Sue Isonaga
A Different View

Shizue “Sue” Isonaga

Shizue “Sue” Isonaga is born in 1921 in Lahaina, Maui. She is the third of four children born to Gitaro and Toyo Kobatake.

Her mother is widowed when Sue is four years old. After her mother re-marries, three children are born. Sue’s stepfather, Tomosaburo Uda, works at Pioneer Mill Company. He passes away when she is fifteen years old.

The family occupies a three-bedroom rental in Lahaina.

I was born 1921, long time ago. (Chuckles) I was born in Lahaina, Maui.

Mother: Toyo Kodama Kobatake

My mother came from a business family, so when she came to Hawaii, it was really a shock to her. Some of her friends who met her said, “Why did a child from her family ever come to a place like Hawaii?”

[She came from] Hiroshima-ken.

My [paternal] grandfather was living in Hawaii then, with his two children and he went back to Japan and made all the arrangements for my mother to come over to marry his son, so that’s how it all happened.

My mother was very well educated. She was very well educated, so you know, when the people came to Hawaii, many of them did not know how to read or write. But my mother could, so she was just like the official letter writer.

People brought their letters, and she read the letter to them, and then she would ask, “What’s the response?” And they would respond. Then she would finish the letter and call them and then when they came back, she would read the [finished reply], you know, “Is this okay?” [If] it was okay, then she sealed it up and got it ready for mailing. That’s what she did.

She was well educated. She was a great believer in good education. Although, she couldn’t see it in her life with us.

Father: Gitaro Kobatake

Well, he was also from Hiroshima but I really don’t know what his background is. His father was in Hawaii and whether he came to earn or work, I have no knowledge.

My father died at the age of thirty-six or thirty-seven and left my mother with four children. I was four then. And my youngest brother was not even — about a year old. And my two older brothers are all two years apart.

Gitaro and Toyo Kobatake
Gitaro and Toyo Kobatake with family

So my mother had all the problem. But you know, one thing, she was always smiling. People said, “Your mother, after what she went through, she still smiles a lot.”

Stepfather: Tomosaburo Uda

So then, Mr. Uda, my stepfather, was a good friend of my father’s. So, I guess he sort of said, he’ll take care of him.

When the hospital in Maui said, “We can’t do anything for him,” my mother brought Mr. Uda there. She brought [my father] out to Honolulu and I remember Queen’s Hospital. He was in a room in a ward with a last bed and I could see my mother peeling the oranges and feeding it to him and I would go out in the yard and pick the weeds. There was a weed, the top looks like carnation little, I would go and gather those and take it into the bedroom for my father. The place where we stayed was on Vineyard Street, just above, not even a block from Queen’s Hospital. So we stayed there and we would go to see him whenever we can. But other than that, I cannot remember.

[After my father passed away, Mr. Uda] became my stepfather. We were so fortunate because he was the nicest man. You know, very helpful and I don’t think he ever spanked any of us.

I think [Mr. Uda] was with the plantation. Pioneer Mill [Company] plantation. You know, my brothers all worked during summer in the [sugar]cane field making five dollars a month and then not even paying for the bento [lunch] my mother used to fix for them. But they went because they had to.

Out of the marriage, there were three children. So my mother had seven of us to take care of.

Family photo with stepfather
Sue with mother, stepfather, and siblings

Then my stepfather died when I was fifteen. So, my poor mother. She had quite a life.

Religion

Especially after my stepfather died, she just devoted her time to that [Lahaina] Hongwanji, the fujinkai [women’s association]. She was so active there, she just about lived there.

I think when they have funerals, [the fujinkai] prepare things and I guess clean the altar, set up for chairs or whatever. They would get together and read their [scriptures].

We had a Rev. Nishi, a very young minister, with his wife and two children. My mother became very close to them because I think she [Mrs. Nishi] was new and she wasn’t aware of things. She used to tell me, “I feel like your mother, is my mother. So I can go to her whenever I need help.” But I knew she did a lot for the church.

