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.
Kuroda, a young man who had been introduced to Yōichi at lunch yesterday, was also there. Kuroda was about 27 or 28-years-old. He said he was from Hiroshima-ken (Prefecture). There were many people from Hiroshima in Hawai‘i. Although Yōichi hadn’t seen them yesterday, today there were three Japanese women among the people gathered. It did not seem they would be in Yōichi’s group, for they were in a group to the left side of the vacant lot. The clothes these women were wearing resembled the clothing worn by women in Japan who did planting. They were wearing plain cotton shirts and cotton leggings, which looked out of place. Their cheeks were covered with a Japanese towel, on top of which rested a shallow straw hat. Altogether, it was an odd spectacle and not an impressive sight. The straw hat was to save one from sunburn and the cheek covering protected from being cut by the cane leaves.
“Take the kachi ken knives, all of you,” shouted the luna Irwin in a loud voice.
“Ah, today is going to be kachi ken. It will be a hard day,” someone said. Kachi ken (pidgin for cutting cane) was the first step in cutting the ripe sugarcane stalks. They went by train as they had before, but to a field farther away. The train ride took 45 minutes.
The sugarcane was fully mature where they got off the train. The leaves of the cane had been purposely burned by fire the day before, so that the stalks of the cane stood like pillars. The laborers each chose a furrow and the whole labor force advanced in a lateral line. The blades of the cane knives used for cutting the cane were about five inches wide and one foot long, an edged tool that resembled an enlarged Japanese nata (machete), at the end of which was a wooden handle of about three inches. The blade widened from the hilt toward the point.
It was quite heavy when swung around. A thin stalk could be cut down with a single stroke. But the skin of the cane is extremely thick and moreover the inner cane has dense fiber, so it was not easy by any means to cut down. People like Yōichi who did not have much muscle had to strike down with all their strength to cut the cane. Sometimes it required two or three strokes to cut the cane. Of course, there was a rhythm to the way the cane knife was swung. It was quite difficult until you got the hang of it.
“Strike it like this and try pulling it towards you,” Kuroda-san, who was working in the next furrow, taught him. It appeared Kuroda-san enjoyed talking with Yōichi after they were introduced yesterday. It was five years since he came to Hawai‘i, so Kuroda-san wanted to hear about recent happenings in Japan.
Yōichi hardly made any close friends in the field. Most of the workers in the field were middle-aged and they could not find topics of mutual interest, since temperamentally and age-wise they were not like young Yōichi. These workers did not appear to have Yōichi’s disposition of becoming friendly with others very quickly. Although he was not avoiding the company of others, he did not feel especially lonely.
Yōichi, holding back the pain throbbing in his hand, kept swinging his cane knife with all his strength, but his work did not go too well, and he began to fall behind Kuroda-san’s furrow. Observing this, Kuroda-san slowed his cutting pace to stay alongside Yōichi.
By comparison, the Filipino youth in the right furrow was small, but he appeared fearless, with a sturdy and solid physique. He was swinging his cane knife with great gusto and he was already two or three steps ahead of Yōichi. Yōichi hurried after the Filipino, fearing he would be severely reprimanded if he fell too far behind.
“That Filipino is a fool. It is difficult to have a worker like him next to me. Hey, bayau (slang for Filipino), go slow,” Kuroda-san called to the Filipino. But the Filipino kept on advancing, without stopping, as though proud of the amount of work he was producing.
The luna Irwin must have noticed that Yōichi’s furrow was two or three steps behind the furrows to either side. At that point, the boisterous luna Irwin came flying to Yōichi’s side.
“Wassa matta, you? Too slow. I show you.” Taking Yōichi’s cane knife, the luna began cutting the cane with all his strength at terrific speed.
“You see? Quick eh! Do like this,” he said, glaring at Yōichi. Yōichi thought to himself, “Of course, it could be done at that speed. For two or three minutes, it could be done at the speed of a machine but it would not be possible to continue this work for a whole day. If we worked at that rate, we would not have been able to last an hour.”
But he knew it would be useless to argue with him, so Yōichi merely said, “OK, OK.” And he swung the cane knife at twice the speed until Irwin went away,
“This kuro-chan (Japanese for a Black person) is a bad one. He is trying to get into the good graces of the Big Luna by increasing productivity,” Kuroda-san said.
“Since work on the plantation goes 10 hours without stop, you cannot work at full speed. When working under a difficult luna like Irwin, work as hard as you can while the luna is watching, but when he is not watching you must ease off. In any case, you have to use your head, Shimazu-kun.” Kuroda-san was teaching Yōichi the ropes of plantation labor.
Yōichi wondered if his cane knife was not good because he could not cut the cane with one blow.
“Show me your cane knife.” Kuroda-san took Yōichi’s cane knife, tested it and could cut with it.
“Your cane knife is not bad. It’s alright. It’s hard for you because it’s your first time.” Kuroda-san consoled Yōichi.
When half the afternoon was over, the inside of the palms of Yōichi’s hand began to hurt. On top of that, his back began to hurt because cutting cane was done bent at the waist. At pau hana time, Yōichi felt as though his back was bent and could not be straightened out.
For the next two days, it was the same kachi ken work. The work felt hard when he woke up in the morning. Each time he recovered his strength by thinking of bringing joy to his mother by earning money quickly and returning home.
Work that was agonizing at first strangely lost its severity after about a week as he got used to the work. Yōichi learned the knack of using his cane knife and working without wasting extra effort, and it became comparatively easy. It was less of an effort to work but he felt no interest in his work.
About 15 days after Yōichi came to the sugar plantation, Yōichi and his father returned from work, and as usual his father jumped off the train as it came to a stop. Just then a plantation truck appeared in front of his father. “Watch out!” Yōichi shouted from the top of the car but it was too late.
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.