The life, hardships and resilience of the Tani family

Carlyn Leinani Tani
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

As evening fell on July 18, 1926, a Dodge touring car packed with the nine-member Tani family came barreling down the road to Kahului. Mitsuzo, the patriarch, sat in the front passenger seat with his three-year-old daughter Yachiyo tucked beside him. Seven other family members filled the back seat, including Fusae, 11. The family was returning home from a Sunday outing to Pā‘ia Camp, where the children played while the men swapped stories and downed cups of sake. A family friend took the wheel on the drive home. As the car rounded a bend near Kanaha Camp, it veered suddenly and toppled over, pinning everyone. Mitsuzo, 54, was killed instantly. Daughters Yachiyo and Fusae died shortly after being rushed to Malulani Hospital. The horrific crash landed on the front page of Maui News and forever upended the fortunes of the Tani family. 

Mother Sumi, 35, had no time to mourn the untimely deaths of her husband and daughters. She suddenly became both a widow and the sole provider for five children, the youngest just 18 months old. She didn’t have a lot of options, given her fourth-grade education and limited English language skills. But over the next decades, through sheer grit, self-invention and perseverance, Sumi pieced together a life that kept her shattered family together. She found the will to survive. “My mother always said gambare or endure your hardship,” says Sally Shinobu, Sumi’s youngest child. “That’s what my name, Shinobu, means. And that’s what her whole life was.” 

Tani family in Kahului, Maui. From left: Fusae, Mitsuzo with Elizabeth Misaki, James Futoshi, Molly Kaoru, Sumi and Yachiyo, and Doris Masayo. (Photo courtesy of Carlyn Leinani Tani)

Sumi Tani was my grandmother. Her only son, James, was my father. 

The road to Makawao stretches up the broad slopes of Haleakalā. My aunt, Sally Shinobu Kuba, lives in a cottage below the mountain’s imposing summit. She’s petite, with cropped gray hair and keen, crinkled eyes. At 97, she’s also the accident’s only remaining survivor. Settling herself into a wicker chair, she begins to recount our family’s story.

Sumi, right, with her father, younger brother and sister in Yanai, Japan, 1910. (Photo courtesy of Carlyn Leinani Tani)

As a girl growing up in Yanai, Japan, Sumi Matsumoto was known as a skilled kimono maker. The eldest of four, she ran the household when her father, a caterer, and her mother, a midwife, were called away for work. By age 20, the slender, reserved young woman had refused several proposals of marriage. But she’d also heard alluring tales of a place called Hawai‘i, so when her father handed her the photo of a young ex-priest from Yanai, who proposed marriage in Hawai‘i, she studied it with interest. He wore a Western suit with his hair parted to the side, and looked distinguished. She knew that if she turned down his proposal, she’d become an intolerable burden on her parents, but if she said yes, she’d have a chance at a promising new life. She said yes. 

On Aug. 18, 1911, a steamship carrying Sumi and other shashin hanayome, or picture brides, docked at the port of Honolulu. They were among the initial wave of picture brides to arrive in Hawai‘i (more than 20,000 picture brides came to the islands between 1908-1924). Sumi, who’d been gripped by sea sickness throughout the voyage, walked unsteadily along the pier, clutching her bundle of possessions. The 4 foot, 10-inch bride-to-be wore a crisp cotton kimono with her hair swept into a pompadour. After exiting the health screening, she looked nervously at the line of men who were waiting outside. One stepped forward, holding up her picture and calling her name. But it wasn’t the young man from the photo. Instead, before her stood a weather-beaten and balding man twice her age – this was Mitsuzo. The couple married in a group ceremony outside Immigration then boarded a boat for Napo‘opo‘o. Sumi cried for days.

