Richard Shigeichi Asato (1915-2010)
Reprinted with Permission, 2006
Editor’s note: Before Richard Asato passed away on March 20, 2010, he left a treasure behind for our community. In 2006, Asato wrote a book that became a keepsake for family and friends entitled “88th Birthday Anniversary, Richard Shigeichi Asato.” We are publishing excerpts from this record of his life in Okinawa and Hawai‘i as a young man, a husband, a business owner, a soldier and a performing artist.
When we asked Asato’s son, Edward, what it was like to help his father compile his memories in this book, he said, “It surprised me that my dad had even tried writing a book. He hadn’t completed seventh grade in Okinawa and had only two years of English when he came to Hawai‘i. When my brother and I tried editing his writing, aside from grammatical correction, he was insistent it remains as he wrote it. So, the book, with very minor editing, was published as he intended.
“Dad’s desire to write this book was based on a passion to preserve a legacy he worked hard to establish for our family’s future generations. For the two sons he raised and 13 grandchildren he loved, this book transmits his story when he is no longer around to personally share it.
“The amazing story of a boy — raised in poverty with limited education, traveling to another culture, achieving in his life what only a small percentage achieve and crediting all, in the last half of his life, to the grace of God guiding him — is a legacy we count precious and priceless.”
I have written this for my 88th birthday. Usually, a person who does such a project as this plans it years ahead of time, almost for a whole lifetime. But I have never had such a plan and never wrote a diary. I wrote this just from my memory …
My Father’s History
My father [Taruro Asato] was a quiet, hard working person. Unfortunately, he never had success in his farming business. The one thing he did which I appreciate is that he took a great risk to come to Hawai‘i as an immigrant who signed his name with a cross-mark. It is because he did what he did, that I am what I am.
My father immigrated to Hawai‘i in 1907, got married in 1913, had a first son born in 1914, had a second son born in 1915, then sent his family back to Okinawa in 1916.
During this short period, he lived in three places: Wai‘anae, Kailua and Kahuku. When I was 19 and came back to Hawai’i [from Okinawa], my father was living in Kipapa Valley. I lived with my father for 10 days, then joined my brother, Shigeru, in Honolulu for seven years.
When my brother and I started our own [restaurant] business in 1939, my father was able to [close] his farming business. He moved into Honolulu and we had a chance to live together under one roof. I still did not have the chance to see him or talk to him very much because of our business hours. While we lived together, my father worked as a yard boy for some time in various places.
Sometime in 1940, he went back to Okinawa, where his wife had waited for him for 24 years. I think that those 24 years [were] the most important ones and should [have been] an enjoyable time in a human’s life, [but he] missed all those years. He reached Okinawa nevertheless, met his wife, and passed away on Nov. 15, 1940, before the start of World War II.
My Mother’s History
[When my mother (Kama Asato)] went back to Okinawa in 1916, she had to live with her in-laws without her husband. Sometime along the way, her in-laws passed away, but she still had to raise us. While she was taking care of [my brother and me], she stared to suffer from bad arthritis. She became a cripple, not able to bend one leg down. That made it even harder for her to raise two kids, the two of us. We had to cooperate with her to make life better. Every so often, she had no food to give us. She used to cook small amounts of soy beans for dinner, just about the amount restaurants serve as side dishes.
This [lack of food] is one thing I am aware of, but she must have had more difficulties which we never even noticed. Sometimes I have said that I have had difficult times, but it was no comparison to what she went through.
Her first son left for Hawai‘i when he was 13 years old. Her second son left when he was 19. Ever since then, she had to live by herself. Around 1940, my father returned to Okinawa, where she had been waiting for him for a long, long time. My mother finally got her husband back, but unfortunately, it did not last, since he passed away that same year.
World War II began, and she survived the American invasion of Okinawa. Then around 1950, she came to Hawai‘i to join her second son, and she enjoyed 16 years of American-style life until her death in 1966; may she rest in peace. I think she had a good ending. This is just the portion of my mother’s history that I know.
My Brother’s History
My brother, Shigeru, and I were raised together in Okinawa for 12 years. He was a very active, smart person. He enjoyed sports, and was very good at Okinawan-style wrestling. In school, he always had the top grade. I learned a lot from him.
My brother used to like chicken fights, and would carry a fighting chicken from village to village. When he went out with his chicken, he did not come home until the evening — he was very brave.
After he had come to Hawai‘i, I heard one story about him. He started going to English School, and while at school, another student “took him cheap” just because he was Okinawan. My brother fought and cleared up the situation. He used to like samurai activities, and was a good storyteller. Somewhere along the way, he learned karate before I arrived in Hawai‘i.
After I came to Hawai‘i, and we opened our own business at the ages of 24 and 25, we passed through a number of hardships together. In the latter part of 1941, we received a letter from our mother saying she wanted one of us to visit because of her [poor] health. My brother volunteered to go.
Unfortunately, while he was in Okinawa, World War II started, so he was unable to return to Hawai’i; he died in the war in 1946 at the age of 31.
Life in Okinawa
When I was 5 months old, my mother took me to Okinawa. Some time after we reached Okinawa and my mother began to suffer from arthritis, she became a cripple and was never again able to do the farming by herself. So when my brother and I were about 7 and 8 years old, we had to help with the farming. This made it difficult for us to keep going to school everyday.
