A Labor of Love and Devotion

Kevin Y. Kawamoto

Like many other fans of KIKU-TV, I binge-watched Japanese-language television shows last month knowing that the station’s multi-cultural programming was coming to an end on June 28. It was like knowing a favorite restaurant was going to be shutting down for good and wanting to sample as many of its delicacies as I could before they are no longer available.

As mentioned in last month’s issue of The Hawai‘i Herald, KIKU-TV has had a long, sometimes tumultuous history in Hawai‘i Japanese-language programming. Although I have studied the history of ethnic media in Hawai‘i and other parts of the country and am familiar with the many difficulties in sustaining these operations, the announcement that KIKU-TV would be ending its Filipino and Japanese television shows still came as a surprise. It also provided an opportunity to reflect on the many people who have worked tirelessly to use media as a way to keep Japanese Americans, and Japanese immigrants in the United States, connected with their cultural heritage.

To KIKU-TV and all individuals and businesses that have given us Japanese-language media throughout Hawai‘i’s history, we express a heartfelt and deep kansha (gratitude) for nurturing these cultural assets for as long as they were able. KIKU-TV owed its identity of many decades to the people working in the Hawai‘i broadcast industry who believed in the value of offering Japanese-language programming to the community. At any time, the station’s owners — and KIKU had changed hands a number of times — could have decided to take KIKU in different directions. And they did, but the station was always able to pivot, returning to its roots as a provider of ethnic programming, again thanks to those willing to do the hard work behind the scenes.

A Brief History of Japanese-Language Media in Hawai‘i

“Locally grown” Japanese-language media in Hawai‘i have had a fascinating, admirable history. Japanese-language newspapers, for example, began appearing in the islands not long after Japanese immigrants themselves arrived in large numbers as plantation laborers in the late 1800s. These scrappy publications had a DIY (“Do-It-Yourself”) quality to them as a labor of love produced by Issei journalists who wanted to provide news and entertainment of interest to the local Japanese community, information that mainstream English-language publications were not interested in covering.

The earliest newspapers looked crude by today’s standards, seemingly handwritten and then mimeographed, but they served an important purpose and resulted from passionate, hardworking individuals committed to the newspaper business and the Japanese community.

Japanese immigrants of that era may not have had a lot of money working on the plantations and in other jobs, but they did have tremendous literacy in the Japanese language. This was thanks to strong national educational-access laws in Japan during the Meiji and Taishö periods, which benefited even the poorest citizens. So the majority of Japanese immigrants could read Japanese when they arrived in the islands. What they had needed, however, was something to read locally.

Pioneering Japanese newspapermen filled that need. In “A Pictorial History of the Japanese in Hawai‘i, 1885-1924,” authors Franklin Odo and Kazuko Sinoto open their chapter on Japanese Language Newspapers with this aphorism: “According to a popular Japanese saying, if there are as many as three Japanese living in the same place, a Japanese newspaper is published!” Odo and Sinoto trace the first Japanese-language newspaper in Hawai‘i to 1892, with many — literally dozens — following thereafter, although with varying lifespans. It’s a long list with names like Nippon Shuhö, Hawaii Shimbun, Hawaii Shimpö, Nippu Jiji (aka The Hawaii Times), Yamato, Kona Hankyö, Hawaii Mainichi and so forth.

These publications became an important communication network for Issei residents of Hawai‘i, keeping readers abreast of relevant current events both in their new home and their ancestral country, as well as in the rest of the world.

“For the immigrants who faced continual challenges to their struggle to improve their lives, the newspapers were critical sources of information,” Odo and Sinoto write. “Every important political issue was treated in considerable detail, from voting rights and labor movements to the language school controversy of the 1920s. Japanese-language papers could play these roles because the need for information and action was so great, and because there was a large pool of literate immigrants who could benefit from the publications.”

Even remote plantation villages in West Hawai‘i on the Big Island had access to a Japanese-language newspaper, namely the Kona Hankyö (Kona Echo), edited by Dr. Harvey Saburo Hayashi. Hayashi, a physician and Japanese immigrant himself, published the newspaper from 1897 to 1941 in addition to providing medical care to Japanese laborers on the plantations.