Despite their initial rocky start, Mitsuzo and Sumi Tani led a bountiful life. Mitsuzo was the second of three sons born to a priestly family in Yanai, Yamaguchi-ken, in southwestern Honshu. At 26, he abandoned the Buddhist priesthood to work on Hawai‘i’s sugarcane fields, driven perhaps by Japan’s declining economy and by rumors of the vast fortunes to be made in this faraway “paradaisu.” He arrived by steamship in 1898, the year Hawai‘i was annexed by the U.S. By the time of his arrival, the sugar industry had transformed Hawai‘i. Sugar exports fueled the economy and, in 1893, western sugar planters engineered the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom. Plantations initially brought in field laborers from China but soon turned to Japan and other nations for migrant workers. From 1885 to 1924, more than 200,000 Japanese immigrated to the islands. Roughly half chose to stay after their contracts ended. Mitsuzo was one of them. He arranged for Sumi to join him as his wife in Napo‘opo‘o, Hawai‘i, where he ran a horse-drawn taxi and blacksmith operation. A restless entrepreneur, Mitsuzo seized an offer to take over a blacksmith’s shop on Maui. He moved his family, which then included daughters Doris Masayo and Fusae, to the bustling shipping hub of Kahului. There, Sumi gave birth to Yachiyo, Molly Kaoru, James Futoshi, Elizabeth Misaki, and Sally Shinobu. Mitsuzo, who spoke fluent Hawaiian, struck a deal with the native fishermen at Kahului Harbor: He’d fix their boats in exchange for fresh fish to feed his growing brood. The Tanis ate very well.

A studio portrait taken two years before the accident depicts a large, well-attired family. Sumi wears a formal kimono with a delicate bamboo design and holds year-old Yachiyo in her lap. The older girls are outfitted in ruffled dresses, tights and ankle-strap flats while James grins impishly and shows off his wristwatch. They were a family on the rise.

Immigration Station of the Department of Labor, Honolulu – Japanese Immigrants Awaiting Examination (Photo courtesy of Hawai‘i State Archives)

“In Kahului, because of my father’s educational background and his immense knowledge of kanji, he became a town leader,” said Sally, recalling the stories her mother would tell. “If people got letters from Japan with characters they couldn’t read, they’d go to my father – the village blacksmith!” When Japanese silent films played on Vineyard St., Mitsuzo sometimes took the role of benshi, the narrator who explains the action and voices each character. “Imagine acting the role of the lady, the man, the child. Not everybody can do that but he did,” laughed Sally. “My father was a real ham, so whenever he was the benshi, the movie was exceptionally good.” Mitsuzo’s close friends were Katsuhiro Miho, a Japanese-language school principal, and Tetsuichi Kaneshige, the owner of a watch and jewelry shop in Kahului (the store closed in 2004). 

In the mid-1920s, automobiles began overtaking horses as the primary mode of transportation. Recognizing the threat to his blacksmith’s trade, Mitsuzo started a side business that converted flat-bed trucks into semi-enclosed “banana wagons.” Like many immigrants, he was vigilant to niche business opportunities and adept at retooling his skills to a changing market. “He planned to bring in a lot of Ford motor cars and have a slew of gas stations all over Maui,” Sally tells me. “But then the accident happened.”

An inquest into the accident faulted the car’s driver for operating recklessly without a license, but that did nothing to ease the family’s profound grief. In the accident’s aftermath, Sumi found herself shunned by other Japanese in Kahului. “They avoided her because they were afraid she’d ask for their help,” Sally explains. “Because everyone was struggling to make ends meet.” The family moved into a shed on the slopes of ‘Īao Valley, which isolated Sumi even more. There were no family members or relatives who could help her or provide comfort. Instead, Sumi suffered in silence and in exile. Each day, she prayed before the butsudan but prayers and tears did not feed her family. So she worked. 

Sumi began apprenticing at M.F. Amboy Tailor Shop on Market St. in Wailuku, where she learned to operate a treadle Singer sewing machine. She eventually earned 60 cents for a pair of men’s khaki trousers and $1.20 for gabardine pants. The work was tiring but preferable to toiling in the blazing hot sugarcane fields, where a woman might get $1.30 for a full day’s labor. Sumi worked 10-15 hours a day, six days a week, leaving her youngest in the care of a neighbor. 

By 1930, several years after the accident, Wailuku was surrounded by 30,000 acres of sugarcane while its streets abounded with businesses catering to the plantations. Sumi was earning enough as a seamstress to move the family into a one-bedroom house behind ‘Īao Theater, in the heart of town. The children walked to nearby Wailuku Elementary and Wailuku Intermediate, and took Japanese language classes after school. Each Sunday the family worshiped at Wailuku Jodo Mission, where Sumi helped prepare food for festivities such as Obon. Sally loved her weekly lessons in mai Japanese classical dance, held above Yokouchi Bakery amid the tantalizing aroma of fresh-baked biscuits and bread. 

