Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Most people who know me through my company, Cane Haul Road, would probably assume I was born and raised in Hawai‘i. In response to the often-asked local question, “What high school you went?” my answer is “Kubasaki High School, Department of Defense, Sukiran (today Zukeran), Okinawa.” It’s a surprise to most people.
Do my 12 years in Okinawa, from first grade to high school graduation while my father was a construction supervisor for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, make Okinawa my home? If you ask me where I call home, my answer is Hilo, my birthplace, and Okinawa, where I lived the longest with my parents and siblings — not Honolulu, where I’ve resided for 50 years. The answer is more emotional than rational. Hilo, because I’m a fourth-generation Kagimoto from there. My father was born there, and my mother in ‘Öla‘a, so their Big Island values are what defined our home life. While growing up, we would return to Hilo every other summer to spend about a month there with family and family friends.
Okinawa is where I became aware of being an “overseas American” — an Asian in a mostly white military world surrounded by an Okinawan world. It was rather complicating and confusing.
I recently went back to Okinawa with my brother and sister for the first time in 46 years! As expected, much has changed after so many decades. What has remained the same, however, are familiar Okinawan faces, kindness and generosity.
We spent a whole day with our former maid and her family. It has always been awkward for me to talk about our “privileged” lifestyle growing up. But this was the norm for American families in the 1950s and 1960s in Okinawa and Japan. We had a yardman to take care of the greenery, a “sew girl” to make dresses for my mother, a car wash to clean our family car and a live-in maid.
Chiyoko, our maid, came to work for us when she was 16. This was the age that most Okinawan children went to work if they couldn’t continue on to higher education. Chiyoko wasn’t that much older than my sister, Kathleen. In the time she was with us, she married and had four children. Chiyoko did everything for us: She cooked, washed and ironed our clothes, cleaned the house, waxed the floors, made the beds, polished our shoes . . . you name it, she did it.
My mother was a kindergarten teacher, who taught class all day. I’m sure she taught Chiyoko how to cook and bake the American meals and desserts she mastered. The meals were typically from ingredients available at the base commissary — lots of meat, pot roast, meatloaf, beef stew, corned beef and cabbage and spaghetti. The only real chores we did were on Sunday, when Chiyoko had the day off and I actually had to make my own bed one day a week.
As I remember it, Chiyoko would work a half-day on Saturday and then catch the bus home. I think she had a house in Urasoe, where she and her family now live. As in Hawai‘i, owning land in Okinawa is a major asset. As a young child, I remember visiting her and her mother there once — it was a small, typical wooden Okinawan house. I believe her father died in Manchuria when she was a little girl, so Chiyoko was an only child. Apparently, many Okinawan men were drafted to fight in the Japanese army during the Second World War.
I don’t remember a harsh word ever passing between us — Chiyoko was more like a good older sister. Nor do I remember specifically asking her to do something for me, although I’m sure I did. I hope I wasn’t a spoiled brat. I never gave much thought to the employer-employee relationship Chiyoko had with my parents. It was our normal life, that’s all I knew.
I sometimes joke that I felt “underprivileged,” because we only had one maid — some families with young kids had two. After Chiyoko got married and started her family, she wanted to quit, but my mother begged her to stay, so she continued to work for us part-time. I think it was as a favor to my mom.
My parents were in Okinawa until its reversion back to Japan in 1972. By then, I had graduated from the University of Hawai‘i and could no longer return to Okinawa for free with U.S. military travel privileges. In the early 1980s, my father was stationed at Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station in Yamaguchi Prefecture. He and my mom lived there for six or seven years before returning to Hawai‘i.
While at Iwakuni, they made a point of visiting their old friends in Okinawa, both Americans and Okinawans, and especially Chiyoko and her family. Chiyoko had named her eldest son Hiroto, after my father. After my parents returned to Hawai‘i, my mother invited her to come and visit us in Honolulu many times. However, due to health reasons, Chiyoko wasn’t able to travel here.
My parents always considered their years in Okinawa their happiest. I know their relationship with Chiyoko was a big part of those memories.
After my parents died — my mother in 2009, and my dad in 2010 — we lost a great deal of our family history. My father had a remarkable memory for family relationships and his family both in Hawai‘i and Hiroshima. Fortunately, my sister inherited their phone directory, which still had a phone number for Chiyoko. When we finally decided to go back to Okinawa, my brother tried calling that number. Much to his surprise, Kana, Chiyoko’s eldest daughter, answered the phone. She spoke English, so Ian was able to relay details concerning our trip.
Although we didn’t have any current pictures of Chiyoko and Kazuo, we recognized them instantly. She had gotten grayer, as had we, but her face hadn’t changed. Hugging her was very un-Asian, but we aren’t your typical Asians — we’re Hawai‘i people in that way, and we hug. Besides, our relationship to Chiyoko was much more familial.
My sister’s Kathleen’s reaction at seeing Chiyoko came as a surprise to me. When they first saw each other in the hotel lobby, both of them started to cry. They held each other’s hands and carried on a conversation while Kazuo drove us around our former neighborhoods. I didn’t realize that Chiyoko and Kath were that close.
At age 79, her husband Kazuo continues to work part-time. He seems to thrive on it and, in fact, looks younger than me. He has spent his entire career working for the U.S. government, starting as an entry-level worker and rising to become the manager of a base-wide department. He has learned to speak very good English, as have two of his older children, who also work on-base.
Kazuo even got us onto the former military bases where we lived. Much of bases seemed the same, although they are now Marine bases, not the Army bases they were when we lived in Okinawa. Two-story apartments have replaced the site of our first house on Fort Buckner, now renamed Camp Foster. The area of our second house and my old Sukiran Elementary School in Kishaba Terrace is being replaced with new school buildings.
I later asked my sister about her relationship with Chiyoko. She explained that after dinner most nights, and after Chiyoko’s work was done for the day, they would sit together and talk story. I asked her how they communicated since none of us spoke Japanese. Kath said that between our great-grandmother, who was Issei, and our grandmother, who was Kibei, she managed to learn some simple Japanese while we were still in Hilo. Chiyoko could speak some English that she learned from us.
I once asked my parents why they didn’t force us to learn Japanese. Mom said she thought we would learn through osmosis. How was that possible when we lived mostly on-base? I think they didn’t push the issue because of memories of World War II. Ten years after the war wasn’t an ideal time to be a born-again Japanese.
As we saw on this trip, Chiyoko has had a happy, fulfilling and successful life. She herself has grown into the confident matriarch of a solid middle-class family with a large and beautiful home.
Since our trip, my brother Ian and Hiroto having been keeping in touch through the internet using translation programs. We hope that Chiyo-
ko’s kids will someday visit us here so that our relationship can come full circle.
I used to always complain that we lived an isolated life in Okinawa with no relatives, no cousins, no aunties or uncles. But after spending that day with Chiyoko and her family, I think I was mistaken — they were my extended family all along. The way that they welcomed us and took care of us was so amazing. It was clear to me that the 50-year relationship Chiyoko and Kazuo had with our family, especially with my parents, is one of the most meaningful friendships we will ever know.
It’s said that “home is where the heart is.” That is especially true for me.
Grant Kagimoto is the president and delivery boy for his company, Cane Haul Road, Ltd.