Centenarian Mildred Kobashikawa Maintains a Healthy Body, Mind and Spirit
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
At 100 years old — 101, next month — Mildred Kobashikawa is an active older adult who enjoys cooking, taking care of her home and garden and spending time with her family. On the day of our interview for this Hawai‘i Herald feature, she had baked homemade manju that was the best manju this writer had ever tasted. She had even created a special flower-like design stamp to decorate her manju, which made it look extra fancy. What a surprise it was to learn that the stamp she had used to imprint her design was one end of a spool of thread!
Kobashikawa was born in February 1917 in the sugar plantation town of Pu‘unënë on the island of Maui. To give readers a sense of how long ago that was, Queen Lili‘uokalani was still alive at the time, although her monarchy had been overthrown more than two decades earlier.
“My father came from Okinawa,” Kobashikawa said. Her father, Saburo Oshiro, went to work in the sugar fields of Pu‘unënë. “My mother came later as a picture bride, also from Okinawa.” When they married, her father was 24 and her mother, Ushi, was 18.
The first two children born to the young couple were boys. Then came Kikue — or “Kiku-chan,” as she was called back then. Kikue took the English name of Mildred when she got older. As the first daughter born into the family, Kiku-chan was spoiled by her relatives. She would often cry if she wasn’t being carried, which led to her being nicknamed “nakimiso,” an affectionate term for a crybaby.
In all, Kobashikawa’s parents had seven children: two boys and five girls. Their second son died in infancy from the Spanish flu, and their last daughter, Sumi, died of a liver infection when she was only 24.
“My parents moved to the Big Island when I was 4 years old,” said Mildred. “They went to a sugar plantation in Kohala.”
However, that would be only the first stop for the growing Oshiro family. They continued moving to improve their financial circumstances. “They moved to so many places because they found that certain places give more money.” Mildred said it felt like they had moved all over the Big Island. Besides Kohala, the family lived in Hälawa in North Kohala and Niuli‘i, near Kohala and Waipi‘o.
She still recalls an incident from her childhood. “One day, my mom told me to buy ume (Japanese pickled plums) after school. She gave me 10 cents. For 10 cents you could get kind of a big plate (of ume). So I got the 10 cents, and after school, I was going to the store . . . Hirano Store.”
Before reaching the store, however, she noticed a bunch of kids having the time of their lives jumping on a pile of sugarcane. It looked like fun, so she decided to join them. In the process, she lost the dime her mother had given her for the ume and went home empty-handed. She got a good scolding from her mother.
“Those days, 10 cents was big money,” Kobashikawa said. Her mother made her go back to the sugarcane pile to look for the dime, but it was no use — she couldn’t find it. It was like trying to find a needle in a haystack.
When an opportunity presented itself on Maui, the family returned there, this time settling Upcountry, in Makawao, where her father joined a relative working on a pineapple plantation.
Mildred led a simple life in her early years. Breakfast often consisted of hot rice, tsukemono (pickled vegetables) and miso soup. Lunch at school might be a “small little sandwich and one milk.” In the early years, there was no electricity. The hot water for bathing was heated with firewood and poured into a large basin for the entire family to use. The bathroom was an outhouse that was quite a distance from the main house.
When she was 14, Mildred left school and began working at Hokama Store, a general merchandise store in Wailuku, to help her parents with the family expenses. She worked for Hokama Store for three years. “I took care of the front store and cooked for the family.”
While working at Hokama Store, she met her future husband, Ichiro (who later took the name of Thomas — “Tom”) Kobashikawa. He was the driver for a Japanese doctor and picked up a Japanese newspaper for the doctor at Hokama Store. Tom subsequently moved to O‘ahu to work at Dairyman’s, forerunner of the dairy products distributor, Meadow Gold, and asked his future wife to join him on O‘ahu. Mildred, by then 22, decided to move to Honolulu, where job opportunities were more promising and she could continue seeing Tom.
Mildred’s fare from Maui to O‘ahu cost her $5. When her ship docked at Honolulu Harbor, Tom was waiting for her. He drove her straight to Mänoa, where she began working for a Caucasian family as part of their live-in domestic help staff. Every month, Mildred sent her earnings of $10 to her parents on Maui.
In March 1939, Tom Kobashikawa and Mildred Oshiro were married in Honolulu and began their new life as husband and wife. Besides working at Dairyman’s, Tom also had a part-time job selling and repairing radios at a shop in Päwa‘a. In 1943, when the owner decided to pursue another line of work, Thomas decided to purchase the business. Mildred joined him in the business, wearing numerous hats: salesperson, bookkeeper and even janitor. Together, he and Mildred operated Pawaa Radio Shop, located at Kaheka and South King streets, until they retired in 1980.
In that time they had raised four children — Ruby (Arasato), Peter, Fred and Leilani (Agena).
At 100 years of age, Mildred has a terrific memory. She can recall details of life in old Hawai‘i from first-hand experience — details that are unknown to most people today. She remembers, for example, when the East Honolulu community of Kahala was very different from what it is today. Her husband’s family lived in what used to be referred to as “Japanese Farmers Lane” because of the Japanese families who operated farms in the area, growing vegetables such as lettuce and green onions. It was a far cry from the wealthy enclave that it is today.
