Krislen Mariko Kanase
Zentoku Foundation (zentokufoundation.org)
Republished with permission
Many Americans know about the Japanese American experience during World War II: valor of the 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, racial discrimination and relocation to internment camps. This article is about the untold story prior to World War II. Nancy Iwasaki Saiki recounts her childhood growing up in Camp 5’s Sugar Plantation on Maui. In Camp 5, Saiki discovered that the key to surviving and thriving in life was her tight-knit community.
Immigration to Hawai‘i Plantation Camps
Japanese immigrant families flocked to the Kingdom of Hawai‘i in the late 1800s in search of better wages. By the early 1900s, Hawai‘i hosted 27 sugar plantations. Located in Pu‘unene, Maui, the Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company was the largest sugar mill in the world. The company employed about 3,500 immigrant workers. The company built 17 camps, which provided rent-free housing, water, electricity, and complimentary medical care to hundreds of immigrants from around the world: Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese, Filipino and Korean.
U.S. sugar companies promised these immigrant dreamers higher pay, decent living conditions and a new life. Sugar companies lured Japanese workers to Hawai‘i with the expectation that they would return to Japan with sizable savings within two years. In reality, most immigrants could not save enough to make the trip back to Japan. Hawai‘i became their permanent residence. Upon this realization, families quickly adapted and established strong ties within their camps to create a permanent home away from home.
Nancy Iwasaki Saiki
Nancy Iwasaki Saiki’s parents were among the thousands who immigrated to Hawai‘i from Japan in the early 1900s. Saiki, formerly known as Masae Iwasaki was born on May 17, 1929, in Pu‘unene Hospital, Maui. She was the eighth born out of nine siblings. She spent her formative years on Camp 5 Plantation on Pu‘une-ne, Maui. Her parents emigrated from the Yamaguchi Prefecture in Japan to work at the Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company on Maui.
Saiki was petite in stature but showered everyone with her larger-than-life personality. Throughout her life, she donned short black hair, which framed her high cheekbones and radiant smile. At the ripe age of 81 when she recollected her past, Saiki fondly shared her childhood upbringing. While sharing, she sipped on hot sencha (green tea) and savored her favorite snack, ohagi (sweet red bean rice cake). She sat on her wooden chair carved with intricate anthurium designs in her screened-in patio with plantation-green colored wooden beams. The afternoon sunset illuminated her flawless, porcelain-like skin and pearly white teeth. Saiki mastered the art of storytelling. Her facial expressions changed with each story and character. Her voice deepened during serious moments and quickened during exciting points. Her vibrant stories transported her listeners to “old Hawai‘i” in the 1920s through the 1950s.
Camp 5 Plantation
Saiki leaned back in her chair and exclaimed, “Pu‘unene, a plantation community located adjacent to Kahului, Maui. A mile of majestic monkeypod trees lined both sides of Pu‘unene Avenue and bid you welcome to my nostalgic hometown. Today, Pu‘unene is only a shadow of its former glory, but the memories remain of hard work and loved ones. Memories blurred by the passing of time, but too precious to forget!”
Japanese immigrants predominantly comprised Camp 5. Saiki fondly looked back on the camp as a small American town with a tropical twist: plantation style homes, schools and churches nestled amid mango trees, hanging vines and fields of billowing sugarcanes. Camp 5 also housed a general store, parks, theater, bakery, post office, and meat market. This vibrant, small Japanese community forged unforgettable memories for all who lived and worked within its borders.
Saiki said, “Anyone who spent their early days in a plantation camp was smack dab in the middle of what today is called an extended family. People were close, people cared and people shared. The early times were tough, but our laughter and love for one another carried us through the hardships.” She recollected that the community was the lifeblood of the sugar plantation.
Saiki’s family lived in a modest plantation home built on low stilts. Typical plantation homes displayed plantation-green colored exteriors with weathered tin roofs. Her father built an additional two bedrooms, back porch, outside bath house with a tub, and extended the living room. Every morning, one of the children swept the porch with a straw broom to remove dirt, leaves, and insects. Saiki’s family carried on the Japanese tradition of removing their shoes before entering their home. Her mother always shuddered when the visitors who were not aware of Japanese traditions entered their home with shoes. Those occasions warranted extra duty cleaning for the children. Saiki explained that Japanese culture discouraged people to be direct and encouraged harmony. She further explained, “telling someone to take their shoes off prior to entering a home may be seen as aggressive and uncomfortable for both parties.”