Fred Kinzaburo Makino (1877-1953).

The Herald’s sister publication, the Hawaii Hochi, was founded in 1912 by Fred Kinzaburo Makino and played an important role in keeping the Japanese community informed about the most significant issues of the day, at times mobilizing members of the Japanese community behind demonstrations demanding civil rights and fair-labor practices.

Together with its predecessor and sometime rival Nihongo newspaper, the Nippu Jiji — edited and owned by Yasutaro Soga — the Hochi helped issei agricultural workers think about labor struggles for economic justice and issues of assimilation versus cultural pluralism. These issues also transpired in Japanese-language school debates and other pressing community conversations [see encyclopedia.densho.org/Hawaii_Hochi (newspaper) and encyclopedia.densho.org/Nippu_Jiji (newspaper) for more].

The Hochi is the only Japanese-language publication from this time period to survive today, thanks in large part to the tireless efforts of the late Paul Yempuku to extend its readership through the late 20th and early 21st centuries, who passed away on May 20, 2019.

Paul Shodo Yempuku (1927-2019).

Yempuku was committed to seeing the Hochi through good times and bad, agonizing at times over how to deal with financial struggles that just about any publisher of a Japanese-language newspaper in the United States had had to face at one time or another. When Yempuku had the honor to meet and briefly speak with Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko (now both retired) at Kapi‘olani Park in 2009, he reportedly promised the royal couple that he would work hard to keep the Hochi publishing at least to its 100th anniversary, a promise that he was able to live to see, keeping it in 2012. The Hawaii Hochi’s printing and publishing business continues to operate under current president and publisher Taro Yoshida.

Other Japanese-language media have not been as fortunate. I have a folder filled with articles about the demise of ethnic media, especially as the Japanese-speaking and Japanese-reading population continues to shrink in Hawai‘i and on the U.S. mainland. In 2009, the Nichi Bei Times company, which served the Japanese community of northern California through several print publications including its flagship bilingual Japanese-language / English-language paper, announced that it was closing. In a letter to readers from the organization’s Board of Directors at the time, the sad news was conveyed and explained.

“This decision was not taken lightly,” the letter from the Board said. “Many hours of consideration and discussion were involved in this decision. Since 1990 the Nichi Bei Times experienced a steady decline in circulation and declining advertising revenue. Over the recent years, alternative plans of action were considered to gain new subscriptions and advertisers. Community service has been the primary consideration of the Nichi Bei Times. We felt the traditional bilingual daily did not serve today’s Japanese American community,” the letter said.

That was not the end of the story, however. A group of community members and Nichi Bei Times staff members sprang into action to form the non-profit Nichi Bei Foundation, which in turn would attempt to maintain a channel of communication with the Japanese American and larger pan-Asian communities on the Internet. Today web users can visit nichibei.org to browse through a “community-news hub” designed “to keep the community connected, informed and empowered.”

But the Nichi Bei Times’ “struggles” are really indicative of the industry as a whole. Community-based media organizations have relied heavily on advertising revenues, revenues directly affected by circulation figures which are said to reflect audience size. It is not easy to keep ethnic media in business unless there is a large enough market for them; however, as immigrant groups assimilate into the cultural fabric of the United States, they tend to seek mainstream media for information, rather than ethnic platforms. Japanese-language media also undergo such struggles to remain financially viable as the media environment itself, and its sophisticated technological audiences, have evolved over recent decades towards digital formats.

Even if the so-called target audience for a media product is growing or stable in size, that doesn’t mean members of that particular group will gravitate to the media product as hoped for and intended by the media company. For example, some cable television entities started the International Channel, later rebranded as AZN Television (made to sound like “Asian” Television), aimed at young English-speaking Asian Americans in the 1990s. Comcast Corporation decided to shut down the network in the summer of 2008, citing financial reasons, even though Asian Americans represented a fast-growing segment of the population with increasing purchasing power. A number of magazines targeting this same demographic group also have come and gone. What has kept some publications afloat is the presence of alternative revenue streams, such as printing, translation or production services offered by the parent company and which subsidize the ethnic-media product.

