House in Kapa‘a Has Been Home to Four Generations of the Kurasaki Family
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
“Long periods of suffering have left their imprint on her face and posture, but her spirit and faith have remained strong and undaunted through the years.” — Isami Kurasaki writing about his mother, Hide Kurasaki
My Uncle Isami wrote this in a 1961 essay about his mother — my grandmother — Hide Kurasaki. In that one sentence, he perfectly summed up her life of hardship and resilience. Like many women of her generation, Hide-Obaachan worked tirelessly to bring her family out of extreme poverty and give them a better life.
THE EARLY YEARS
My obaachan (grandmother, lovingly) arrived in Hawai‘i in 1910, the picture bride of my ojiichan (grandfather), Aijurö Kurasaki, who had immigrated to Hawai‘i in 1905. Both were from the poor farming village of Marifu-cho, Iwakuni, in Yamaguchi Prefecture. Both had only meager educations — Ojiichan only attended school until the fourth grade; Obaachan only finished first grade. Both were forced to quit school and help out on their family farms.
Once in Hawai‘i, they both worked in the fields for Makee Sugar Co., living in a Japanese plantation camp in the Kapahi area of Kapa‘a. Their first baby, a boy, died at birth from complications. In the next two years, Obaachan and Ojiichan had another son, Masao, and a daughter, Kinuko. Obaachan strapped the babies to her back as she worked in the cane fields. When they were “older” — toddlers, actually — she would leave them on a blanket in the fields. Aunty Kinuko said she and Masao never strayed from the blanket, waiting patiently for Obaachan’s “pau hana” time.
After moving to nearby “35 Camp,” Obaachan had another daughter.
Even as a young wife, Obaachan could see that there was no future in plantation work. Unlike most of the young women she worked with, who longed to return to Japan, Obaachan knew she could never return to her homeland. Her family in Japan was extremely poor, so poor that her father had told her, “You go to Hawai‘i, get married, work and STAY there.” So, she persevered through the hardships and resolved that she would one day purchase some land and get her family off the plantation.
Obaachan saved their money meticulously. By 1918, she had accumulated enough to buy a house along the main highway in Kapa‘a. Obaachan was happy that her home was across the street from the beach because the ocean had always been a source of comfort to her.
When she purchased the property, there was a small store in front of the house. Obaachan was always looking for opportunities to supplement the family’s income, so she told Ojiichan to use his artistic gifts and learn how to cut hair. The old store became his Kurasaki Barbershop.
Ojiichan was able to support his family as a barber. Although there wasn’t much money to spare, barbering was definitely easier work than plantation labor. When business was slow, Ojiichan wove nageami (Japanese throw nets), using them to catch fish for family meals and selling extra nets to local fishermen.
Their house was modest — just one-room with a dirt floor and a canvas ceiling. The kitchen and outhouse were in the backyard. Rats, roaches and mosquitoes shared the house with the family, and the noisy, Lïhu‘e-bound sugarcane train passed right in front of the barbershop. The house was simple and bare, but it was theirs.
As the years passed, more children were born. Obaachan worked hard to feed her growing family. Besides working in the cane fields, she raised chickens, rabbits, ducks and pigs at home. The chickens and rabbits fed the family, while the ducks and pigs were sold to local stores and butchers. Obaachan also had a large vegetable garden in the backyard. The Kapa‘a property was more than just a roof over the heads of the Kurasaki family members — it sustained them, as well.
Life became even more difficult for the family in 1928 when Ojiichan fell from the roof and injured his arm. He was later diagnosed with osteomyelitis (infection of the bone) and hospitalized for an entire year at Queen’s Hospital in Honolulu. With no income, six children to feed and mounting medical bills, the family suffered. The oldest daughters — my eldest aunties — who were in middle school at the time, had to quit school and work in the cane fields or at the local pineapple cannery to support the family. My grandmother sewed her family’s clothes from old rice and sugar bags and made side money by sewing shirts and trousers for neighboring Filipino bachelors.