Saiki’s family kept a well-manicured yard. A pathway lined with various fruit trees and vegetable beds led to their wooden porch steps. The family utilized every square inch of the yard to plant mango, papaya, fig, star fruit, guava and avocado trees. They also raised chickens and rabbits as pets and food. The family used an outhouse. The 10-year-old Saiki vividly remembered using the outhouse at night with all her sisters. She made sure her older sisters removed the insects and toads before it was her turn. She laughed and sheepishly stated, “Being the youngest girl had its perks!”
During a sugarcane strike, the plantation allotted families a small plot of sugarcane land to plant vegetables. Japanese families planted: carrots, lettuce, string beans, beets, tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage, eggplant, squash and lima beans. Many Filipino families planted pumpkins and watermelons. Both cultures shared their harvests with one another. Japanese custom dictated that the receiver returns the favor with a plate of goodies as an expression of gratitude. Often, a small matchbox replaced much anticipated goodies. Most families could not afford sweets. Saiki snickered and recollected that she scavenged fallen sugarcane stalks that fell along the railroad tracks. If she felt extra mischievous, she snuck into the sugarcane mill and swiped the best sugarcane stalks. She chewed the stocks until they reached the inner sweet, juicy fibers.
Each week various salesmen canvased their neighborhood to sell ice, medicine and tofu. Families placed blocks of ice wrapped in a rice bag, which then went into large wooden boxes to keep food cold. The term “ice box” originated from this practice. People in Hawai‘i still commonly refer to refrigerators as “ice boxes.” Salesmen sold and distributed medicine packets. Saiki made a repulsed face and explained that all medicine came in a bitter powdered form. Tofu was a staple ingredient in every meal. Life in Camp 5 was simple because all supplies and entertainment were within walking distance or delivered to one’s front porch. The Caucasian plantation supervisors sported the only vehicles in the camps.
The Caucasian supervisors lived in separate living quarters, segregated from their workers. Their homes showcased spacious porches, high ceilings, large rooms, walk-in closets and maids’ quarters. The plantation supervisors’ communities held exclusive clubhouses, swimming pools and bowling alleys. Saiki’s eyes widened as she reminisced the first time she entered a supervisor’s home to take care of their sick three-year-old, blonde-haired, blue-eyed son. Her hard work paid off when the supervisor hired her to help the maids prep and cook dinner for their elaborate celebrity-styled party. Saiki marveled at the guests’ gowns and tuxedos through the kitchen doors as a live band played ballroom music. Her imagination soared as she yearned to host similar gatherings in the future.
A Community Away from Home
Families in Camp 5 banded together in times of hardship and celebration. Families not only shared their harvests, but also helped others out financially through a feudal Japanese system known as tanomoshi. Families regularly invested to create a large sum of money to provide financial assistance. Members met quarterly at someone’s home and bid against each other to borrow up to $1,000 without additional fees, which equates to over $16,000 today. Tanomoshi required mutual trust among its members because these loans did not have collateral. Families in Camp 5 trusted one another that loans will be paid back and acted in the best interest of the community.
Mutual trust among Camp 5 families boosted the morale of their celebrations. The community annually gathered to celebrate the New Year and Japanese prefecture reunions. Saiki smacked her lips and vividly recalled their New Year’s mochi pounding tradition. Saiki’s family invited four other families to their home to prepare and pound mochi. Each family washed and soaked rice for a couple of days. The women divided the rice into small batches. The rice cooked in a pot hung over an outdoor fire pit. The families gathered in their front yard to pound the cooked rice with wooden hammers into a sticky, smooth consistency. The women threw flour on a large wooden table. Everyone took turns molding the sweet confection into round, flat balls. The children fought over the ones filled with azuki beans (sweet red bean paste). Many Japanese families still practice this New Year’s tradition.
