Richard Shigeichi Asato (1915-2010)
Reprinted with Permission, 2006

Editors note: Before Richard Asato passed away on March 20, 2010, he left a treasure for his family. 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 Asato Family. First row (from left): Kevin, Brandon, Richard, Yoneko and Davin. Second row (from left): Joyce, Kenneth, Edward, Susan, Jonavan and Sharina.

“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.”

Read The Hawai‘i Herald’s continuation about the hardships and joys of a man who lived life well. Part One can be found in the Herald’s Jan. 1, 2021 issue.

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 Entrance into the Business World

Before [my brother and I] opened our own business, I worked [at] eight places: Honolulu Cafe, Panpa Inn, Royal Cafe, Owl Cafe, Lucky Grill, B.B.Q. Inn, Royal Hawaiian and Palace Cafe. We opened our own business at the ages of 24 and 25, calling it Kamehameha Grill. Its location was [at] 1036 Kekaulike St., which in those days, [the area] was [known as] Hawaiian Town. … Our specialty was American food, and serving American food in Hawaiian Town was not a good idea.

We faced difficulties in trying to keep the business going, and at the same time we had an unexpected problem [that] my brother had not warned me about. Sometime earlier, he had cosigned a loan for a friend. This friend could not take care of the loan. Loan collectors came to attack our cash register, taking every dollar we had in it, making it even more difficult for us to keep the business going. I was forced to go out to work and give my brother monthly pay in order to keep our business going.

In the meantime, [a] Hawaiian food cook who was working next door came [to our restaurant] looking for a job. We hired him, now having the chance to learn to prepare Hawaiian food. After a while, a girl from the restaurant next door came in looking for a job, so we also hired her. There was not enough work for her to do, but luckily, she had a very good personality.

Drafted in December 1941, Richard Shigeichi Asato was part of the U.S. Army 1399th Construction Engineer Battalion. (Photos from “88th Birthday Anniversary, Richard Shigeichi Asato”)

She stood in front of our restaurant, smiled and called out to the next-door customers as they passed by. As days went by, our business began increasing. The first thing we did was improve the kitchen fixtures [by] putting in a new stove and sink. With a new heater, more dishes and silverware and other items, we could handle more business – equal to [two other competing] Hawaiian food restaurants, or even better.

Unfortunately, we received a letter from [our] mother saying that she wanted one of us to visit her because of her health problem. My brother volunteered to go, leaving me to run the business all by myself. That was sometime in November 1941.

On Dec. 7, 1941, World War II started and my brother lost his opportunity to return to Hawai‘i. Since I [was] drafted [in Hawai‘i], I had to decide what to do with the business – sell it or keep it. I decided to keep the business.

While trying to think of how to keep the restaurant operating, suddenly, the girl who had helped us [grow] the business came to mind. Her husband was a chef at Roo-sevelt Cafe, which was located next to ‘A‘ala Park. I asked them to take care of the place until I [completed my military] service. I was fortunate. Both of them were happy to take my offer and took over … I gave them full control of the business under my name.

Military Life

I [was] drafted in December 1941, and joined the [U.S.] Army in February. My new life started on the first day the [Army] provided [for] our personal needs, which included military wear, a sleeping area with military bunkbeds and my unforgettable military I.D. No. 30102890, which are called “dog tags.”

The second day started with breakfast which [I] never experienced in my civilian life. It was just like a buffet: take your choice and eat all you want.

Our group name was the 1399 Engineer Battalion. Our job was to make roads and put up bridges. I was with the group that was making bridges and roads, and on the way to work I saw a surprising thing. An airfield was being built so quickly, that within a month or two, it was ready to use. What I took notice of was that they used nothing but machines. If it had been Japan, they would have taken years to finish because they would have done it with manpower. That showed how strong America was. I began to think that Japan had no chance [at winning] the war.

Every evening, after duty, [the Company boys] enjoyed playing games, cards, rolling dice and drinking beer. I had never experienced [these activities before]. The only thing I knew was working hard day after day. This put me in the corner, all by myself, so I started to stand by the games, watching them and memorizing [the rules].

I knew gambling was not a good thing to do, but in this case, I had no choice (if you cannot [beat them], join [them]). So I joined a one-cent poker group. I started making money, which they called beginner’s luck. Next I joined a 25-cent game, and made more money.

