Recalling the Early Days of Hawaii’s Japanese Cowboys
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
In 1793, British Captain George Vancouver sailed to the island of Hawai‘i, where he presented King Kamehameha I with a gift of six cows. A year later, five more cows arrived at Kealakekua, courtesy of Vancouver. At that point, Kamehameha issued a kapu, a taboo punishable by death, to anyone who caused the demise of any of the kingdom’s cattle.
The kapu remained in place for 20 years to ensure the successful propagation of the cattle, which flourished to huge numbers. The feral cattle caused alarming destruction of the native forests as well as to cultivated fields of taro and sweet potato. The wild bullocks also threatened the safety of the native Hawaiians who tended those fields. Attempts to harvest the cattle and reduce their numbers were unsuccessful.
A solution to this growing environmental and socioeconomic crisis came rather unexpectedly. On April 4, 1831, a British whaleship, the Harriet, commanded by a Captain Reed, sailed into Honolulu Harbor. The Harriet was on her return voyage to London and made port to stock up on provisions. On April 15, King Kamehameha III learned that there were two fiddle players aboard the ship. The king loved fiddle music and was a fiddle player himself, so he arranged to hear them play. Aboard the ship, Captain Reed told the king that one of his passengers, Joaquin Armas, was an expert at catching wild cattle. Armas, a Mexican vaquero, or cowboy, from what was Alta California (Upper California), was headed to London.
Kamehameha III seized the opportunity, and although Armas was hesitant to leave the ship, the king convinced him to remain in Hawai‘i.
Armas eventually made his way to Hawai‘i Island and was successful at catching the wild cattle. It was extremely difficult and dangerous work in harsh conditions for just one man. But the king wanted more cattle to generate more revenue to help pay off debts. A handful of other Mexican vaqueros later arrived on Hawai‘i Island from Alta California. They created a steady and growing revenue source for the Kingdom of Hawai‘i, selling barrels of salt beef to whaling and trading ships.
These vaqueros taught their riding, roping and cattle handling skills to the native Hawaiians. They were also generous in sharing their knowledge for making noho lio (saddles) and kaula ‘ili (rawhide ropes or lassos). Over time, wild and domestic cattle operations like Parker Ranch started to flourish because of the skills and ability of the native Hawaiian paniolo (cowboy).
What were the odds of Hawai‘i’s king visiting a British whaling ship anchored in Honolulu with a Mexican vaquero onboard? One could say that the birth of ranching in Hawai‘i and its paniolo culture was a stroke of pure luck, but that chance meeting at that critical time proved to be a defining moment in Hawai‘i’s ranching history.
People who emigrated from other countries to work in Hawai‘i’s sugar fields and eventually settled here and raised families provided ranch operators with a labor pool. Among them were Japanese and Okinawans.
Japan and its southernmost island prefecture, Okinawa, are both rich in horse cultures dating back many centuries — not only in the physical sense, but in the spiritual realm, as well. From antiquity, the Japanese worshipped the horse as a god. They believe that the “divine spirit” appeared in the human world on horseback.
Japanese and Okinawans who came to Hawai‘i were predominantly from farming communities. Oxen, water buffalo and horses were used in agriculture for draft work and for transportation. During the Ryükyü (Okinawa) Kingdom and even beyond, nearly every village held annual “Nma Subu” (horse races). Winning was not determined by who finished first, but rather by the beauty of the horse and rider in motion.
Horses and other livestock were part of their way of life and were imbedded in their cultures. (For efficiency, “Japanese” will represent both mainland Japanese and Okinawans.) With this deep cultural background, one could surmise that Japanese men were predisposed to working with livestock, which may have drawn them to horses and ranching.
In the “old days,” the general perception was that cowboys had to be either Hawaiian, Portuguese or Caucasian. Minorities, such as people of Japanese ancestry, were generally smaller in stature and did not fit the image we associate with as being a cowboy. But the emergence of Japanese cowboys at ranching operations like Parker Ranch have proven that the Japanese could indeed become trusted and respected members of the “Cowboy Gang.”