Sally’s earliest memories are of playing with Bernice and Beatrice Wong in back of the grocery store their parents owned. But the girls’ friendship was undermined by the prevailing cultural norms at school. “Because this was during a time when the Chinese would stay with the Chinese, the Japanese with the Japanese in school, and you didn’t integrate,” Sally recalls. “It was terrible.” It was worse for her older sister, Elizabeth, whom classmates taunted for being deaf. Sally tried to protect her sister but the children still felt the stigma of being both poor and fatherless. But some tried to help the family. Dr. Lightner, who’d tended the injured at the scene of the accident, quietly gave the family the medicine they couldn’t afford. And when Sumi lacked money for groceries, the proprietor at Ichiki Store allowed her to shop on credit. 

Sally’s best friend in fifth grade was Fujiko Katsutani, who rose to fame in Soichi Sakamoto’s Three-Year Swim Club. In 1937, Coach Sakamoto began training a crop of scrappy plantation kids to compete in the 1940 Olympics. Sally, who often accompanied Fujiko to swim practice, recalls that while Sakamoto was very strict, “everyone listened to him because whatever he said was the law.” His demanding regimen paid off. In 1940, 14-year-old Fujiko won the 200-meter breaststroke in the AAU National Championships, which qualified her for the Olympics. But her dreams were dashed when the games were canceled due to WWII.  

For Sumi, education was key to improving her children’s lives. After the accident, 13-year-old Doris went to work to help the family but Sumi urged the younger ones to pursue the education she was denied. When they lived in ‘Īao, Molly and James trekked in slippers down the valley and across ‘Īao stream to Wailuku Elementary, more than three miles away. “In those days there was no bridge so if the river was high, they couldn’t go to school,” Sally recalls. In high school, the siblings woke before dawn to hop on the 6 a.m. train to Hāmākuapoko, from where they’d walk to Maui High School. Molly was especially bright. Her essay on Camp Pokuelani was published by “American Girl Magazine,” foreshadowing her career as an English teacher and playwright. James represented Maui in a statewide oratory contest and set his sights on attending the University of Hawai‘i.

Although Hawai‘i was spared the worst effects of the Great Depression, its economy still struggled to rebound. One by one, the older children moved to O‘ahu for higher education and jobs. In 1937, Sumi, Elizabeth and Sally joined the rest of the family in Honolulu. Twelve-year-old Sally was enraptured by her new home. “Everywhere, they sold ice cream and shave ice, two for five cents. So Baban always gave us a nickel and Lizzie and I had ice cream or shave ice every day,” she laughs. “We were so happy. I loved it.” Sumi, like her husband, tailored herself to the job market. When she learned that house cleaners were in demand, she became one. For $8 a day, six days a week, she polished a host of spacious, elegant homes in Kahala while her own family squeezed into a one-bedroom rental in Kalihi. 

On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, Sally was walking to church when she saw clouds of smoke billowing up from west O‘ahu. At church, the pastor ordered everyone home: Japanese planes had just bombed Pearl Harbor. James, who‘d joined the Army six months earlier, raced out to report for duty at Schofield Barracks. Sumi stood frozen at the kitchen counter, crying, fearful that her family was again being torn apart. She felt the same shock from 15 years earlier when the terrible accident suddenly wrenched Mitsuzo, Fusae and Yachiyo from her. Now, her only son was heading to war.   

James Tani (third from left) along with his fellow comrades (from left) Edward Kiyoda, Hideo Uchida and Takashi Kitaoka. (Photo courtesy of Carlyn Leinani Tani)

The Territory of Hawai‘i imposed martial law and anti-Japanese sentiment engulfed the islands. The FBI arrested prominent leaders in the Japanese community, imprisoning them within barbed-wire enclosures at Honouliuli and other camps. Despite the discrimination, James and his fellow Army recruits continued to train and prove their skills as good soldiers and loyal Americans. While with the 100th Infantry Battalion (Separate) at Camp McCoy in Wisconsin and at Camp Shelby in Mississippi, he forged an enduring friendship with Takashi Kitaoka, who later became the first Maui-born judge on the Maui County circuit.

