Two UH Researchers Bid Farewell to Historic Center

Kevin Y. Kawamoto
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

Their names have been synonymous with oral history research in Hawai‘i for decades. But when the fall 2017 semester begins at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa later this month, Dr. Warren Nishimoto and Michi Kodama-Nishimoto will have already quietly closed a nearly four-decade-long chapter in their lives as director and research associate, respectively, of the Center for Oral History.

In 1979, Chad Taniguchi, then-director of the Ethnic Studies Oral History Project, as it was known back then, hired Warren and Michi (who are referred to by their first names in this story to avoid confusion). Both were interested in the oral history interviewer position that they had seen advertised. Only one position was available, however. Taniguchi liked both of them, Warren recalled, so he split the position in two and gave each of them half a position, which eventually evolved into full-time positions. Happily, they not only launched their careers as oral history researchers, but also found their future spouses through the project: each other! Warren and Michi were married in 1984 and have been working together as husband and wife ever since.

The Ethnic Studies Oral History Project was established in 1976 by the Hawai‘i state Legislature to preserve “the recollection of Hawai‘i’s people through oral interviews and disseminates oral history transcripts to researchers, students and the general community,” according to the center’s website. Taniguchi was the project’s founding director and spent the early years lobbying the Legislature each session to renew funding until 1983, when more stable funding was established and the project found a longtime home within the Social Science Research Institute in UH Mänoa’s College of Social Sciences. Warren became the director that year and the name of the project was changed briefly to the Oral History Project and then more permanently to the Center for Oral History, as it is now known. Even with more stable funding, the center still had to seek grants, donations and other forms of support, such as partnerships, to keep its work thriving over the years.

The oral history interviewer position that Warren and Michi applied for involved conducting life history interviews with working-class people in Hawai‘i. The idea was to collect these stories and make them available as another source of information to learn about Hawai‘i’s history. It was an alternative to having someone who was not from Hawai‘i come to the Islands and tell its history from an outsider’s perspective, relying on written documents and elite cultural informants, as most conventional histories tend to do.

By contrast, if oral history researchers want to learn about a place and its people, they go into the community and talk with those who live and work there, many of whom probably think of themselves as just “ordinary” people, but who actually have quite extraordinary and inspiring stories to share about their life and times.

Of the hundreds of interviews that could have been highlighted for this article, only two were selected due to space constraints. Both were Hawai‘i residents of Japanese ancestry — one a Nisei who was born on Maui, and the other an Issei who was born in Fukuoka, Japan. Their stories are just two of the many gems that fill the burgeoning treasure chest of oral histories collected by the Center for Oral History. These two examples attest to the strength, determination and enterprising spirit of working-class women in Hawai‘i’s history who overcame significant obstacles to achieve a level of success in their personal lives and careers.

An Independent Woman: Mrs. Mae Itamura

In 1979 and 1980, Warren interviewed Mrs. Mae Morita Itamura, who opened the Paia Liquor Store on Maui in 1937. Her story was included in “Talking Hawai‘i’s Story: Oral Histories of an Island People,” which was published in 2009 for the Biographical Research Center by the University of Hawai‘i Press. The book was edited by Warren, Michi and Cynthia A. Oshiro, a longtime center staff member who retired from the center. Itamura told Warren her life story — how she quit high school and pumped gas in order to earn money after her father became ill; how she later took jobs at Tam Chong Store and Maui Dry Goods; and how she took “side jobs” as a touring theater group organizer, an insurance salesperson and a bookkeeper at another dry goods store before eventually opening her own liquor store.

“I had to quit high school,” Itamura said, to help support her family and pay the bills after her father’s failed business venture running a small hotel left her family in debt. “I had six months more to go (of high school).” Itamura had dreams of attending the University of Hawai‘i and becoming a sugar technologist because she thought it was an interesting field and she was good at math. A friend’s father even offered to support her. But Itamura declined the offer because she felt it was her duty to support her entire family and she couldn’t ask her friend’s father to take on that responsibility.

Instead, Itamura took whatever work she could find, including working in the liquor department of someone else’s store, where she learned the business. She learned about the importance of keeping accurate books and being thrifty. For example, her boss was adamant that she not waste paper, not even used paper. He told her to save the used paper and straighten it out so that it could be re-used.

