Hamakua Jodo Mission Working to Preserve History

Jodie Chiemi Ching 

The Hamakua Jodo Mission, in Pa‘auhau Mauka on Hawai‘i Island, was the first sanctioned Buddhist temple in the state of Hawai‘i. It was built in 1896 at the epicenter of the five sugar plantations on the island, and served the community of Japanese contract laborers.

Today, it is a standing treasure honoring the Issei and preserving the history and values still relevant in today’s modern world. And there is one story that the members and volunteers of HJM are making sure will never be forgotten — the story of Katsu Kobayakawa Goto.   

Who was Katsu Goto?

Goto immigrated to the Big Island of Hawai‘i in 1885. According to HJMs webpage on www.historypin.org, Goto set out on the first ship of 26 shiploads of Japanese contract immigrants that arrived in Hawai‘i.

Goto had a three-year-contract to work at the Soper Wright & Co. — which later became known as O‘okala Sugar Plantation — for $9 per month. After his contract ended, he opened a general store in Honoka‘a town. Due to the growing popularity of Goto’s store, his competitor, Joseph Mills, allegedly became jealous as he watched Japanese immigrant laborers frequent his business.

Unlike most Japanese immigrant laborers, Goto was proficient in the English language and acted as a mediator and translator between laborers and the Honoka‘a Plantation’s management.

Goto was a negotiator for better working conditions and laborers’ rights. He was viewed as a troublemaker who caused unrest among the laborers, especially by Honoka‘a Plantation owner Robert Overend.

Katsu Kobayakawa Goto (1862-1889).
Katsu Kobayakawa Goto (1862-1889).

On Oct. 19, 1889, a fire broke out on Overend’s cane field. He blamed several laborers for setting the fire, and Goto for being the mastermind behind the incident. The Japanese laborers were investigated, convicted and fined for breach of contract. They called upon Goto to help resolve the matter.

When Goto got on horseback to meet with the laborers at the plantation camp, he was ambushed and pulled from his horse. Goto was still alive. Mills and three others (who also had ties with Overend) — later known as the “Honoka‘a Four” — lynched Goto and hung him on a telephone pole in Honoka‘a town. His body hung on the pole, as if to send immigrant laborers a message: “Do not defy us.”

A group of Japanese immigrant men removed Goto from the telephone pole. And later, he was laid to rest on the grounds that would later become known as the Hamakua Jodo Mission Cemetery. After a long investigation and trial, Miller and the other men were convicted for the murder of Katsu Goto.

Around the 1960s, Katsu Goto’s new headstone replaced the old deteriorated one. A ceremony was held after the installation to honor and remember him. Rev. Kogan Ekuan presided over the ceremony. (Photos courtesy Hamakua Jodo Mission)
Around the 1960s, Katsu Goto’s new headstone replaced the old deteriorated one. A ceremony was held after the installation to honor and remember him. Rev. Kogan Ekuan presided over the ceremony. (Photos courtesy Hamakua Jodo Mission)

The Preservation Effort 

In an email interview, Patsy Iwasaki — author of “Hamakua Hero: A True Plantation Story,” illustrated by Berido — shares some of her extensive research on Goto. Iwasaki is also the writer, project director and executive producer of a film about Katsu Goto, which was put on hold after the passing of the film’s director Danny Miller. Iwasaki said, now the film will made possible under the direction of Ryan Kawamoto. Kawamoto is the writer and producer of the Japanese American films “Voices Behind Barbed Wire” and “The Untold Story: Internment of Japanese Americans in Hawaii.”

Although HJM was built in 1896, Iwasaki believes members began meeting informally before that in order to build up a congregation that could support the building of the temple grounds.

“From what I know, Katsu Goto’s grave and the other issei graves are cared for by family and members of the church. For many years, as I began my association with HJM, the late Masateru Oketani, his wife Tomoe ‘Violet’ Oketani and other members like the late Roland Doi, tended to Goto’s marble headstone and gravesite. Family members and descendants of Katsu Goto’s younger sister, Yuku Kobayakawa Ishii, who also immigrated to Hawai‘i Island, bring flowers to Goto’s gravesite when they can.”

HJM member Sandy Takahashi said that today, the congregation takes care of the cemetery and shares Goto’s story with tourists and visiting guests.

Around the 1960s, due to deterioration of Goto’s original headstone, volunteers of the Japanese community made a new one. After the installation of the new headstone, a ceremony presided by Rev. Kogan Ekuan was held in Goto’s honor.

Then, on Nov. 7, 1985, a memorial service sponsored by the Hamakua Nikkei Kyokai, ILWU Local 142 Hawaii Division and HJM was held in honor of Goto. Goto’s niece, Dr. Fumiko Kaya of Hiroshima expressed words of appreciation at the end of the memorial service, which was followed by a tree planting ceremony. Today, annual services for Goto are held at Honokaa Hongwanji.

Currently, there are a couple other projects actively aimed at preserving HJM and Goto’s history. One is an exhibit on display at the Hawaii Community College, North Hawaii Education and Research Center’s Heritage Center. The other collaborative NHERC project is an online documentation of the church’s history on the History Pin website. Takahashi hopes to grow its membership through these projects and future activities.   

“Our bon dance event is known as one of the best on the island and is very popular with the public. Unfortunately it is only one day out of the year, and the rest of the year, we seem to be forgotten. We need to somehow achieve the same level of enthusiasm for our temple the other 364 days of the year. This can be done by getting people interested in learning more about our historic temple and become active with our church whether it is by joining or volunteering and helping to preserve our rich history,” said Takahashi.


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