How an Issei Okinawan Woman Broke the Glass Ceiling in the 1930s
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
When 7-year-old Ushi Tamagusuku left Okinawa in 1910, who could have known that she would someday become the highly successful “First Lady of Insurance” in Hawai‘i. This young girl would eventually become the first female insurance agent at Occidental Underwriters of Hawaii, Chiyeko Takushi.
Takushi was born Ushi Tamagusuku, the second daughter of Jügi and Kana Tamagusuku, in Nago Village in Okinawa on March 1, 1903 (She changed her name to Chiyeko sometime between 1925 and 1936). She came to O‘ahu with her mother and siblings in 1910 as a yobiyose (an immigrant summoned by someone already in the host land) after they were called over by her father.
Takushi attended what was then Waipahu Elementary and High School, but her education was curtailed in the eighth grade when she was 13. As stated in “Living Legacy: Outstanding Japanese Women of the 20th Century in Hawai‘i” by Scott C.S. Stone, she left the school after her father passed away. Another account, in an article by Joe Udell in “Hawaii’s AJA Pioneers,” however, reports that she “was forced to leave school […] after school officials discovered that she was not a U.S. citizen.” (Takushi became a naturalized U.S. citizen on Sept. 5, 1968.) She attended the Hongwanji Japanese Language School and later Philips Commercial Business School for two and a half years. She struggled to afford her schooling at Philips and often skipped lunch to pay the tuition.
That did not stop her, though. She took on temporary jobs at Hawaiian Telephone Company and the Hawaii Sugar Planters Association. After finishing the business school, she secured a position with Henry Waterhouse Trust Company.
Takushi met her husband, Kamado Takushi, at the Methodist Mission Church in Pälama, which was started by issei Rev. Gashu (Seikan) Higa who would later marry them. The couple was married on March 10, 1925 when Takushi was 22 years old. They soon began their family and over the next four years were blessed with three sons: Warren, Roy, and Kenneth.
Shortly after they married, Kamado Takushi took a job as a pineapple-plantation truck driver on the island of Läna‘i. Chiyeko and Kamado lived there for two years. While they were on Läna‘i, Takushi’s mother, Kana, fell seriously ill. Takushi was desperate to get back to O‘ahu to see her mother but a severe storm forced them to hold back from taking the trip. By the time Takushi and her family reached O‘ahu, she was too late; her mother had passed away and the funeral was over.
Takushi was devastated and overcome by guilt; she fell into a deep depression. In an article in the magazine Sabani, she was quoted from a 1987 interview with The Hawai‘i Herald as saying, “That was the one time in my life I lost hope.” Soon after she lost her mother, Takushi rapidly lost 25 pounds and could not properly feed her two young sons.
Fortunately, a friend who was credited with nursing her back to health, Anita Lake, helped her recover and find a teacher’s position with Castle Memorial Kindergarten. She was revitalized amidst her new environment surrounded by the children.
As if it were meant to be, her teacher job led to her to meet the Kagawa family, owners of Occidental Underwriters of Hawaii. The son of founder Lawrence T. “L.T.” Kagawa, Siegfred, was one of the students in her class. According to an article by Lance Tominaga in Sabani, it wasn’t until seven years after meeting the Kagawas that Siegfried’s mother, Ayako, encouraged Takushi to apply for the position of an insurance agent. She applied for the position and became the first-ever female insurance agent at Occidental in 1936.
What was remarkable about the start of her career was, that it had not been long before when there were accounts of discrimination against Japanese; some were being charged a higher premium than other groups. That was one of the big reasons the Kagawas started Occidental Underwriters of Hawaii in 1933, to create more parity for the insurance market in Hawai‘i. Her success was remarkable, considering there were many odds going against her in the insurance industry.
She was a first-generation immigrant female working in what was pretty much a (white) male-dominated field. On top of that, she was an Okinawan female, which could have placed her at a lower rung further down the social status ladder.
The Japanese have a saying, nana korobi, ya oki – fall seven times, get up eight, which reflects resilience. She was a perfect example of this; no matter what challenges life brought her, she picked herself up and continued to move forward. Her strength, resilience, perseverance and hard work were vital elements to her success.
Within her first two years working as an insurance agent, she brought in 258 life insurance applications, totaling more than $395,000 — a huge amount of money in those days and a major accomplishment for any agent, let along a first female agent. During her 63-year tenure at Occidental, according to Udell’s article, “she earned nearly every major award that the company and insurance industry had to offer, as well as opened doors for other women in the workplace.”
No matter how busy she was at work, though, she never neglected her family and her role as wife and mother. During a recent conversation with her oldest son Warren, who is now in his 90s, he said that while they were growing up, his mother always had meals prepared and ready for them when they all sat down to eat dinner at the table together. Takushi would be at home when her children came home from school. Education was important to her and that was instilled in her sons. They have all been successful in their chosen professional fields of education, law and religious ministry.