Since Saiki’s family immigrated from the Yamaguchi Prefecture, she took part in an annual Yamaguchi Prefecture reunion picnic held at a nearby beach, Kama‘ole Beach or Kalama Beach. Families from the Yamaguchi Prefecture gathered from across the island to reminisce about their homeland and to create memories in their new home. Most families immigrated with only their spouses and left their extended families in Japan. The Yamaguchi Prefecture immigrants became their extended family. The picnic consisted of musubi (rice balls) with ume (pickled plums), takuan (pickled radishes), and barbequed meats. Athletic festivities involved tug-of-war and various races. Other Japanese prefectures also held annual picnics that strengthened community ties.
Prior to World War II, during a Yamaguchi Prefecture picnic, an elder gathered the children and stated that the U.S. was their home. He explained that each child must integrate into Western culture and adopt an American name. Saiki’s birth name was Masae and everyone called her Maa-chan. The elder declared that her new name was “Nancy.” Decades after this informal ceremony, Saiki officially changed her name from Masae Iwasaki to Nancy Iwasaki Saiki. Sitting on her old wooden chair, Saiki realized that as she grew up and had a child of her own, her friends, family, and colleagues only knew her as “Nancy.”
A Lesson for Life
Camp 5 inculcated the importance of a strong community to its members. Saiki fully understood the necessity to build and sustain a loving community. In the early 1950s, Saiki moved to Honolulu, O‘ahu to start a family of her own with Mr. Arthur Junichi Saiki. Although she moved away from her parents and siblings, she immediately cultivated several communities in her new location.
Saiki dedicated her career to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA provides weather forecasts and warns the public about hazardous weather conditions such as: hurricanes, tsunamis and tropical storms. Saiki spent her career as an administrative assistant. Her favorite memory working at NOAA happened early in her career during a tsunami warning. The sirens on the island of O‘ahu rang loudly and public service announcements declared a tsunami was approaching landfall. Her coworker panicked and yelled that the “tsunamis” were coming! Saiki’s coworker proceeded to ask her who were the “tsunamis” and where they came from. Saiki could not contain her laughter. She realized that her coworker did not know that “tsunami” was the Japanese term for “tidal wave.” From that moment, she made an extra effort to translate commonly used Japanese phrases for her coworkers.
In the early 1990s, upon retirement at the age of 62, she joined the National Active and Retired Federal Employees. Saiki participated in an administrative capacity. NARFE met monthly to inform and improve federal benefits for its members and family members. She cultivated and cherished her life-long friendships from NOAA and NARFE.
Besides being an active member of NARFE, Saiki felt an additional need to connect with her neighborhood community. She met daily with a group of women and men to exercise. Although she interacted with her exercise group daily, she craved a deeper sense of community. When she was 63 years old, Saiki formed a group in her neighborhood called, “The Golden Girls.” The Golden Girls met at a local restaurant once a month to share stories and tell jokes. Her two rules strictly stated that everyone in attendance must smile and laugh. Their laughter was infectious and quickly became the talk of the town.
In 2008, Saiki’s husband of 60 years unexpectedly passed away from an aortic aneurism. This tremendous loss left a gaping hole in her heart. She realized the need to form yet another community, “The Bereaved Widows’ Club.” The Bereaved Widows’ Club also met once a month and shared stories of loss, love, and memories. The club grew each month with new members seeking solace and connection. Camp 5 taught Saiki the need for human connection and community to build one another.
Looking back on the life of Saiki, she was the glue that held her communities together. The little girl who once peeked through the doors of her Camp 5 supervisor’s kitchen doors to a fabulous party grew up to create the warmest family gatherings. Saiki felt comforted by her childhood home in Camp 5 and consequently painted her O‘ahu home in the same shade of plantation green. She lived in her plantation-green colored home for over 60 years. She created a vibrant community that she learned from her childhood days living on a sugar plantation in Pu‘unene, Maui.
Saiki was my maternal grandmother. I spent my weekends intently listening to her childhood memories. Her facial expressions, voice and body movements fluxed with each character and story. I begged her to retell each story until we cried from our uncontrollable laughter. I sometimes wondered if she grew tired of repeating my favorite stories over and over. In 2007, she realized her memories began to fade. Consequently, she encapsulated her memories in a memoir she wrote about a decade before her passing in 2018. The greatest generation left us with invaluable stories and experiences of our families’ pasts. I am indebted to her. I hope her legacy continues on through this article.