By Genpachi “Jūkichi” Tsushima
Translation by Kan Edmund Akatani
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
“Child of a Hawaiian Immigrant” is a historical novel that conveys the events, social conditions and life of the author’s own immigration and personal experiences while being faithful to historical facts. The editing team understood that it was the author’s desire to include actual events and people with accurate details. The main character Yōichi is based on the events of the author’s life in Okayama, Japan, his life as an immigrant sugarcane worker in Waipahu, his educational and professional life experiences, and his World War II internment.
This story comes to us courtesy of Bob Tsushima, son of the late Genpachi Tsushima. It was the first place winner of the United Japanese Society of Hawaii’s novel contest in celebration of the 1968 centennial of Japanese immigration to Hawai‘i. The journey from translating to self-publishing was a family effort. Bob was able to bring us this English version with the help of his brothers Mark and Willie, his wife Jeanne, daughter Kathryn, and son-in-law Dan Keller. To purchase a copy of the translated book, go to blurb.com/b/10379589-child-of-a-hawaiian-immigrant.
Chapter 6: Yōichi Becomes a Sugarcane Plantation Field Worker
It was around late July 1916, three months after Yōichi arrived in Hawai‘i when he gave notice to Abe Shoten. He packed his few pieces of clothing, his daily necessities and Yōichi moved to the Waipahu Plantation.
It seemed strange even to Yōichi that he suddenly changed his mind to become a laborer on a sugarcane plantation when previously he yearned to go to school and succeed in the world. But he made up his mind. He was full of pride at sacrificing for his family. Nonetheless, he could not help feeling self-pity when he thought of moving from the clean, beautiful city of Honolulu to the red-mud-soaked workers’ lodging. When he entered his father’s room, it was void of any furniture except for a small low table with the floor covered by a cheap mat. Yōichi felt as though he had suddenly become poor and felt miserable.
It was past five o’clock and his father would return from the field quite soon. Because Yōichi said that he wanted to start work the following day, he was taken to the plantation office by Yamazaki-san. Compared to the crude, shabby camp building where the laborers slept, the company office was in a multi-story concrete building, surrounded by a large well-kept lawn.
Following Yamazaki-san into the office of the man in charge of hiring laborers, Yōichi found a big, haole (Hawaiian for a Caucasian) with a red face in rolled up sleeves. The man was sitting in front of a large desk studying something that looked like a map.
Yamazaki-san bowed to the personnel manager as though he was saluting a feudal lord and said in his broken English, thinking Yōichi did not understand English, “This boy like hanahana (this boy wants to work – Pidgin English for work).” The personnel manager with big, blue eyes said to Yōichi, “Oh, you like hanahana yeh?” he said in pidgin English. “Plantation first time, ka?”
He spoke to Yōichi, adding the word “ka,” the Japanese word at the end of a question. Yōichi’s pronunciation was still not so good, but he had studied English for two or three years with an American. He was confident that he could speak correct English, so he felt insulted and hurt.
“Yes, I want to work plantation. It is first time for me.” Although he hesitated a little, the words came quite fluently.
“Oh, you can speak English, eh? When did you come from Japan, young boy?” This time he spoke in correct English.
Yamazaki-san, who was standing next to Yōichi, said, “You can speak English, then.”
“I come from Japan three months ago,” Yōichi replied.
“Your English is all right,” said the personnel manager. He then looked at Yōichi from the top of his head to his feet like a police officer would look at a suspect.
“How old are you?” asked the manager.
“Nineteen years old,” Yōichi said.
“Let me see your arm,” The manager demanded.
The personnel manager roughly pulled up Yōichi’s arm, and opening his hand, pressed it.
“You don’t seem to have much strength in your arm, but you are young and seem healthy. I think you can stand the work. Good, I will hire you,” The manager concluded. It was almost like someone studying the body of a cow or a horse he wanted to buy. It was no different from a person appraising a black slave in days gone by in America, Yōichi thought and felt humiliated. The personnel manager seemed to be looking for something in his drawer, when he drew out a small tag with a hole, measuring two inches round, and handed it to Yōichi saying, “This is your bango1 (Japanese meaning number).” He said the wage would be $1 a day, Sunday was the only day of rest, and Yōichi should bring the bango on his payday. He did not even get Yōichi’s name. He only asked for the camp number, building number and room number where Yōichi was living and noted them in his account book.