Mildred also recalled the rental unit she and Tom lived in “for seventeen dollars a month, electricity and water included.” There was no stove or refrigerator, so the ice man had to deliver a block of ice to the home every other day. The ice box in their home was “just a box with a cover,” said Mildred. She and Tom had decided to move into the rental unit when she was pregnant with daughter Ruby so they would be closer to a hospital when it was time to give birth.
One day, a friend of Tom’s came by their radio shop and said there was a property available in the lower St. Louis area, not far from the University of Hawai‘i’s Mänoa campus. “You want to go see?” the friend asked.
Tom wanted to see it. As soon as he laid eyes on the parcel, he could see their future home. “Right away, he put one hundred dollars down,” said Mildred. They moved into their new home in 1946. The land cost them $5,000 and they built their house for $9,000. In 1959, they built another unit on the property.
Over the years, Mildred and Tom made improvements to their home, oftentimes with their own hands. Mildred is proud of the fact that she painted the interior of their house all by herself. She also helped Tom raise the roof of their outdoor patio.
Mildred still lives in the house she and Tom built. Her daily schedule keeps her active and busy in and around the house. She awakens at 6 a.m., has breakfast at 6:30, and then spends two hours — from 8 to 10 a.m. — doing yard work and tending to her plants, which she has always enjoyed. She has a beautiful flower garden that was in full bloom in November, as well as a platform of hanging plants that Mildred gives lots of tender loving care. Mildred takes a break at 10 and eats a banana. By 11, she is in the kitchen preparing lunch. She begins preparing dinner at 2 p.m. and has dinner at 3:30. By 5 p.m., she says, “the kitchen is closed.” She gets a good night’s sleep and begins her routine all over again the next day with an assortment of tasks and activities.
Mildred said she likes to stay busy and “keep on moving” throughout the day. When she’s not physically moving, her mind is still at work, enjoying a game of solitaire or doing a crossword puzzle. She also crochets.
Cooking is one of her favorite activities — and her family gives her cooking rave reviews. Mildred said she enjoys cooking for family, especially during the holidays. Every year, she hosts Christmas dinner for about 25 family members and prepares many of the dishes herself. Mildred’s potato salad is one of the most anticipated dishes at gatherings. She also prepares traditional Japanese foods for New Year’s such as nishime, sushi, namasu, konbu maki, kuromame, soba and more. For New Year’s Day, she prepares pigs feet soup, which is a tradition of many local Okinawan families. Mildred said she appreciates the symbolism of the foods and conveys that information to her family members, such as the “stickiness” of mochi symbolizing the importance of family cohesiveness.
In 2006, Tom died at the age of 93 after a debilitating fall. He and Mildred had been married for over 67 year. During his confinement at a nursing home, Mildred drove to the facility every day to spend time with him. She also helped to raise a granddaughter who now works for CVS headquarters on the Mainland. Her son Fred, who lives on the property, considers himself very fortunate that his mother is so active and healthy. Her younger daughter, Leilani Agena, observed that her mother’s routines are a big reason she is able to maintain a neat and organized household.
“Every Monday, the beds are stripped and the sheets are washed and hung out to dry in the sun,” Leilani said. “She doesn’t believe in using a dryer.” In fact, when she first got married, she and Tom did not own a washing machine, so Mildred hand-washed everything for the first eight years of their marriage.
In addition to eating well and keeping physically and mentally active, Mildred remains grounded in her Christian faith. She prays every morning and night, expressing gratitude for all the good things in her life. Her four children gave their parents five grandchildren, who, in turn, gave them seven great-grandchildren. She also has many nieces and nephews and other relatives, including a 93-year-old sister in Pearl City, Patsy Afuso, who still does Okinawan dance.
“Aunty Mildred” is a role model to her family. Niece Karen Fuse said she is impressed with her aunt’s “amazing memory for details.” “She knows birthdates for most of our extended family,” said Fuse, whose late mother, Nora Chibana, was one of Mildred’s sisters. “She is also a great cook,” said Fuse. “At our annual Christmas family gathering, we always look forward to her signature potato salad and manju!”
Recently, the Consul General of Japan in Honolulu invited Mildred to the Japanese Consulate so he could present her with a congratulatory certificate for her 100 years of life. Mildred happily accepted the certificate — and brought along some manju that she had made for the Consulate staff.
Many experts who study healthy aging recommend that elders do their best to stay physically and mentally active, eat a nutritious diet, maintain a healthy weight, stay socially engaged with others and have a belief system that sustains one’s spiritual life. Mildred Kobashikawa seems to check off this list every day. In reflecting on her long and interesting life, she summed up her feelings in three simple words: “I’m very happy.”
“Aunty Mildred typifies the Okinawan long life, full of quality and grace,” marvels niece Jean Nakatsukasa, one of the daughters of Mildred’s late brother, Ted Oshiro. “At 100 years, she walks with no cane; she cooks, does the typical housework — even cleaning windows — weeds for an hour every day and takes care of a garden. She keeps active every day with a very rigid schedule. She reads, sews and loves to crochet booties. She is a woman of God, going to New Hope without fail, and prays daily for her family and others.
“Aunty Mildred is our hero!” exclaims Nakatsukasa. “She is an awesome woman and we all wish we could emulate her life!”
Kevin Kawamoto is a longtime contributor to The Hawai‘i Herald.