[One night], when I had gone to town, [I] had no place to stay overnight. I spent one night [in] my friend’s room. It just [so] happened that he was a record-holding professional gambler. In the evening, the guys got together and started gambling, all of them professionals. I had nothing else to do, so I joined them. I lost every dollar I had made in the Army. That happened over and over again until one night, on a 25-cent game, I lost $150. That taught me about gambling. That was the last poker game; [no more] gambling for me…

As time passed my situation in the Army changed. I was assigned to be the Company cook, my regular job. Sometime later, they sent me to Military Bakers and Cooking School for a one-month course. … On Aug. 1, 1945, I received a First Cook Certificate, which they called “Technician 4th Grade.” I was very fortunate in my military life. After I got my certificate, they put me in the battalion officers’ mess hall which served 35 battalion officers. I cooked for the officers for one year and two months.

Then World War II ended with America’s victory, and my four-year vacation was ended. I was discharged in 1946.

My History With Samisen

(Note: “Sanshin” is an Okinawan three-stringed lute. Many locals — especially the issei, nisei and sansei — in Hawai‘i who were familiar with classical and folk music of Okinawa called it “samisen” in casual conversation, which probably came from the Japanese version of the instrument “shamisen.”)

Asato-Sensei started playing the sanshin from the age of 10. He received his shihan (master’s certificate) in 1973 and was the president of Nomura Ryu Ongaku Kyokai, Hawaii Chapter, from 1985-1987.

I started samisen when I was 10. Whenever Japan had a new emperor (…when Emperor Taisho [passed away], … Emperor Showa [was coronated]), as part of the celebration …, every village [in Okinawa] had stage show performances which required two to three months of practice. That was my first experience seeing people playing the samisen, singing and dancing. Every evening before practice started, I was there to watch them. I began to memorize the sounds of samisen and the songs. Then I wanted to have my own [instrument].

I found the top part (sao, or neck) of a samisen in the house, but I needed the bottom (chiiga). I found an empty can to use for the bottom, but then I needed strings. I picked up my mother’s sewing thread, and then had a full homemade samisen.

I kept practicing with my homemade samisen (kankara sanshin) until sometime later, when someone gave me a real [one] with snakeskin on it. That made me more interested, and I advanced until finally, at the age of 15, I became one of the entertainers of the village. I used to play at party after party, until the age of 19, when I came to Hawai‘i.

My new life in Hawai‘i did not allow me to keep up with the samisen, so I stopped playing for a while until about 1949 or 1950. Somewhere around then, I began thinking of picking up the samisen again. This time, I wanted to try classical music and felt that to do that, it would be better to have a teacher, instead of practicing by myself.

[I] was very fortunate [to have] met a wonderful teacher like Mr. Seiko Ikehara. After a few years, we made many recordings. We advertised my business (Kamehameha Grill) with Okinawan music together over the radio, and we played together from party to party and stage to stage.

In 1964, I received my junior instructor certificate. In 1967, Asato Anseikai was formed and my teaching career began. In 1973, I received my senior instructor certificate. [And] from 1985 to 1987, I served as the president of Nomura Ryu [Ongaku] Kyokai, Hawaii Chapter.

… I want to say [a] special thanks to my teacher Mr. Seiko Ikehara and Mrs. Ikehara.

… I can truly say my music experience has blessed me with many unforgettable memories.

To My Wife

… Thank you for marrying the man in the Army, especially during the war. We have two sons [Edward and Kenneth], both of them wartime babies. … I know you had a difficult time with not speaking much English. I want to say, “Gokuro sama deshita” (thank you for all your work for the sake of our team/group/family) in Japanese. You married a man who only knew how to work hard. I used to work 15 to 16 hours a day, so I had no time to spend with the family. You raised two fine boys all by yourself, and I am grateful to you.

Asato married Yoneko Higa on Jan. 9, 1942.

In 1969, we made a great decision of early retirement. We made our 30 years of hard work worthwhile. At the time, I was 54 and you were only 50, so we had enough time to enjoy our life together. We traveled from place to place. We did everything we could, with no regrets … Now that we are seniors, … I feel so fortunate because we are surrounded by a wonderful family of two fine sons, five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. We live in [Mänoa], the most popular rainbow valley of paradise with an attractive waterfall in the center of the valley and a stream running towards the ocean. An even more beautiful thing is that we are surrounded by wonderful neighbors.


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