Back in Hawai‘i, Japanese-language media and programming have been disappearing gradually over the decades, but there was a time when such programming was popular and drew large enough audiences to not only keep them viable but also vibrant. Japanese-language radio programs, for example, were in existence in Hawai‘i as far back as the 1920s. And in the early days of television in Hawai‘i, there were Japanese cultural programs, like variety shows, on commercial-television stations like KGMB. They featured traditional music, singing and dance as well as talk story or conversation time.

Commercial radio stations like KGU, KGMB and KIKI featured Japanese-language programs. From 1947 to 1952, seven different English-language radio stations had formed Japanese-language programming departments. These programs shared airtime with English-language programs during different times of the day. But this was an era when the Japanese-speaking population was still large in Hawai‘i. Radio listeners did not have to be able to read and write Japanese, just understand it. This might have appealed to listeners whose literacy in the Japanese language was limited (e.g., Hawai‘i-born nisei who understood spoken Japanese from their parents but who were educated primarily in the English language).

Hawai‘i’s social environment was different then than it is today. This was an era when you had physical venues like the Toyo Theater, Toho Theater, Kokusai Theater and Nippon Theater regularly showing Japanese-language films to local audiences on a regular basis. Samurai movies, yakuza (gangster) films and dramas, even comedies, were popular with Hawai‘i residents, including the younger generation and their non-Japanese friends who did not speak Japanese and had to rely on subtitles. Neighborhood movie theaters also showed movies made in Japan, and audiences back then were familiar with famous Japanese movie stars who regularly appeared in films shown at these theaters and whose names moviegoers would instantly recognize, like Kinnosuke Nakamura, Hashizö Ökawa, Satomi Kötarö, Katsu Shintarö, Raizö Ichikawa and others.

Japanese-language media and culture in general were suppressed during World War II due to government concerns over enemy espionage, but they enjoyed a resurgence after the war ended. The community’s experience with World War II punctuated the fact that operating Japanese-language institutions in Hawai‘i was not only hard work but also risky business.

Japanese-language newspapermen and schoolteachers were among those rounded up by the United States government and imprisoned as so-called “enemy aliens” in Hawai‘i and in government internment camps on the U.S. mainland. Author Gail Okawa excavates the personal stories of a number of these individuals, including her own grandfather, in a book called, “Remember Our Grandfathers’ Exile: US Imprisonment of Hawai‘i’s Japanese in World War II” (University of Hawai‘i Press, 2020) which was reviewed in the Herald’s July 2 issue by author and film producer Tom Coffman.

Today the movie environment is dramatically different in Hawai‘i. Japanese movies are not regularly shown in theaters throughout the state. In fact, many such theaters mentioned above no longer exist, demolished or repurposed over the decades to pave the way for modern land development projects and shopping areas. Occasionally a foreign film, that appeals to international audiences and that happens to be made in Japan, will find its way into Hawai‘i theaters. More frequently, the Hawai‘i International Film Festival includes a healthy portion of contemporary and period Japanese-language films each year as part of its cinematic banquet. But the theatrical format of movie exhibition, which brings ethnic communities together in their local neighborhoods, is also dying out, as device- or home-viewing (streaming) become the standard.

Japanese-Language Radio

From 1959 to 2000, radio station KOHO on the AM dial offered Japanese-language radio programs. Launched in 1963, KZOO radio remains Hawai‘i’s only existing Japanese-language radio station. Listeners can still hear local news presented in the Japanese language on KZOO as well as Japanese music and talk. Listeners include Hawai‘i residents, businesses, visitors and students, according to the station’s website. The station features longtime Japanese-language radio personalities whose voices are well-known to regular listeners.

“Aside from our position on the radio dial at AM 1210, KZOO Radio can be heard by cable recipients on channel 888, and breaking local news broadcasts are available on Japanese-language TV channels in most Waikïkï hotels,” the station’s website explains.