When she was ready to buy her own store, Itamura faced obstacles because she was young and unmarried, and it was unusual for someone like herself to get a liquor license to sell alcoholic beverages. She eventually got a license and ran a successful business, thanks to her street smarts and hard work. She even had whiskey bottled and sold under her own label.

Beyond sales, Itamura said she provided good customer service. Customers would bring her letters that they did not understand — letters from the government, for example, that required a response. “If they cannot read the letter, I read it for them — explain to them,” she said. “But main thing, be kind to them.”

Itamura married in 1953 and retired in 1972. “I feel that I accomplished my aim in life,” she told Warren. “To take good care of my own family. At the same time, make some money to take care of myself. Because in this life, you have to be independent, you know.”

A Legacy of Local History

Itamura’s life story is just one of more than 900 interviews that the Center for Oral History conducted with men and women on a variety of political, social and cultural topics. “Talking Hawai‘i’s Story,” features the variety of experiences of 29 ethnically diverse interviewees from across the state.

An earlier book, “Hanahana: An Oral History Anthology of Hawaii’s Working People,” was published in 1984 and paid tribute to three men “who dedicated their lives to Hawai‘i’s working people” — writer and social justice advocate Koji Ariyoshi, labor leader Hideo “Major” Okada and progressive scholar John E. Reinecke. In his foreword, founding director Chad Taniguchi wrote: “The men and women who speak to you through this book were in the prime of their lives between 1920 and 1960. In their own ways, they helped create the changes that saw Big Five control over Hawaii give way to multi-ethnic participation in a more democratic society.”

The hundreds of people interviewed by oral history researchers made Hawai‘i what it is today. However, most of their stories would have been lost to time had the researchers waited before reaching out to them to collect and preserve their stories. Warren and Center for Oral History research associate Holly Yamada interviewed families in Hämäkua and Ka‘ü on the Big Island, for example, as sugar plantations were closing down and the plantation way of life was beginning to fade from memory.

Michi, Warren and researcher-interviewer Fernando Zialcita also interviewed more than 30 longtime residents of Kalihi, a multiethnic working-class district a few miles west of downtown Honolulu. Kalihi has served as a community of transition for generations of immigrants and given rise to Hawai‘i’s ethnically diverse population. In all, the center’s work has resulted in dozens of volumes of oral history research focused on local communities, ethnic groups, government, historical events, individual lives and occupations (see sidebar for a more complete list of oral history projects). The interviews have resulted in more than 50,000 pages of oral history transcripts — stories that might never have seen the light of day had it not been for the countless hours the oral history researchers spent seeking out interviewees, conducting the interviews using systematic oral history research methods and then preserving the interviews in printed and digital archives.

Mrs. Osame Manago, an Enterprising Issei Woman

As part of the 1980 “A Social History of Kona” project, Michi interviewed Mrs. Osame Manago, whose story was later selected for publication in “Hanahana.” Michi, a bilingual oral history researcher, interviewed Manago in Japanese in two different locations: at her family’s Manago Hotel in Kona and at Manago’s daughter’s condo in Honolulu. During those interviews, Michi was able to draw out some remarkable details from Manago that are at times humorous and startling.

Osame Manago was born April 16, 1891, in Japan’s Fukuoka-ken (prefecture). She was from a rice-farming family that had no male children, so Manago and her four sisters planted and harvested rice. She left school after the fifth grade — thought to be sufficient education for a farmer’s daughter — and immigrated to Hawai‘i as a picture bride in 1913. She and her husband Kinzo had eight children, the first of whom was born in 1915. The Managos first opened a coffee shop, selling Kona coffee and homemade udon and bread. They also began renting beds at a low price to workers spending a night or two in Kona. These businesses eventually evolved into Kona’s historic Manago Hotel.

Manago told Michi a fascinating and intriguing story of her life, beginning in Japan. As a young woman, she had rejected a marriage proposal that her parents and close relatives had arranged with a man from her village. In order to escape the controversy, she decided that it would be best if she moved far away to a place like Hawai‘i and subsequently entered into another arranged marriage to Kinzo Manago, although he was already living in Hawai‘i while she was still in Japan.

“They [the people who arranged the marriage] thought I was a hard worker and suited for the Manago family, I guess,” she told Michi, “although I was not the greatest beauty.” She lived with the Manago family in Japan while awaiting her voyage to Hawai‘i.

But she hit a roadblock when the time finally arrived for her to leave.

