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.
The bell of the locomotive rang out, KAAN, KAAN. The train began to move unceremoniously pulling the “boxcars.” After it passed the workers’ lodgings of the camp on both sides of the tracks, and crossed a short iron bridge across a small river, the train came to cane fields with no houses in sight, stretching endlessly to the front and rear, right and left.
When the eastern sky began to lighten, the train passed the still growing young cane fields, white light reflecting from the waters of Pearl Harbor. The distant roofs of the houses in Honolulu came into view. Although he lived for only three months in Honolulu, viewing it from the bleak plantation countryside, Yōichi felt nostalgic as if Honolulu was his hometown. The train moved slowly through seemingly endless cane fields for about 30 minutes until it came to a halt in the middle of a field. The laborers all jumped off the train. The sugarcanes in this area were about the height of the laborers. The luna Irwin ordered the men to enter the cane field on the left side. “Today will be hoehana,” Yōichi’s father said, explaining that hoehana meant the work was clearing the field of weeds using a hoe.
Two men were assigned to each row, each man removing the weeds on one side with his hoe. Hawai‘i lies in a tropical zone, so the sun’s rays are quite strong. Throughout the year if a person walks outdoors, the sun beats down and gets hot. In the summer the temperature reaches 88 degrees Fahrenheit, so sweat flows freely. However, because there are trade winds from the North, it is comparatively easy to withstand the heat. But if one enters a thickly growing sugarcane field it can become stiflingly hot because the wind does not pass through.
“It probably will be hoehana all day today. Work on a sugar plantation is not very complicated, but the luna is always around, so that you cannot rest during working hours and you have to be moving your arms and legs all the time. This can be trying,” his father told Yōichi, as he cut at the roots of the cane or the weeds growing by the furrow with his hoe.
“It’s all right to smoke but while inhaling you must keep working and moving your hands,” his father said.
“Hey, no smoke!” the luna shouted. A Filipino man in the next row was standing still, smoking.
About 50 to 60 laborers were going down the rows in twos. If the weed cutting in a row slowed down, the supervisor would shout, “Hey you too slow, wikiwiki (Hawaiian for hurry).” The laborers were like steers and horses driven by being beaten on their backs. This sense of humiliation was harder to bear for Yōichi than the hardship of the physical labor. For instance, the leaves of the cane suddenly striking his arms or face would cut the skin. Yōichi was thankful there were no snakes or poisonous insects in Hawai‘i, as he detested them. But the musty smell of the sugarcane and the sweltering heat took a lot out of him.
“A waterboy will bring water in a short while.” Even as his father spoke, a small 22 or 23-year-old Filipino with an extremely dark face, carried two tin buckets on a wooden pole like a Japanese farmer, came crying, “Water. Water.”
There was a tin cup hanging on the outside of the bucket. It was there to dip in the bucket and to drink from. Although the water was not as cold as ice water, it was a little cool and satisfying. Yōichi was so thirsty he drank two cups of water. The waterboy brought this cool water from the sugar mill twice a day at around 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. The few minutes to drink water was the only time the laborers could rest without thinking about the supervisor.
Hoehana was considered the lightest work at the sugar plantation. But easy as it was, the workers had to keep their arms and legs moving all the time. On top of that, one had to keep doing the same thing all day. The worker is required to move like a machine. On top of the tiredness of the body, the mental pain of repeating the simple movement over and over, repeated day after day, tormented them. Yōichi thought it would not be possible to understand the pain of the laborer employed in a capitalistic venture, unless one undergoes the experience oneself.
Engaged in the same hard work, a person who owns his land and grows vegetables is his own man. He is not employed by anyone and he can work as he wants. He is not supervised by a luna, so the labor would be quite gratifying. But a plantation worker has no interest in his work except for the wage. He is driven like a machine or like an oxen and horses, and therein lays his pain.
The train to transport the laborers back to camp began to appear on the horizon. It was close to 5:00, time to stop work. The sun was starting to sink on the Western horizon…or rather it had become a red ball sinking into the sugarcane at the edge of the huge sugar plantation.
The luna’s whistle could be heard ringing faintly. “Pau hana, it’s pau hana.” The cries heard all around announced the joy of the end of a wretched day. Pau hana meant the day’s work was finished in Hawaiian.
“So I have earned a dollar,” Yōichi thought. The ordinary plantation wages at this time was known as “dollar a day,” which meant 10 hours of labor for a dollar. When he was still in Japan, and his father sent the family comparatively large sums of money, Yōichi thought that wages in Hawai‘i were quite good. But now he learned that working and sweating under a broiling sun and earning only a dollar a day was too cheap.
In those days, the cost of living was much lower, eating at the cookhouse cost only $10 a month and eating in a Japanese restaurant cost only ten cents for what was known as “ten cent rice.” This meant that a sugar plantation laborer could earn $25 a month, subtracting Sundays as days off, so he could save about $10 a month if he was thrifty.
“It’s the first time for you, so you must be tired,” said his father as they boarded the train, looking with pride at Yōichi’s young face. This was Yoichi’s first experience of true manual labor. His body not being used to it, he was dead tired and went to bed shortly after 8 p.m.
“It’s time to get up.” When he was awakened by his father the following morning Yōichi tried to get up from his bed. He felt searing pain as though his shoulder, waist and legs had fused. Looking at his father’s watch, it was barely past 4:00. Outside the house it was still dark as night. It’s tough to be awakened before dawn to go to work. Following the cookhouse rules, Yōichi ate one bowl of rice and couple pieces of pumpkin with the same kind of miso soup as yesterday at 4:30 a.m. then went with his father to the place where the laborers gathered, carrying the lunch bag that Yamazaki Obasan (Auntie – not a relative but a term of familiarity) had prepared. People carrying lunch bags were coming together from here and there in the darkness. In the gathering place there was a single lamp burning under a big white shade, so that the faces of the people could be discerned.
The author, Edgar Genpachi “Jūkichi” 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.