Takushi’s success was not only measured by her career or how well she raised her family, she was also dedicated to the service of her Okinawan community. When Okinawans faced severe discrimination by others, she worked to create opportunities for improvement for herself and others. In Yukiko Kimura’s book, “Issei: Japanese Immigrants in Hawaii,“ Kimura wrote:
To overcome their [Okinawans] handicaps, collective efforts were made among the young adults. They formed groups and organizations aimed at self-improvement. One such group was the Deigo-kai, organized at the YWCA in 1933 for young women of Okinawan parentage under the leadership of Chiyeko Takushi, a pioneer businesswoman in the field of insurance in Hawai‘i.
Also, Mitsugu Sakihara wrote in the book “Uchinanchu: a history of Okinawans in Hawaii” that between 1921-22, she was part of a group of young people (including insurance agent Sadao Asato and Dr. Matsuju Yamashiro) who would gather periodically up on the hills of Punchbowl (currently the site of the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific), to practice public speaking in English and critiquing one another. They called themselves the “Punchbowl Group.”
Sakihara also wrote that following the end of World War II, in July 1946, Takushi, along with Misa Yamashiro, formed the Reputa Kai, which was made up by mostly housewives. They donated their small change after going shopping and used the collected money to purchase food, clothing, school supplies and other necessities to send to Okinawa for its post-war relief efforts.
Besides the previously mentioned Deigo-kai and Reputa Kai, she was also a charter member of many organizations and played a key role in developing them. These organizations include the Gajimaru Kai (was its fifth and first female president), Hui O Laulima (served on its charter board of directors), and Hui Makaala (served on its inaugural scholarship selection committee) among others. According to Tominaga’s article in Sabani, the list of her service groups also included: Nago Club, Yomitan Club, Hawaii Uchinanchu Business Group, Honolulu YMCA Heritage Club, Japanese Women’s Society, Kuakini Women’s Auxiliary and the Wesley United Methodist Church.
Even after Takushi’s husband passed away in 1974, she continued to work hard both in her career and service. She continued to drive a car and work into her nineties. She was a pioneer in so many ways and a strong woman in an era when women weren’t allowed or strongly discouraged from having a career.
Chiyeko Takushi passed away on Oct. 14, 2002 at Kuakini Geriatric Care at the age of 99. According to her obituary that was published in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in 2002, in addition to her three sons, she also left behind 13 grandchildren and 22 great-grandchildren. By now she has many more descendants. Her obituary was simple and strikingly brief, it didn’t expound on her legendary accomplishments in her life, but what a legacy she left! Even after she’s been gone for nearly 20 years now, Takushi continues to serve as an exemplary role model for women of this generation who learn about her.
Lynette Teruya is a librarian at Chaminade University of Honolulu. She studies uta-sanshin under the tutelage of Katsumi Shinsato. She was a 1997-1998 recipient of the Okinawa Prefectural Government scholarship and studied language and culture at the University of the Ryükyüs. Teruya also studied at the Nagoya University on a Monbusho (Japanese Ministry of Education) scholarship.
Gajimaru Kai: Soritsu 50-shunen Kinenshi, 1970-2020. (Honolulu: Gajimaru Kai, 2020)
Kimura, Yukiko. Issei: Japanese immigrants in Hawaii (University of Hawai‘i Press, 1988)
Moriyama, Mildred with assistance of Ruth Adaniya. “Hui Makaala,” Uchinanchu: a History of Okinawans in Hawaii, Ethnic Studies Oral History Project, Ethnic Studies Program (University of Hawai‘i, 1981)
Sakihara, Mitsugu. “Okinawans in Hawaii: an Overview of the Past 80 Years.” Uchinanchu: a History of Okinawans in Hawaii, Ethnic Studies Oral History Project, Ethnic Studies Program (University of Hawai‘i, 1981)
Stone, Scott C.S. “Chiyeko Takushi.” Living Legacy: Outstanding Japanese Women of the 20th Century in Hawaii (The Japanese Women’s Society Foundation, 2002)
Tominaga, Lance. “An Amazing Lady: Celebrating the Life of Chiyeko Takushi.” Sabani: Bridging People, Cultures, Generations, and Seas, vol.1, no. 3, June/July 2000.
Udell, Joe. “Chiyeko Takushi: Issei was a Pioneer Insurance Woman.” Hawaii’s AJA Pioneers: One Hundred Profiles Commemorating the Centennial of Hawaii Hochi, edited by Karleen Chinen (Hawaii Hochi, Ltd., 2012)