's been forty years, Otōsan, since you and Okāsan left us! Not only in the same year, but also the same month!

Otōsan had left his poverty-stricken, oppressed homeland at the opening of the century, when he was barely eighteen. He had heard of the fortunes that were being made by the first group of twenty-seven young Okinawans who emigrated to Hawaii in 1899, and was determined to seek his fortune there, too. But it was not until 1907 that he finally arrived in Hawaii with a group led by pioneer Kyuzo Toyama, who was a fellow Yambara from the mountains of Ginoza District.

After laboring in the Waipahu canefields on Oahu for a couple of years and not being able to save anything from the one dollar he earned each day, he thought of moving to California, where a group of young Okinawans were working for the railroads. Restrictive emigration laws, however, forbade him from moving to the Mainland. He could either return to Okinawa or remain in Hawaii. He chose to remain in Hawaii, and his dream of amassing a fortune remained just that. A dream. [End Page 157]

After another year of slaving in the Waipahu canefields, he moved to Lahaina, Maui. He still earned one dollar a day, and he was getting no closer to building that village castle of his than when he first arrived. In 1911, he paid a matchmaker in Ginoza Village to send him a wife. His young picture bride arrived shortly.

Restless, still determined to return to his homeland wealthy, he moved to Peahi on the eastern slopes of Maui, where, like other Yambaras, he became an independent pineapple grower. Children and more children followed. Eight altogether. Otōsan and Okāsan believed in equality. Four boys; four girls.

I was number six. Hiroshi. Had Otōsan realized the misery that his recalcitrant sixth child would cause him in years to come, he surely would have stopped at number five. Otōsan and Okāsan, however, were a healthy couple, and did not permit mysterious concepts like contraception to interfere with the romantic interludes in their spartan lives.

The next move was to the western slopes of Maui in Kahakuloa, where the pineapples reputedly grew bigger than watermelons. We lived in Kapuna Valley and commuted to the pineapple fields. Our home was built by a co-op of Okinawans. Consisting of several families, the co-op would build a house for a family, then move on to build a house for another family, until all the families were provided with homes built by unskilled, but persevering hands. Each home had its own outhouse and a furo bathhouse.

More than half a century later, our house, built by Otōsan and his fellow Okinawans, would still be standing on its original foundation. It would be owned by a young haole doctor and his wife from New York City, who lived in it for a number of years, then rented it to a haole family from California.

That home, which cost you less than five hundred dollars to build, Otōsan, is now rented for more than that each month! Of course, there is electricity in the house now, also an indoor...


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pp. 157-173
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