“At the physical inspection in Nagasaki, my eyes were fine, but I had hookworms. So I was suspended in Nagasaki for a week.” Manago was determined to get to Hawai‘i, however, and was told that if she ate lots of nuts, it would be difficult to detect the hookworms in her stool sample. She consumed “quite a lot of these nuts,” which her mother roasted for her. When her stool was retested, she was cleared to travel. Manago was relieved to finally be on her way to Hawai‘i to meet her husband.

Osame Manago’s story is filled with details told with a composed frankness by someone whose resilience and gaman — the Japanese virtue of determined perseverance — are plainly evident. In her oral history interview, she told Michi about how she and her husband built up the business that would become the landmark Manago Hotel, a process that took a lot of grit, risk and hard work. She told her about traveling back to Japan so her parents could meet their six Hawai‘i-born grandchildren, the youngest of whom was just 7 months old at the time, and how difficult it was for her to leave her youngest child in Japan at the request of her family. She talked about having to close the hotel during World War II and serving soldiers under a contract with the U.S. military. However, it provided income for the hotel’s remodeling, work they had started before the war broke out. The hotel’s ownership was transferred to an American-born son to prevent it from being confiscated because Mrs. Manago and her husband were Japan-born and barred from becoming American citizens at the time.

Despite the hardships in Hawai‘i, Mrs. Manago said in her oral history that she felt she had “good luck.” She said she and her husband enjoyed good health and her children grew up unspoiled. “[A]ll my children worked hard, picking coffee, cutting firewood, doing laundry, ironing and cleaning and helping me. I would hear about new movie theaters being built, but we didn’t go even once in the first fifteen years. That’s how hard we worked. It’s hard to believe what we did in those days, but . . . that’s my real history.”

The End of a Chapter

The Center for Oral History has given voice to people whose stories rarely get told in conventional histories, at least not in their own words. In addition to Oshiro and Yamada, mentioned earlier, Warren and Michi were aided along the way by other interviewers, student assistants and a variety of community partners.

But just as book chapters come to an end, so do careers. On June 1, 2017, after a lifetime commitment to compiling oral histories in Hawai‘i, Warren and Michi officially retired from the work they not only did themselves, but also taught others to do through trainings and workshops for community organizations, schools, churches, university classes and in other ways. When they first started doing oral histories in the late 1970s, they were both young and had a lot to learn. The people they interviewed were their grandparents’ age. Listening to the interviewees was like grandparents talking story with their grandchildren.

Warren and Michi are now grandparents themselves. They hope that younger generations will discover the joy of doing oral history research. During their nearly four-decade career, they tried to uncover gaps in knowledge and pursued those projects with a curious excitement. There are still gaps to be filled, but others will now assume that role. As of this writing, it appears the Center for Oral History will reside within the UH Department of Ethnic Studies and will be directed by Professor Davianna Pömaika‘i McGregor, who also happened to be one of the early supporters of the Ethnic Studies Oral History Project along with Chad Taniguchi in the 1970s. Details have yet to be announced publicly, but Warren believes the center’s future is secure within the College of Social Sciences.

Extracting stories from working-class local people hasn’t always been easy for the oral history researchers. The subjects often express surprise that their stories would be of interest to anyone. Warren said they need to be convinced and that it is important that the interviewers also spend time establishing a rapport and building a relationship of trust. Interviewees may also be wary of the recording technology, but in oral history research, interviewees are allowed to review and correct their transcript before it is made available to the public.

“We need to let them know how important their stories are,” Warren said, “because a common reaction is, ‘What do you want to interview me for?’”

He often asks them whether their grandchildren and other family members know about what they lived through. “The number one thing is the legacy part,” Warren said. “Once people start to think of their recollection as being a legacy that can be left for the next generation, then things become much more meaningful for them.”

In that sense, the interviewees are not just talking to the interviewer from UH Mänoa, but also to the general public through their recorded oral histories. “We have the tools to make these interviews available,” Warren said. The interviewees are really talking to future generations of people who can learn about Hawai‘i’s past from those who lived it, even long after the interviewees are no longer around or able to share those stories in person.

For nearly four decades, Warren Nishimoto and Michi Kodama-Nishimoto have created a legacy of local knowledge of immeasurable value to the state of Hawai‘i and its people. Current and future oral history researchers will be left to carry on this legacy so that the voices of those who made Hawai‘i what it is today are preserved forever.

Kevin Kawamoto is a longtime contributor to The Hawai‘i Herald.


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