Word of the family’s plight quickly spread through the small town of Kapa‘a. Many Kapa‘a storekeepers extended credit to the family for their groceries. “Pay when you can,” they said. Pig farmers like Mr. Tamashiro and Mr. Shimabukuro gave the family pork and meat. If not for the generosity of the people of Kapa‘a town, the Kurasaki family most certainly would have starved.
Through all the difficult times, Obaachan was the backbone of the family, always working hard to keep the family fed. She was also known around town as a math genius. Amazingly, although she had only a first grade education, Obaachan could mentally calculate the interest accrued over many years when asking shopkeepers to extend credit to her for groceries. Obaachan accumulated over $2,000 in debt, a huge sum in those days. But she paid the shopkeepers back every cent, with interest, by working in the pineapple fields and the Pono cannery for many years.
Ojiichan eventually regained his health and returned home to Kapa‘a. By the early 1930s, with three more babies, the Kurasaki family was finally complete. In all, Obaachan had given birth to 12 children, suffering the loss of four who died in either infancy or childhood.
With Ojiichan home, she managed to save more money and rebuild the family home — slightly bigger this time, and with recycled wood. Although it was still small for such a big family, it at least had a wooden floor, an indoor kitchen and bedrooms separate from the living area. This is the house that the younger Kurasaki children remember.
In the early 1950s, with help from one of my aunties, Obaachan again rebuilt her house — this time with new redwood. It was small, like the old houses, and simple, but Obaachan finally had a home she was proud of — a home with a stainless steel sink, special shelves for her Japanese dishes, and special built-in nooks for her beloved Buddhist and Tenrikyö altars. In her small “dream home,” Obaachan lived out her life contentedly.
THE NISEI CONNECTION
My mother Marian, the youngest of the Kurasaki children, had a rough start in life.
Obaachan was two weeks overdue when she finally went into labor in September of 1933. She enlisted the help of a midwife, but it was soon apparent that this birth would have complications. Both mother and unborn baby were in medical distress, so they were taken to the “hospital” — the one-room office of a young doctor named Tadao Hata. Dr. Hata had just finished his medical training and had never before delivered a baby. This baby’s head was large and Dr. Hata needed forceps to get the infant out. She was just less than 10 pounds, but she was blue and was not breathing.
Dr. Hata quickly immersed the baby in cold water, then in hot water, alternating temperatures in a desperate attempt to get the baby to breathe. Finally, after several tense minutes, the baby started breathing. My mom and grandmother could have died, but young Dr. Hata saved them both. When I think about it, I actually owe my life to Dr. Hata.
After that rough start, Mom did well. She has fond memories of her childhood, hanging out at the barbershop, climbing mango and plum trees in the backyard and enjoying the cool trade winds while playing ‘ukulele on the front porch. She had many chores, including starting the fire for the ofuro and helping with the family chickens. Mom remembers collecting the warm, fresh eggs from the coop, and even killing the chickens and plucking their feathers when her mother needed chicken meat for a hekka dinner. It was a simple, but happy life.
My mom worked summers at the pineapple cannery, graduated from Kapa‘a High School and attended the University of Hawai‘i. She paid for her tuition and housing with her summer cannery earnings. After receiving her bachelor’s degree and professional teacher’s certificate, she started teaching elementary school. Mom’s teaching career spanned 28 years — she taught children on O‘ahu and in Los Angeles. After marrying Mike Yoshio Kubota of Hilo, they settled in Los Angeles and began raising their own family, which grew to five children — I am the eldest.
Connections to the older generations were always important in our family, which is why we visited Kapa‘a and Hilo regularly. Mom and Dad wanted to make sure that we knew our grandparents and other relatives. After Obaachan passed away, Mom couldn’t bear to sell the Kapa‘a house her mother had worked so hard for, so she bought out her siblings and kept the beloved home in the family. My parents always dreamed of returning to Kapa‘a and remodeling the Kurasaki home. Unfortunately, my dad passed away in 2004 without ever realizing that dream.