Fighting in Scapoli, Italy, James was hit and wounded by machine gun fire when “he reorganized his platoon after its leader fell, and led the men across 300 yards of open terrain under intense artillery fire.” Staff sergeant James F. Tani received the Purple Heart and Bronze Star for his actions, one of the many heroic acts that made the 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team among the most decorated units of WWII. 

Sumi Tani (left), with her granddaughter on her lap. Next to her are Sally and James and Sally’s husband, Clifford Kuba. James’s wife, Carolyn, sitting to the right of the photo, wearing glasses. Their infant daughter Jalyn, is held by Elizabeth Misaki. (Photo courtesy of Carlyn Leinani Tani)

Sumi was relieved to welcome her son home, when so many other soldiers had not come back. James enrolled in the University of Hawai‘i under the G.I. Bill, and was elected vice-president of its G.I. Association. At one meeting, he voiced concern that local girls seemed to prefer dating “Mainland” soldiers.” An island girl, he argued, “won’t go out with a five-foot, five-inch islander any more, she has to have a six-foot mainlander.” Yet one girl had caught his eye. The veterans hung out at the campus bookstore, where a spirited Chinese-Hawaiian student, Carolyn Sau Kai Loo, ran the cash register. James asked her out on a date to Waikīkī and, at evening’s end, stunned her with a proposal of marriage. In 1948, James and Carolyn married at Church of the Crossroads in Honolulu. He was attired smartly in a white tuxedo while she wore a borrowed wedding gown. Sally, Molly and James all graduated from UH. Sally, after receiving her degree in nursing, married Clifford Kuba, a classmate from McKinley High School. Doris and Molly were raising families of their own.

A photo from that period shows the Tani and Loo families gathered amid a modest living room. Sumi sits on the floor, cradling a granddaughter in her lap. She’s smiling, enjoying the ebullient mood, as James and Sally sit beside her, laughing. More than two decades earlier, she had held baby Yachiyo in her lap in the same way. The ache of that loss would never go away but it had dulled over the years. Now, having retired, she could simply enjoy her grandchildren. She shared her love of kokeshi dolls with the little girls and took the older ones to watch Japanese films at Toyo Theater. Sumi lived with her daughter and son-in-law, Elizabeth and Charles Tanaka, both of whom were deaf. Recalling her early experiences of being bullied at school, Elizabeth, with her husband, established an endowed fund at Kapi‘olani Community College that supports programs for its deaf and hard-of-hearing students. 

Sumi’s grandchildren on Maui also have embraced an ethos of public service. Susan Kuba Scofield, Sally’s eldest daughter, served for 20 years as principal of King Kekaulike High School in Pukalani. In 2013, under her leadership, U.S. News & World Report ranked the school among the top public high schools in Hawai‘i. Kenson Kuba, Sally’s son, retired after 20 years as a water microbiologist for the County of Maui Department of Water Supply. Carson Tani, James’s middle son, is a 30-year veteran of the Maui Prosecutor’s Office who’s tried some of their toughest cases.  

Sally and her granddaughter, Mariela Scofield. (Photo courtesy of Carlyn Leinani Tani)

In 1950, Sumi traveled to see her ailing brother in Yanai, her only journey back to Japan. Her parents had passed away by then and she regretted not coming back sooner to see them. She stopped by the temple where Mitsuzo, his father and two brothers once served as priests. From this sacred place, more than a half century earlier, Mitsuzo launched his quest for a new life in a foreign land. When Sumi joined him in Hawai‘i, leaving behind the only world she’d ever known, she discovered neither the magical “paradaisu” nor the youthful husband she envisioned. But she persevered and they built a family. After Mitsuzo died, Sumi often longed to know what he would have told her to do. But as time passed, the sound of his voice and the image of his face receded. She endured on her own. She raised her children and they made Hawai‘i their home. That was her fortune. 

Sumi Matsumoto Tani died on April 19, 1984, in Honolulu, at age 91. In succeeding years the Tani family would come to include 12 grandchildren, 20 great-grandchildren and 11 great-great-grandchildren, living across Hawai‘i and the U.S. West Coast. She and Mitsuzo, along with their daughters, Yachiyo, Fusae and Molly are interred alongside one another, with Elizabeth and her husband nearby, at Nu‘uanu Cemetery on O‘ahu, next to the sacred burial ground of Mauna Ala. 

Carlyn L. Tani is a freelance writer who lives in Kailua, Ko‘olaupoko, O‘ahu. 


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