The Mexican vaqueros taught their cowboy skills to native Hawaiians, who, in turn, passed their skills on to people of other ethnicities. Parker Ranch manager Richard “Dick” Penhallow put it quite aptly when he said, “The cowboys of other ethnicities wanted to emulate the language and technique of the native Hawaiian cowboys.”
In writing this story, I called on retired Parker Ranch veterinarian Dr. Billy Bergin, who worked at Parker Ranch for over twenty-five years. Dr. Bergin is also a respected Parker Ranch historian and the author of “Loyal to the Land: The Legendary Parker Ranch, 750-1950,” which was a key reference for excerpts and information for this story. “Loyal to the Land” is a three-volume series published by the University of Hawai‘i Press that takes an extraordinarily broad and detailed look at what was one of the oldest and largest ranches in the United States. Dr. Bergin was also a cowboy — a title not given out lightly.
Dr. Bergin’s father, Dr. Bill Bergin, was a plantation physician who was credited with saving the life of Mrs. Esther Ako Ma‘e, the pure Hawaiian wife of John Holi Ma‘e, a paniolo working for Kūka‘iau Ranch near Laupāhoehoe. She was hospitalized and near death when Dr. Bill Bergin treated her. Holi Ma‘e was so grateful to Dr. Bergin for saving his wife’s life that he told him that if he ever had a son, he would like to assist in his upbringing. Hawaiians call this gesture of gratitude po‘olua — a child of two fathers. Having been born and raised in Hawai‘i, Dr. Bill Bergin understood and respected the ways of native Hawaiians.
At the age of 9, Billy Bergin went to live at Kūka‘iau Ranch on an off-and-on basis (mostly on) with the Ma‘e family, where Hawaiian was the language spoken by most in the family; it was also the “cowboy language.” Young Billy grew up immersed in the language and the hardworking tradition of the native Hawaiian paniolo culture. By the time he was 12, Billy could shoe his own string of horses. He was also earning his keep and it didn’t take long before he was fluent in the cowboy language.
Dr. Bergin recalled that when he was 12, a cowboy at Kūkai‘au Ranch named Toshi Imoto taught him how to catch his (Toshi’s) horse in the working pen. Bergin recalled that Toshi’s horse was being difficult. Despite several attempts, Bergin was unsuccessful. Toshi waved him out and entered the pen himself. He called out the command “laka loa” — very tamely. It was like telling your dog to come here and sit down.
The horse walked up to Toshi and stood still, allowing him to put on a bridle. The horse responded not only to the command, but also to the cowboy who had called it out. That bond between Toshi and his horse was built on trust.
Dr. Bergin said Toshi was a Nisei who spoke Japanese and Hawaiian (with a Japanese accent) on the ranch. Toshi, he added, could also read and write English, like other Nisei.
The paniolo spoke “parochial or practical” Hawaiian and all of the ethnicities had to learn the cowboy language. Teamwork is everything when you hana pipi (work cattle), and communication is essential. A seasoned cowboy gang needed little or no communication: They knew what needed to be done.
New cowboys needed a good grasp of Hawaiian language and some Japanese cowboys learned to speak the language fluently. Some of the basic commands included: Pani ka puka — close the gate, Kū ka laina — hold the line and Ho‘ohei kaula — prepare to lasso.
“Toshi Imoto was one of the best all-around cowboys of that time,” said Dr. Bergin, adding that Toshi was a great horseman and cattleman. Toshi, he said, was adept at the art of training horses from start to finish.
“The horse helps to make the cowboy,” it is said, and Toshi depended on his horse in that risky line of work.
Toshi was also among the best at roping and bringing in wild bulls from the hills. One of the breeds that Vancouver brought to Hawai‘i Island was the ancient Ganado Prieto, a progeny of Spain’s Andalusian fighting bull. Catching wild bulls was not a job for the meek or faint of heart. A cowboy had to chase down and rope a bull and lead it to a tree. He would then throw his rope between a fork in the tree, retrieve it and dally it to the horn of his saddle and snug the bull to the tree. While his horse held the rope taut, the cowboy quickly dismounted and tied the bull to the tree. Paniolo call this po‘o wai‘u. By early the next morning, the bull was manageable enough to be brought down to the corral.