Memories of my childhood visits to Obaachan’s home always filled my heart with warm feelings. Kapa‘a town itself has changed a lot since the 1970s. These days, there are a lot more cars and traffic and tourists. Thankfully, though, many old buildings survived Kaua‘i’s transformation: Togikawa Store still stands, only three doors away. When I was a shy 7-year-old, Mom sent my 6-year-old brother and me to Togikawa Store to buy milk and bread. To this day, my brother and I laugh when we recall how scared we were to walk soooo far by ourselves. Back then, we thought we had walked a mile!
As an adult, I always felt a yearning to return to Kapa‘a and fulfill my parents’ dream. In 2014, I bought a half-interest in the house and Mom and I decided to remodel it.
We hadn’t seen the house completely empty since Obaachan died, as it had been a rental for many years. When I stepped into the empty living room for the first time, a flood of memories from my childhood came rushing back. Obaachan’s special nooks for her altars were still there. They were empty, but I could still envision the Buddhist and Tenrikyö altars where she had placed them, and I could almost smell the incense wafting through the house. The built-in shelves for her dishes also were still there — empty, yes, but filled with memories of Obaachan serving us fresh, homegrown papaya in Japanese ceramic bowls. I knew I was home!
The front yard is bigger now, as the barbershop was demolished in the late 1970s due to termite damage. Mom can still envision the cane haul train roaring past the barbershop in the 1940s. She said she and her friends would yell, “Throw cane!” to the man sitting in the last cane car. He would throw sugar cane stalks to the children, which they would break by wedging them under the railroad track. That was the children’s afternoon snack.
The old furo house was still standing in the backyard with its wood-burning ofuro. It was a source of great memories for Mom, who remembers starting the fire for the family’s bath, throwing a sweet potato in the embers, taking a refreshing bath and then eating the sweet potato afterwards. In the house, we also found precious mementos of my grandparents — a kachiken naifu (cane cutting knife), a sickle, two kerosene lamps, some pots and pans and Ojiichan’s barber brush.
After 60 years, the house needed work. Although the termite-eaten window frames and broken cabinets needed replacing, the house was basically in good shape, a real quality house. We were able to keep Obaachan’s original kitchen sink and an old concrete sink from the furo house, which helps keep her memory alive. We also turned those built-in dish shelves into a small “family history museum,” keeping my grandparents’ mementos safe.
After the repairs were completed, Mom and I, along with my husband Ron and one of our daughters, moved from California to the Kurasaki family home in Kapa‘a. We always joke to visitors that our house has “Hawaiian A/C,” just like Obaachan had, meaning you just open the windows. We love our new house — or new old house — and all the precious memories it holds.
Mom enjoys being home again, although many of her friends and classmates moved away or have passed on. She’s found a new life here on her home island. She has returned to her childhood church, All Saints Episcopal Church, where she’s made new friends and sings in the church choir. And, she volunteers to sew “welcome leis” for visitors and tourists.
A few things haven’t changed from the old days. Bon dances are still fun and festive. The “Iwakuni Ondo” steps are still the same as when Mom was young and her father sang, “Arya saa korya . . .” from the yagura (musicians’ platform) at the Kapaa Hongwanji bon dance. We still meet people who had their hair cut by Ojiichan, or who remember Uncle Isami, a schoolteacher and principal. Everywhere we go, Kapa‘a welcomes us home with warm and open arms.
Ninety-nine years after my obaachan — Hide Kurasaki — worked so hard to purchase the Kapa‘a property, her daughter, granddaughter and great-grandchildren now call it home. Our lives and careers have taken us to many places in this country, but the small town of Kapa‘a has always pulled Mom and me back to the humble home that sustained our family for so long. Welcome home, Mom . . .
Carolyn Kubota Morinishi is a multitalented woman. She and her mom, Marian Kurasaki Kubota, have been Hawai‘i Herald columnists for more than a decade — researching, writing and designing their monthly “Culture4Kids!” column, which spotlights various aspects of Japanese culture. Carolyn earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science and math (bachelor’s) from the University of Southern California. She has been teaching classical Japanese dance since 1998 and currently teaches classes on Kaua‘i and in Los Angeles. She also holds a teaching degree from the Edo Senke School of Tea Ceremony. She and her husband Ron are the parents of three grown children.