Kona, a film in progress by Walter Dods
In 1881, David Kalakaua, the last King of Hawaii, made his one and only voyage to Japan. His mission was two-fold: First, form an alliance with the Emperor to create an empire that stretched eastward from the Japan, across all the islands of the South Pacific, and creating the new kingdom of ‘Oceania.’ Second, persuade the Emperor to allow Japanese subjects to emigrate, so that they might provide much-needed labour for Hawaii’s burgeoning sugar industry.
Although the Emperor initially rejected Kalakaua’s proposal, a confluence of environmental and social forces compelled him to reverse his decision regarding these laborers and allow the emigration of hundreds of thousands of Japanese citizens to Hawaii. Recruiters from Hawaii promised the peasant farmers of Southern Japan free housing and medical care, as well as the opportunity to return home – after they had completed their three year contracts – with enough money to buy their own farms and begin prosperous lives for themselves.
The Japanese practice of primo-geniture, where first-born sons inherited all of a family’s wealth in order to care for their elderly parents, shaped the types of applicants who signed on for these three-year contracts, and it was primarily the “second sons,” who filled the steam-ships bound for Hawaii.
Kona, a new documentary film by Hawaiian native Walter Dods, traces the steps of these second sons, from their departure from the small rural villages of their homeland to their arrival in Hawaii. The film examines the difficulties they experienced in not speaking the native language; their disappointment, when they saw the dilapidated accommodations they were expected to inhabit on the plantations; and their resentment of the lunas (overseers on horseback) who sometimes beat and whipped them in order to increase production.
Many of the Japanese labourers, tired of being treated like slaves, saw the small coffee farms of Kona as a chance for independence and a way to escape their cruel treatment at the hands of the lunas. Upon finishing their three-year contracts, many of these labourers made the treacherous journey across the Big Island of Hawaii to Kona, where they were able to lease small tracts of land and make a new life for themselves, growing coffee on their own terms.
Though most labourers completed their three-year contracts before heading to Kona, some could not endure their mistreatment and fled the plantation villages under the cover of darkness. Hiding during the day and traveling across rough terrain with only the moonlight and stars to guide them, these men and women stealthily avoided the plantation “goon squads” and police patrols that were always on the lookout for “runaways.” Police and plantation authorities, however, weren’t the only obstacles these runaways faced. Perhaps the greatest danger standing between them and their freedom were the gangs of bandits who waited for the unwary along the way. If captured by these highwaymen, the runaways often lost more than the money in their pockets. The one-week journey required physical endurance, great courage and a basic knowledge of which houses would provide food, water, and refuge from their pursuers.
These runaways risked everything for a chance at freedom, knowing that if they could just reach Kona, sympathetic locals (many of them former Japanese labourers and runaways themselves) would help them find work and change their names to avoid recapture by the plantations.
Disseminating the names of runaways across the Big Island, sugar plantations also offered rewards to help locate and recover their lost “property.” Kona’s remote location, and unique topography (which discouraged the formation of sugar plantations), however, made it the ideal place to seek refuge.
Those runaways fortunate enough to reach Kona undetected were forced to adopt a harsh lifestyle –getting up before dawn, and working until late at night, everyday without rest – in order to eke out a living from the unforgiving landscape on the slopes of Hualalai.
After years of toil in the coffee fields, many of these men came to the difficult realization that they would never make it back to Japan – not just because they lacked the money for the passage, but also because their pride would not allow them to return home without the riches they’d left in search of. These men began to accept that they were no longer sojourners, but rather “settlers” in Hawaii. This realization prompted many of them to start sending for “picture brides” from back home.
These intrepid women made immeasurable – often unrecognized – contributions to the survival and eventual success of the coffee industry in Kona. It was their stabilizing influence that helped transform the district from a “frontier” society – replete with gambling, drinking, brawling and carousing – to one of a more refined, family-oriented one.
The sacrifices of the women enabled their families to pursue dreams of a better life. Not only did they perform the same jobs as their husbands in the fields, but when the family returned home at the end of each day, these women still had a full range of domestic responsibilities to perform as well.
Though they had escaped a difficult and often demeaning life on the plantation, the Japanese found it very difficult to make a go of growing coffee in Kona. Lacking access to funds, many farmers were forced to buy their food and supplies on credit, promising their entire crop to the general store as repayment. At year’s end, depending on the price of coffee, a farmer might find himself sinking deeper and deeper into debt.