Believe it or not, in those days, we used to take two sweet potatoes for our school lunch. Occasionally we had no potatoes to take, so for lunch hour, I used to spend my time at the playground until the other students finished their lunch. After lunch, when everyone went out on the playground until the next class, instead of playing with the group, I went back into the classroom to study what I had missed on my absent days.
While this situation was going on, my brother came to Hawai‘i when he was 13. That put even more pressure on me, since I had to do more farming by myself. I started the seventh grade, but it was so difficult to keep going to school that, unfortunately, I had to quit to do farming full time.
When I was 19, I began to think of my future. I was working as hard as I could, but got just enough to cover three meals a day. It was just by coincidence that I received a letter from my brother. It contained some money and a request to join him in Hawai‘i, because he wanted to own his own business.
It was hard to accept his invitation since I would have to leave my crippled mother behind. But when I thought about my future: the better option would be to join my brother in Hawai‘i.
My Life Begins in Hawai‘i
After a nine-day boat voyage from Japan to Hawai‘i, I arrived on O‘ahu and spent a night at the immigration center. I was immediately expecting to meet my brother, but that never happened. Instead, my father and my Uncle Shinki came to get me out of the immigration center. We had lunch at my uncle’s produce store on Kukui Street.
That same day, [my uncle and father] took me on a long automobile ride to Wai‘anae to visit relatives. Because that was my first auto ride, I was affected by motion sickness throughout the entire trip. On that day, we also spent the night at my uncle’s place in Käne‘ohe.
The next day we took a taxi drive from Honolulu to Waipahu town, stopped for lunch at the roadside restaurant and proceeded to my father’s farm in Kipapa Valley where I spent nine days with him.
I was surprised to see what kind of life my father was living. [Even though it was in the US,] (I)t was identical to my life in Okinawa. His home had no electricity. He cooked with firewood. At night, he used a kerosene lantern. To bathe and do the laundry he went to a running stream across the street. To farm, he used a wagon with two horses, exactly like I’d seen in cowboy movies. He’d come home with a few bags of vegetables. In those days, whatever farmers took to market was sold by consignment so farmers had less of a chance to make profits.
At night before going to bed, he’d drink a couple of glasses of homemade beer, something we never hear about or see today in our modern world.
On the tenth day, I experienced a very exciting event. A couple came from the Wai‘anae plantation and wanted to find a job for me. On the way to Wai‘anae, we rode by the Waipahu Sugar Mill. When we came to a stop sign, I jumped out of the car and told the couple [that] I wanted to talk to my brother in Honolulu before I would give them an answer about a job in Wai‘anae. The very next minute, I found myself in a taxi headed to Honolulu.
Somehow, I found where my brother lived and told him the whole story. He responded by telling me, “From here on, I will take care of the whole thing. You don’t have to worry a bit. I will find you a job in Honolulu.” At the time, he was a dishwasher at [The] Honolulu Cafe, and found a job for me there as a nighttime dishwasher.
Soon after, the Wai‘anae couple came to visit us at our work place and asked us to pay our father’s financial debt of $2,000. It was big, big money in those days. While I agreed to help our father, my brother disagreed. We had many discussions about it. Uncle Shinki stepped in and explained to us all about our father’s situation.
We found out his debt was not only to the Wai‘anae couple. There were more debts [on top of that].
To clear up the situation, Uncle Shinki helped us form a tanomoshi [a Japanese mutual-aid association for financial matters; also, the loans provided by such community groups]. We carried three tanomoshi to finance and cleared up the situation. Soon after his debts were paid, my father left the poor farm where he had struggled for many long years. He moved to Honolulu and lived with us under one roof. He worked in different places as a yard boy. After a while, he wanted to go back to Okinawa, where his wife was waiting for him for many years.
[Meanwhile] [B]ack to my job in Honolulu Cafe. At the time, my brother was receiving a $35 paycheck every month. Mine was $15 a month. I was so happy to have $15 in my hands. It was my first experience to have $15 in my pocket at the age of 19. From that $15, I started sending $5 a month to my mother in Okinawa and I continued until World War II started.
My working hours were from 8 p.m. until 6 a.m. On the way home from work, I used to pick up coins from the sidewalk, especially in front of nightclubs. A five-cent coin was my “pay” for one hour; a 10-cent coin was for two hours, so I could really make use of them. I thought to myself, “What a wealthy country America is. People can throw away money like this.”
After work I started going to adult English school from 8 a.m. until noon. On the way back from school, I used to buy one bunch of watercress with the coins I had picked up. I cooked the watercress with soy seasoning, and that alone with rice was my favorite steady lunch. It was an excellent meal for me when I compared it with what I had in Okinawa. I am writing this little story because something like this is hard for the younger generation to believe. In this wealthy country, this was the beginning of my life in Hawai‘i.
Sometime after we were at Honolulu Cafe, new labor laws were passed for minimum hours and minimum wages [which] increased. My brother had a pay raise, but it never happened for me, so I quit working at Honolulu Cafe. I found a job next door at a place called Panpa Inn as the night dishwasher, but this time I also had a chance to learn how to cook. My nine months of schooling were over just in time for them to make me the daytime cook. I never went back to school, but my daytime cook’s job did not last too long. Business was not good, and they closed the place.
… I ended up being a dishwasher [at] a number of places where I could eat at the same time. I kept looking for a cook’s job. Finally, I found a long-term cook’s job at Palace Cafe, across from the Main [Honolulu downtown] Post Office.
… to be continued