Insofar as the plantation company was concerned, Yōichi was no different from a head of cattle or a horse: only the number he had differentiated him from them. As in a prison, his number would be considered the most important part of his person. Even prisoners were treated with greater concern for their personality. In prison ledgers, the prisoner’s name, place and date of birth were noted. In the plantation ledgers only the laborer’s bango and his camp number were noted.
Yōichi left the plantation office with Yamazaki-san to return to camp, but he could not help feeling as though he were a prisoner, clutching his brass tag, his bango. The number 315 was carved on the brass tag. Becoming a laborer at Waipahu Plantation, he was to exist only as “No. 405.”
Chapter 7: First Labor
Until he worked as a store employee for three months at Abe Shoten after coming to Hawai‘i, Yōichi only knew school life. This job at the Waipahu Plantation would be his first experience as a manual laborer. Although it is said there is no high or low in work and there is dignity in labor, Yoichi felt pitiful when he left the camp with his father to work, wearing the pale-blue, thick cotton shirt worn by all the sugarcane plantation workers, dark blue ahina trousers and wearing a straw hat. Japanese laborers did not wear shoes for work in the fields, so Yoichi wore jikatabi on his feet. Recalling he had boasted to his classmates at the Okayama Normal School that he was going to a university when he went to Hawai‘i and become an entrepreneur, he felt ashamed at what his classmates would think of him if they saw him in his laborer’s clothes.
He was reminded that a young man’s ambition is absolute fantasy imagined by someone who does not know reality. For example, thinking that because he knew a little English, he could enter a university in Hawai‘i with that knowledge, or that if he wanted to become an entrepreneur he could become one in a year or two. He realized for the first time that such was not the case. In the world today, a place like Hawai‘i was organized under a capitalistic economy, and without capital one had no opportunity to advance in society. It was not easy to become a plantation manager, let alone a “sugar king.” For Yōichi who had no capital, the only way was for him to toil and moil and become a laborer in the sugar fields.
The place where the laborers gathered before going out into the fields was the vacant space in front of the warehouse by the side of the sugar mill. Yōichi and his father were in the group under Irwin, a hapa (pidgin for mixed race person) luna. They gathered around the thin, tall Irwin.
“Today, we’ll take our hoes,” he informed everyone. “Go to that warehouse and get your hoe.”
As his father had instructed him, Yōichi followed him into a wide, high-ceiling, wooden warehouse. Someone who looked like the man in charge of the warehouse handed each one of the laborers a hoe, and noted each person’s bango. Yōichi showed his brass bango and received his hoe.
“Get on the train,” the luna shouted in a loud voice, breaking the silence of the morning. Yōichi imagined the train to be a crude car to haul laborers to and from the fields, something slightly worse than the train that ran between Honolulu and the countryside. But the cars of the train, which transported the plantation workers were more crude and shabbier than the freight trains of rural Japan, Each car was barely 10 yards in length, a boxcar with no roof and protected on both sides only with boards, with no resemblance to a train carriage.
“This train not only transports laborers, but takes the harvested sugarcane from the fields to the mill,” Yōichi’s father explained and he understood. This “train” was already on the tracks running alongside the warehouse, and the flame from the crude oil burned by the locomotive was shining yellow in the still dark morning sky. Around 10 “boxcars” were connected to the train. The men in the group boarded the train, each carrying lunch bags and hoes. Yōichi lowered himself next to his father midway down the “boxcar.” There were some who stood holding the board sides of the car.
The author, Edgar Genpachi “Jükichi” Tsushima was born in Okayama, Japan, and graduated from Okayama Normal School, a school for teachers, at age 19 and came to Hawai‘i as a contract sugarcane worker. After graduating from the University of Hawai‘i at age 36, he worked as a Japanese-language teacher and news reporter for Japanese-language newspaper, Hawaii Hochi. Because of his occupation, he was interned during World War II mostly in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Tsushima died on July 9, 1985, at the age of 88.
Use of the bango tag was begun in 1905. The most important item issued to an employee upon arrival at the plantation was a small metal disc or square impressed with a number. Known as a bango, a Japanese word for number, it was to be worn at work and when pay was collected. It identified the worker to the manager, their luna, the time-keeper and at the company store. The bango tag was developed as a means of keeping track of hundreds of workers who had what seemed to be strange and difficult names. The worker’s ethnicity and position on the plantation could be told by his number.