According to Dr. Bergin, the ranch foreman would catch an average of 10 wild bulls a day with the help of his cow dogs. Toshi could do them one better — and without a dog. Roping wild bulls was rough and rugged work, but Toshi’s approach was quiet and low-stress, a desired quality when working with domestic cattle.
Another Parker Ranch paniolo, Matsuichi Yamaguchi, was born in Waimea in 1895 to parents who had migrated from Hiroshima-ken. At the age of 14, he landed his first Parker Ranch job as a yardman at the sprawling estate of then-ranch manager A. W. Carter. “Matsu” was already entering the children’s races at the annual New Year’s and Fourth of July Parker Ranch horse races. His horsemanship skills did not go unnoticed and it wasn’t long before he was training racing prospects and handling breeding stallions.
Matsu married Harue Yoshikami: They had two children — a boy, Ichiro, and a girl, Fumie. In the late 1920s, Matsu was appointed to Keoni Li‘ili‘i’s Cowboy Gang. Matsu made history by becoming the first Parker Ranch cowboy of Japanese descent. Matsu and Harue subsequently had another son, Jiro, and another daughter, Matsuko. Their two sons, Ichiro and Jiro, went on to have long careers at Parker Ranch.
Matsu, who was quiet and congenial, was an excellent horseman and cattle handler. He also had natural leadership qualities and Carter recognized his potential. These traits, combined with his skills, earned him the position of assistant cowboy foreman, a promotion that again made history, as he was the first non-Hawaiian to lead a Cowboy Gang.
It takes a certain breed of man to become a cowboy, as there are inherent risks that require a level of fearlessness to thrive in that line of work. Cowboys say, “make strong,” meaning be mentally strong, be the “alpha” in tough situations with large animals. But accidents and injuries, some fatal, are a part of the job.
Sadly, Matsu was killed in a tragic horse-riding accident. While pursuing wild sheep,
Matsu’s horse rolled forward and over with him on it at a full gallop on rough terrain. Matsu suffered a severe head injury and chest wounds, but managed to get back on his horse and find his fellow cowboys. They accompanied him back to camp and then rushed him to Kohala Hospital. Matsu’s injuries were too severe and he died that night — just two days after celebrating his yakudoshi (41st birthday).
Another noted Japanese cowboy foreman, Edward Junichi Ishizu, was also killed in a work-related accident. Ishizu was crossing swift waters in a gulch when he was swept away. His fellow cowboys paid tribute to him by naming the area Ishizu Gulch.
In an act of compassion, A. W. Carter allowed both Matsu’s and Edward’s families to remain in their ranch homes. He also maintained their privileges of meat, milk and poi, as well as medical care.
The name Yamaguchi became a prominent one in Parker Ranch history. Matsu’s son, Jiro, worked in a Cowboy Gang for many years, rising to foreman.
Another prominent ranching family was the Kimura clan, with Yutaka rising through the ranks to become livestock superintendent while his brother Charles became the ranch’s livestock manager.
The Kawamotos were a notable family, as well. Nisei Johnny Kawamoto supervised the entire Kohala Ranch for Parker Ranch. His sons, Masatsu and Yoshio, were both promoted to the rank of foreman at Parker Ranch.
So, as you can see, many Japanese cowboys established themselves in leadership positions.
But being a cowboy wasn’t the only kind of work that the Japanese were engaged in at Parker Ranch. Men with names like Fujitani, Goto, Hokama, Ishii, Kaneshiro, Morifuji, Nakata, Okura, Sakado, Uyeda, Yoshimatsu and many others worked in positions ranging from ranch veterinarian to dairy and sheep operations. Some were part of Parker Ranch’s cactus eradication crew. They also held skilled jobs as blacksmiths, carpenters and leather workers.