KZOO built a satellite studio at Ala Moana Shopping Center, initially at Shirokiya’s upstairs location near Macy’s and then later at the Japan Village Walk location on the ground level near Foodland. The studio did live-broadcast interviews while shoppers could stop and watch, if interested. KZOO’s main studio is located at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i on South Beretania Street in Mö‘ili‘ili. The station also has a history of sponsoring community events such as karaoke song contests, with winners going on to compete in Japan. Listeners can also hear KZOO over the Internet. Visit the station’s website at kzooradio.com or see youtube.com/channel/UCK7-8FI65rjiWUM4qg7ruBQ. featuring assorted interviews and news stories. Students of Japanese language can hear the spoken language clearly articulated on KZOO radio or YouTube videos, then figure out the words’ meaning on their own, without being able to rely on subtitles.

Japanese Music in Hawai‘i

The Japanese community in Hawai‘i has enjoyed musical entertainment pretty much from the earliest days of immigration and continuing into the following decades. The late Jack Tasaka identified seven major Hawai‘i-based Japanese bands from 1928 to 1937 in research he did on the subject. They had names like Nippon Gengakudan, Honolulu Ongakudan, Yamato Orchestra, Kawai Taiyo Band, Uruma Ongakudan, Shinko Orchestra and Smile Orchestra. (Yamato Orchestra later developed into Club Nisei.) By 1941 there were about 12 Japanese orchestras in the islands. They put on shows at Japanese theaters and for social gatherings. By 1950 there were 50 Japanese orchestras. This was the heyday of Japanese music in Hawai‘i.

Popular Japanese singers’ voices filled the airwaves, as did nagauta (classical Japanese music played on traditional instruments like the koto and shamisen), and traditional Japanese and Okinawan dance found enthusiastic audiences. Even today, teachers of Japanese and Okinawan dance and musical instruments help to keep the cultural heritage alive for future generations. In the 1950s, popular Japanese singers found an enthusiastic audience in Hawai‘i. For example, Misora Hibari’s “Namida no Benibara” was a big hit with Hawai‘i’s Japanese community, as were some of her other early songs like “Kanashiki Kuchibue,” “Tokyo Kid” and “Watashi no Boyfriend.”

Local record labels like Bell, Tropic and 49th State Hawaii Record Co. released both English- and Japanese-language songs, including children’s favorites such as “Yüyake Koyake” and “Momotarö-San.” “Koko no Sachi Ari / Here is Happiness” was recorded by many singers of different ethnicities, including Carole Kai and Emma Veary. A “Hawaiian Wedding Song” duet by former Miss Hawaii Cathy Foy-Mahi and Japanese superstar Kayama Yuzo can still be found on YouTube. Old-timers may remember a time when songs with a Japanese-American identity emerged such as “Chotto Matte Kudasai,” “My Little Japanese Boy” and “Me Japanese Boy (I Love You).” These songs reflect a Japanese American culture in transition as English language songs began to dominate Hawai‘i airwaves.

Interestingly, Japanese singer Kyu Sakamoto’s “Sukiyaki” (a.k.a. “Ue O Muite Arukou”) became an international hit in the early 1960s, unusual for a Japanese artist; later the group A Taste of Honey recorded English words to the melody, turning it into a hit for a second time in the 1980s. The English words made popular by A Taste of Honey were not a translation of the Japanese version of the song but probably revived interest in the original Japanese version.

Japanese Cultural Programming in Hawai‘i

Although there is still a market for Japanese-language media and Japanese cultural programming in Hawai‘i, the media and communication landscape in Hawai‘i has changed drastically from earlier decades. Japanese-language magazines like Kokiku, for example, which featured stories about Japanese entertainment and entertainers that would be of interest to Hawaii audiences, ceased publication years ago, perhaps a sign of the Japanese popular media’s waning influence in the Islands.