Home

[We lived] right behind that landlord’s house. Right about, not even a block away from school. So it made it very convenient.

Front Street, we had Prison Road. It’s no longer that name, they changed it all, but Kam[ehameha] III School was here, and this was Prison Road because the prison was there. And there was Chapel Street. Our landlord [Mr. Takeuchi] was here, we were right behind his home.

Hale Paahao (Prison), Wainee and Prison Roads, Lahaina
Hale Paahao (Prison), Wainee and Prison Roads, Lahaina

[Rent] was nine dollars. Can you imagine that? That was big money. It was a month’s salary, you know, when you put it in dollars and cents.

We stayed there [after my father died].

Because there were seven of us, we had one, two, three bedrooms but not all enclosed. One for my mother and father, and the boys slept there, and we slept here.

We had the corrugated roof, so you know when it rains, you hear every little thing. But we were comfortable. My father built a little pool, a fish pond, outside of our living room, so we used to enjoy just sitting there just watching the fish. So that’s what we did.

Meals

Our bathroom was separated from our living quarters but the kitchen was part of our living quarters. We cooked everything on the kerosene stove. And for rice, we used to cook on the fire but with lumber. And I remember we used to cook two-and-a-half to three cups of rice for our family. The boys ate a lot.

I remember making, it’s not meat loaf, it’s vegetable loaf because I would chop onions, celery or whatever I could get.

We had fish a lot because the fishermen would come in his fish truck. Is that opelu [mackerel scad]? And he said, “Okay, forty fish, for twenty-five cents.” On the days, that they had a catch, they said, “Bring me your bucket,” and I’d take the biggest bucket I could find and he would just fill it up. My mother used to dry that fish and fry it and do whatever she could.

We had meat loaf and every once in a while, we got a treat of chorizos. We used to buy, but we’d cut it in half, and the boys had three slices, we had two slices, and that’s the way we would [manage]. We say, “Oh, I can hardly wait until I get old enough to get three slices.” (Laughs)

Really. And you know, my mother was a good cook. I have a cousin who was a schoolteacher, who taught Japanese[-language] school about a couple of miles from Lahaina. Every weekend, she came to stay with us because she didn’t want to stay at Olowalu. So she stayed with us. She told me, “You know, your mother? She can take the cheapest ingredients and prepare the most delicious food. I used to enjoy coming to your mother’s place because she really did well.” So, as far as naming what-and-what, I can’t recall. But I know that meat loaf was a vegetable loaf.

And then, being someone who knew about food, my mother would send me to Lahaina Store to buy soup bones. I would go and I would wait for this Portuguese man. He was married to one of my friend’s sisters, so I knew him. I would wait and if he’s not there, I would stand in the back.

When I see him, I run to him and say, “Eh, Walter, twenty-five cents worth of meat, soup bones,” and he would give me soup bones with lot of meat on it. (Chuckles) Isn’t that odd that I would do such a thing but I guess I figured if I went to the right person, I would get more for my money.

[We did our shopping] downtown. They had the big Lahaina Store that had everything there but we have so many small Japanese stores, like Masuda Store and Tabata Store. They used to come to take orders. The salesperson would come to take orders and they would deliver it. And the vegetable people came to sell vegetables.

Once in a while, they have a car coming from Kula, with carload of head cabbage. And then, we would buy one head cabbage — no, we didn’t buy one, we’d buy the whole bag and then it was, how much was it? Twenty-five cents or thirty-five cents or something like that. My mother would clean the outside and then she would give it to the chickens, and she would cut it in sections and pre-dry little bit to make tsukemono [pickled vegetables].

I think we had shredded head cabbage for every meal.

Sue Isonaga's interview courtesy of the Center for Oral History. Photographs courtesy of Herbert and Sue Isonaga and the Library of Congress.

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