Earlier this year, I had the great pleasure of visiting and talking story with 78-year-old Charlie Onaka, a Sansei cattle rancher and former Parker Ranch cowboy. Charlie grew up on his family’s Onaka Ranch in Hōlualoa on Hawai‘i Island. The ranch was established in 1914 by Charlie’s grandfather, Kiichi Onaka, who had emigrated from Fukuoka-ken. Onaka Ranch was the first cattle ranch in the United States to be owned and operated by a person of Japanese ancestry.
It all started when Kiichi’s newborn grandson was having difficulty accepting his mother’s milk. That prompted Kiichi to purchase a dairy cow. One cow led to another, and another, and eventually led to Kiichi leasing land and starting to raise beef cattle.
Kiichi’s son, Tom, took over the ranch after Kiichi passed on. Tom was a great cowboy and is known as one of maybe only two Japanese cowboys who would perform hō‘au pipi (swimming cattle). On horseback, he would rope a cow in the holding pen and “swim” (still riding his horse) with that cow in tow to the long boat just offshore. The cattle would be tied to the long boat and then lifted in a harness up to a steamship waiting further offshore. The job demanded that a cowboy be a good roper and have the right horse to do the job in a timely manner. So Charlie hails from good cowboy stock.
Charlie earned a BS in animal science from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. He came home to Hawai‘i after graduating and he went to work at Hawai‘i Meat Company on O‘ahu and later at the T.H. Davies Feedlot. He then took a job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a soil conservationist and later worked as an extension agent for the University of Hawai‘i. Charlie would have been assured of job security and a pension with the government jobs, but he was drawn to another calling.
Parker Ranch manager Richard Penhallow asked him to oversee a new feedlot that the ranch was starting. Charlie took the job without hesitation and, in time, was not only running the feedlot operation, but working as a cowboy, as well — his true calling.
Curious about his life, I asked Charlie what it was like working in an occupation where Japanese like him were a minority.
“When you first join the Cowboy Gang, the others would look at your saddle and how well your horse was shod to judge how good a cowboy you are,” he said. “I just kept quiet, did my job and I would learn from the older cowboys. And if you love the work, you want to be good at it.”
He said he loved working at Parker Ranch because it’s “so big that every day, it’s someplace new and you are doing something different.”
Charlie’s most memorable experience working at Parker Ranch was rather ordinary, but meaningful. “At lunch break, like after we brought the cattle into the corral, we would all sit in a circle, have our lunch and talk story.”
When his father passed on, Charlie took over Onaka Ranch. This was in 1973. He said he took out a substantial loan so he could pay his brother and sister their fair share of the ranch. He said he wanted to perpetuate his family’s ranching legacy. But that wasn’t all: Charlie loved ranching and the cowboy life — the hard work, caring for his horses and raising his own cattle.
He says ranching isn’t about the money. He worked seven days a week and had his share of tough times. Still, he managed to make a good go of it. Charlie also grows coffee to diversify his income. He and his wife Gwen raised three kids, all of whom earned college degrees, fulfilling one of Charlie’s life goals.
The cowboy blood runs deep in the Onaka family. Their two sons are good cowboys who help on the ranch and are there to carry it on. And Charlie’s and Gwen’s five grandkids are top contenders in high school and college rodeos. The Onaka Ranch will be in good hands for decades to come.
All of the Japanese cowboys, past and present, have had to break through the minority stereotype. They did it, as Charlie puts it, for the love of the cowboy lifestyle — the rush of adrenaline when chasing down and roping wild cattle. When the young horse that you’ve been training performs like a champ . . . you relive that in your mind for days after. And when your “office” is the wide-open rolling pastures and the wild backcountry, and you arrive to work on your horse. For these Japanese men, that’s living the life that is worth breaking through and earning their place on the Cowboy Gang.
Dan Nakasone is a Sansei Uchinanchu from Wahiawä. He is a marketing and advertising professional and most recently served as a producer/researcher for PBS’ award-winning food and culture series, “Family Ingredients,” which is based in Hawai‘i and hosted by Chef Ed Kenney.