The good news is that for those who use the Internet (and in particular, YouTube) Japanese-language content can be found in volume; Japan-produced documentaries, music videos and other forms of old-media and web-based entertainment are available for viewing. On television, there is still the Hawaii-owned Nippon Golden Network (NGN) content available by subscription on cable television, thanks to its founder, University of Hawai‘i professor Dennis Ogawa, a businessman and scholar of Japanese American society. The Hawai‘i Herald features a pull-out Television Program Guide which provides details on the wide variety of programs on its three different channels in the second issue of every month. And there are travel-related shows like “Ultimate Japan” (on Spectrum OC16) with the Suzui family, and “Doko Ga TV” with Pali Ka‘aihue and his guests on K5 and KHNL. Check your television listing for airtimes. As mentioned, KZOO radio is still up and running, and an Internet-based radio station called Sakura Radio (sakuraradio.com) describes itself as the first web-based Japanese community radio station with coverage throughout the United States seven days a week, 24 hours a day.

Nostalgic Kokiku Hawaii magazines from the early 2000s.

Free Japanese-language television programs, like those KIKU had long provided, may be more difficult to sustain in the current media environment for a variety of related demographic, linguistic and economic factors. There is stiff competition for advertisers, especially during this downturn in the economy. All the commercial television stations are competing with each other (and with streaming and mobile venues) for ad revenues.

Japanese programs need to be licensed from rights holders in Japan, which requires staff with bilingual and bicultural skills, and if shown in English-speaking markets, the programs also need translation and subtitles, adding on costs for showing the program in Hawai‘i. Of course, there are the usual staff salaries and operational expenses. From a strictly business perspective, irrespective of the public service that Japanese-language programs provide to a community like Hawai‘i, running infomercials all day long may appear to be more cost-effective than multicultural programming. KIKU had long shared its broadcast channel with infomercials or “paid programming,” so it’s not like the format changes are totally new.

Joanne Ninomiya, president and founder of JN Productions.

What was particularly commendable about KIKU-TV under general manager Phyllis Kihara (and before her Joanne Ninomiya whose JN Productions had helped brand the station in its heyday) was its commitment to producing locally relevant cultural programs as well. These productions were edu-tainment jewels that reflected Hawai‘i’s multicultural community positively and with sophistication, through what is referred to as “high production values” in the industry. “The Wisdom of Hawaii’s Elders” segments, for example, featured older adults sharing their life experiences and lessons learned through stories and photographs that touched viewers’ hearts. Other locally produced segments included, “On the Table,” “Itadakimasu,” “Japanese Word of the Day,” “Naruhodo,” and “Ammoyo Kadi.” These gems will hopefully be saved somewhere for perpetuity. For the time being, KIKU-TV seems to have archived much of this content on its KIKUTube channel on YouTube: youtube.com/user/TheKIKUTube. These video gems must find a permanent home somewhere!

Unlike other countries (for example Great Britain, Canada and Japan), the United States does not have a tradition of public broadcasting where enormous sums of public money are designated for cultural programs. The British Broadcasting Corporation, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and the Japan Broadcasting Corporation (a.k.a., NHK) benefit from annual fees charged on receivers, alleviating the need to rely solely on advertising as commercial stations have to do. Producers of cultural content can also tap into public funds for financial assistance, alleviating total dependence on advertisers or having to seek private funding, which can be time-consuming and exhausting.

The U.S. does have the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), but it is not the same as the BBC, CBC or NHK. Although PBS Hawai‘i sometimes airs programs produced in Japan, including those from NHK, for most television and radio stations in the U.S., revenues must be generated through either advertising or subscriptions or both. The lack of a comparable public broadcasting model to what exists in many other countries works against strong financial support of cultural programming that may not attract large audiences but does have significant societal value, arguably much more so than reality TV shows or similar light content. Unfortunately in a commercial, advertising-driven broadcasting system, numbers matter – and sometimes they are the only things that matter.

Not all media owners are solely concerned with profits; perhaps nowhere is that more evident than in ethnic media companies. Seattle’s surprisingly long-lived Japanese American newspaper North American Post, for example, owes its longevity to the support of prominent Japanese American businessman Tomio Moriguchi, who ran the family business Uwajimaya, Inc., for decades. Moriguchi could have decided long ago to end the paper’s publication, but he kept it going as a service to the community. This brings us to the key takeaway message of my commentary.