For this reason, some of the farmers in Kona started running “midnight coffee.” Much like the runaways who’d avoided the search parties the sugar plantations had sent out looking for them, these coffee-bootleggers also operated in the dead of night. They stealthily transported their precious cargo – beans that had already been promised to their creditors – to independent mills in exchange for the cash they needed to survive.
Kona explores how the issei (first generation Japanese Americans) tried to cope with armed police searching their homes for any evidence that might call into question their loyalty to America, even as their own sons volunteered to serve in the armed forces and their friends and neighbours were being taken away to internment camps.
Unlike their parents, the nisei who grew up in Kona were bilingual, some even trilingual. Their generation spoke Japanese at home, English at school, and ‘pidgin’ (an amalgamation of Hawaiian, English, Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese and Filipino unique to Hawaii) with their friends. This complexity of language was symptomatic of the difficulties the nisei faced in trying to forge their own identity. Not truly “Japanese” like their parents who’d been born and raised in Asia, this generation had been educated in western-style “American” schools, and struggled to reconcile these two very different belief systems.
The nisei’s pursuit of freedom had evolved from that of their parents. Theirs was a struggle to be regarded as equals within American society. Not just equals in name, but equals in deed (earned in blood on the battlefields of Europe) and opportunity as well.
At the close of the war, the nisei returned home to forge a new direction for the community and the economy in Kona.
Exploring the American South after receiving his award for “young farmer of the year,” a coffee processor named Takeshi Kudo was impressed by the way the farmers there had formed cooperatives to achieve greater purchasing-power for equipment and gain more control over the price and marketing of their crops.
Adopting this idea, Kudo helped organize one of the first cooperatives in Kona upon his return to the islands. He also revolutionized the milling and marketing of Kona coffee as a “specialty item.”
With the elevation of their product to gourmet status—and the resulting jump in price—the Japanese farming community in Kona stepped confidently onto the world-stage as the producers of one of the finest and most desirable commodities on the planet. The nisei had thus secured for themselves a level of self-sufficiency and financial independence undreamt of by their parents.
Konawaena High School’s class of 1964 – the first of its post-war baby-boom generation – produced many standout graduates, among them, an eagle scout named Ellison Onizuka. The final part of the film follows Ellison’s development from a young boy growing up on a remote coffee farm in Keopu, into the brilliant flight engineer who, through hard work, perseverance, and an unyielding desire be the best, would ultimately become the first Asian-American astronaut.
Upon returning home, Ellison Onizuka was eager to share the idea with audiences that “When you look down at the world from space…There are no lines.” When he was asked to explain what he meant by this, he continued, “When you look at a map of the earth, there are lines everywhere. Lines separating states. Lines separating countries. Lines separating people…but when you’re up in space looking down, the world is one peaceful whole…do we all need to travel so far to appreciate this?”
Onizuka’s bravery became the inspiration for an entire generation of Asian Americans to pursue their dreams, however far-fetched they may have seemed to those around them. His elegant request for humanity to stop creating “lines” is a powerful message that needs to be heard today, more than ever.
The Bulletin spoke to Walter Dods about his film, which is still in production.
BULLETIN INTERVIEW: Walter Dods
What drew you to this story in the first place?
Good question. I would have to say it was the people.
To be honest, I did not initiate this project myself. I was approached by a pair of producers that I work with on local television commercials here in Hawaii. Their initial concept was to produce a travel-channel type of show that would explain the mechanics of growing coffee (grown at this elevation, needs this much rainfall per annum, etc). However, as I started doing the research for this project, I began to uncover something amazing. Ironically, the real story here, wasn’t about coffee at all… it was about the people growing the coffee and what they had overcome to make Kona the place it is today. As I began to dig deeper, I was exposed to the sort of narrative any filmmaker dreams of… a completely unknown story of hardship, perseverance and triumph. We uncovered stories of Japanese runaways from their sugar plantations on the big island that directly paralleled the journeys of slaves in the American South during the underground railroad. We had literally stumbled upon Hawaii’s own version of the underground railroad! This blew my mind. Not only had these runaways defied all stereotypes of the Japanese as docile rule-followers, they had also pioneered the now-famous Kona Coffee industry. As we dug deeper, we found equally compelling stories about the Nisei as civil rights pioneers (Kona volunteers for the 442nd who were doing their basic training in Mississippi, often got into fistfights with bus drivers and angry locals who didn’t like it when they tried to sit at the back of the bus) and also the Sansei as (galactic) pioneers. The success of this small community provides a powerful example for anyone who feels they are the victims of prejudice. It shows what is possible (to go from indentured servitude to outer space in just three generations) with enough hard work and perseverance. The Japanese of Kona were given nothing. They had to fight for everything… I think it was this fighting spirit that has helped them achieve all they have.