If ethnic media platforms are important to you, support them while they are still around, because their future existence is not guaranteed. For example, let advertisers know that you saw their ad in an ethnic publication or on ethnic TV or heard it on the radio. Advertisers want to know that their dollars are well spent. If you know potential advertisers, let them know about the ethnic media you support. Also, the company that owns the ethnic media publication or broadcasting station may have associated businesses that provide revenues to the company. Consider using services and buying products from those businesses, if you need them, because they most likely help subsidize the ethnic media part of the overall business.

Finally, a huge thank you to all the people associated with keeping ethnic media operating past, present and future — not only for the benefit of the Japanese American or Japanese-language speaking community, but also for all ethnic communities.

Keeping ethnic media afloat is no easy task, especially with small staff, low budgets, over-reliance on freelancers, piles of work that never seems to end and a long journey from planning to execution where so many things can go wrong in between. Few people know what goes on behind the scenes of such enterprises unless they’ve done it. The reality of constant deadlines, staying within costs, and managing human resources is daunting. In recent years, the call from above to do more with less has become a familiar refrain. Few people in this business will toot their own horn, but they are all heroes. They could have done other things with their lives, but they chose to stand on the shoulders of people like activists Fred Kinzaburo Makino, founder of The Hawaii Hochi; and the Nippu Jiji’s editor/publisher Yasutaro Soga, and carry the torch forward, accepting both the rewards and the sacrifices. THANK YOU!

Japanese-language and ethnic media have an uncertain future in Hawai‘i. Japanese culture remains relatively strong, but it may be expressed in different ways from the past. The younger generations enjoy more media options and such diverse content, often global in their cross-Asia scope, as witnessed by Crunchyroll.com and Viki.com. Many new-sei youth show interest in manga, anime, J-POP and K-POP musical groups, video games, karaoke, cosplay and otaku culture and things that are cute (kawaii; e.g., KawaiiKon.com). In Hawaii, there are groups that earnestly attempt to sustain Japan’s classical fine, performing and martial arts as well. Both tradition and innovation influence the evolution of culture.

The end of Japanese language programming on KIKU-TV begs the question of what other ways we have left to connect to Japanese culture and society, and how to sustain those surviving channels and outlets. Some have asked whether community television (such as ‘Olelo Community Media) might help fill the void, or even if another station could be started similar to KBFD, which airs both Korean-language programming and English-language infomercials. What about an online Japanese-language program channel via the Internet?

There has also been mention of trying to get KIKU-TV’s owners to change their minds about the programming change if there is enough community support to bring Japanese-language programming back to the station. This would not be unprecedented as dramatic programming changes have occurred in Hawai‘i’s complex television history over the years. But that was then and this is now. Even Kikaida may not be up to the fight in a post-pandemic society that has devastated such a large segment of Hawai‘i’s business community.

As I did my binge-watching of KIKU-TV programs during the station’s final days, I realized that there were probably a large number of loyal KIKU viewers who were feeling a great deal of sadness at the impending loss of their much-loved TV programs. You develop a kind of relationship with the characters in these shows, caring about their lives, or enjoying traveling along with them on their journeys. There is also something uniquely appealing about Japanese culture and its people, perhaps giving us some insights into ourselves and our loved ones if we are of Japanese ancestry. So to say goodbye to the shows is to say goodbye to some part of our own lives that found these shows and their characters so interesting.

Importantly, KIKU-TV staff members recorded a memorable goodbye and thank you to its multi-generational audience, a message which had played repeatedly in the last week (or so) of the station’s existence. Let’s also say to them, “Otsukaresama deshita” — and then extend that sentiment to everyone who has had a part in keeping our ethnic media alive in Hawai‘i for the past 130 years or so. Thank you very much for all your hard work.

Kevin Y. Kawamoto is a longtime contributor to The Hawai‘i Herald.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here