You spent years researching the story – talking to many individuals within the Hawaiian Japanese American community – how did they respond to the project and your interest in their story?
Initially there was a lot of skepticism about me and the film I was trying to produce. Kona is a small, isolated community. Their mistrust of outsiders—even those from another island like Oahu—was something that I could only overcome with time and perseverance. It required leaving my home on Oahu and actually becoming a part of the community here in Kona. The more these folks saw me attending or volunteering at community events, the more I saw their faces relax. After a while, they began to trust the outsider from Honolulu and many started opening up and agreeing to let me visit their homes and interview them. I was also aided tremendously by a woman named Sheree Chase who had studied the Japanese coffee farmers of Kona for decades. Her own hard work and familiarity with the community enabled her to make introductions that would help me immeasurably.
How did you fund the project?
So far, we have received just one grant for $3,000 from the Hawaii Council for Humanities. The remainder has been funded out of my own pocket. I am so touched by the people of Kona, that finishing this film for them has become my obsession over the last several years.
What surprised you the most in your research?
The most surprising thing about this project is the love for the place and people I have developed as a result of spending so much time out here. Though my family, friends and home are on Oahu, I am now in the process of relocating permanently to the big island of Hawaii. I have fallen head over heels for this place and its people. The folks I’ve met here are kind, generous and gracious in a way that reminds of the Hawaii of my youth.
What is your next project?
At this time, I do not know what my next project will be. Having said that, I recently finished an amazing local book about a Hawaiian kid from Kahaluu, who went on to become one of the top sumo-wrestlers in the world. He retired early and came back to Hawaii to live. A few years after returning, his murdered body was found in an abandoned car on the Eastside of Oahu. The story of his descent from national hero to victim is astounding. This would probably be my first choice for a next project. But right now, I am only concerned with finishing Kona.
by Ken Noma
Inside Toyo Takata’s book, Nikkei Legacy, is a picture taken in 1907 at the Victoria docks that caught my attention the first time I saw it. The photograph is of two rows of nattily dressed Japanese immigrants who had just arrived from Hawai’i. Many questions came to mind but it was unanswered then and forgotten for many years until the day in March 2015 when I fortuitously wandered into the M. Field Gallery in Holualoa Town on the Big Island of Hawai’i.
Holualoa Town has a population of 8,538 and sits at an elevation of 1,500 feet. It is home to about 600 coffee farms that grow the world-famous Kona Coffee. There are also small businesses that cater to tourists who come from nearby Kailua-Kona. The M. Field Gallery building was once the home of the Kona Bottling Works operated by Kuzamo Akazawa who sold fizzing drinks such as lemon and strawberry for customers in the area. Mike Field now sells original art pieces as well as a line of clothing and surfing-related apparel. The Field sales lady gave me a brief history of the Japanese coffee growers in the area. She encouraged me to contact a Honolulu filmmaker, Walter Dods, who was working on a documentary about the lives of Japanese immigrants who tore up their indenture contracts with the sugar cane operators of Northern Hamakua and fled – at the risk of their own lives – to the west coast of Kona. This chance search for tee shirts led to my karmic introduction to Walter.
I want to acknowledge the significant contribution Walter is making to the preservation of the oral history of Nikkei immigrants. The completed documentary will be an important bridge of knowledge for future generations. At the moment, the film is self-financed and I thank him for his selfless determination to complete the project. You can donate by going to his website: www.konahistory.com
Looking at the 1907 photograph today I can’t help wonder if there might be a Canadian connection to the sugar cane fields of Hamakua? Is it possible that some of those standing on the docks of Victoria might have been fleeing their labour contracts under assumed names?
If you recognize any member of your family in the photograph, I would love to hear their stories. Please contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org