Sue Isonaga
A Different View


Sue attends Baldwin Home Kindergarten, Kamehameha III School and Lahaina Hongwanji Gakuen. She also attends sewing classes at Mill Camp.

She wants to go to high school in the worst way but must leave school after the eighth grade to help support the family. No amount of crying can change the situation; her mother, too, is heartbroken.

Kamehameha III School

First we went to the kindergarten. They had a place, Baldwin Home [Kindergarten] and there was a small group going to kindergarten there first. I went to that kindergarten, I remember, and then the following year, I went to Kam[ehameha] III School.

It was right on Front Street. We had this Kam[ehameha] III School here and this whole stretch of town, all stores and everything. Then that side was residence. So we had a stretch town, with all the different stores lined up and some stores on the side and the back. But here was Kam[ehameha] III School and here we were. Very simple. It was very convenient for us because we were so close to school.

[There was a banyan tree next to the school.] The largest banyan tree. We used to play on the banyan tree. All the roots, you know. There was a pipe and another baby banyan tree. We used to go get the rocks and hit the pipe underneath and you see the whole place turns black with the mynah birds flying all over. That’s the kolohe [mischievous] things we used to do.

Well, [school] wasn’t hard, because, when we’re not home, we spoke pidgin with each other, so that kind of helped us when we learn the proper way. But as I say, I don’t know how we managed, you know? Not having any lessons and going to English[-language] school and trying to do the work we did. And our parents not able to help us with our homework. So we must have had very good teachers, who were able to teach us. Do our lessons.

I really enjoyed going to school. I really did. I thought we had wonderful teachers.

Mr. Hasegawa and who were the other teachers? But they were from about the eighth grade already. I had lot of memories of my younger days, Mrs. MacDonald and Mrs. Tyau and Miss Ching.

My fourth grade I took up Hawaiian culture. And so we got coconut and they sawed it up and cleaned it and polish it to make little poi [cooked taro corms pounded and thinned with water] bowls. The other half, at the bottom, had the other bowl. We would polish it clean and shiny, we did that and we had our own luau [feast] they taught us to dance the hula [Hawaiian dance]. So that was fun, I enjoyed that fourth grade.

My favorite subject was math. I really enjoyed doing the math. That’s why when I went to cooking school, I didn’t have much trouble. I was thinking, “Oh, my goodness, they’re all high school graduates going to take that course.” But anyway, because I worked in the kitchen for two years before I went, I had some knowledge of what we were doing there. And then, since math was my favorite, best subject, I didn’t have any problems with my math. Increasing and decreasing recipes and bringing it down to fraction and all that.

Home Economics

I liked home economics, homemaking, uh-huh. We learned to do different things, we had different projects we did and we baked cookies to sell for fundraiser to go to a convention.

I remember that I had to go to a convention [in the eighth grade] and I worked very hard at the homemaking class, baking and everything. When it was time to go, my mother said, “You can’t go because we don’t have the money to send you.” So, by then the homemaking teacher and the cafeteria manager said, “I know you worked hard, so we’re going to pay your way for you.” You know, steerage, four dollars, one way. They said, “We’ll pay your steerage, we’ll pay your fare. You go with the girls.”

So my mother gave me a dollar. She said, that’s all she can afford. Mrs. Sodetani gave me two dollars. Oh, I felt so rich, having three dollars. They had Kress Store in Hilo, I went and I bought omiyage [souvenirs] for all their children and all our children, our family. You know, little pin cushions or little tablets and pencils or erasers or fancy things. But that was a trip.

Mrs. Sodetani, bless her, she’s such a wonderful person. We used to call her “Number Two okasan [mother].” I remember once, she told my mother, “If ever need money, don’t go to anyone. You come to me and I’ll let you have whatever. She was a widow, too. She lost her husband in an industrial accident. Her husband died, he was electrician and he was electrocuted. So, because he worked for the plantation when that happened, she had a monthly check coming to her, so she had the money and she told my mother, “Don’t go and ask anyone else. Come to me, and I’ll give you.” So, we were very close to the Sodetanis. We all called, when we wanted to go to her house, we say, “Okasan, Number Two okasan house ikimasu.”


[When I was at Kamehameha III School] I used to go to the teacher’s cottage, just help clean up after dinner. That was early, so then I would rush home, take a bath and then go up to Mill Camp to the sewing teacher’s place. That and I worked in the [Baldwin Packers] Cannery during summer after I was old enough.

I did some packing of the [pineapple] chunks. And I worked in the warehouse packing. But you know, the manager, we lived close by, we did. I guess he knew that we could use the money. So, when the cannery packing was closed, he would tell me, “Shizue, come go in the warehouse and work in the warehouse.” So, I did. After that, I would go and work in the warehouse. If it wasn’t necessary, then he tell me stay and stack trays, so the men can wash trays. So I did lot of extra.

In fact, that day, I was supposed to be the bridesmaid to one of our friends getting married that night. I was working in the cannery and that night the manager told me, “Go in the warehouse and work there.” I didn’t want to say no because I figured, if I said no, maybe he wouldn’t give me another chance. So, I stayed at work and they came looking for me, they were waiting for me. “What happened, she hasn’t returned?” So, when they came to pick me up, I was just getting ready to go home. So, I went home and I take a bath and they dressed me and took me up for the wedding. (Chuckles)

You get that in your feeling, if you stay you can get a little bit more, you might get a little more money to take home.

Japanese-Language School

We all went [Lahaina Hongwanji Gakuen] but I don’t know whether my younger sister and brothers went. But as long as they had the Japanese[-language] school, we were all there.

I think [the teachers] were pretty good, trying to teach us how to write and read and that’s about it. Write, be able to write.

Usually, [we communicated with my mother in] Japanese. Mm-hmm. I often wonder how we made out when we first started English[-language] school. We always speaking Japanese. But every now and then, some English would creep in and my mother would say, “What did you just say?” We’d say, “Oh, nothing.”

We learned to speak the language. Of course, my mother helped along, as she saw to it that we did our homework and she would let us read to her, yomikata [reading] and kakikata [writing] and all that.

Not only that, it’s the Golden Rule, and then, “Honor thy parents.” So I think they stress, take care your parents and be good to your neighbors. Do unto others, as you have others do unto you. My mother stressed that, they call it the shitsuke, she would really [stress] on shitsuke [discipline, training].

She used to tell us, “Don’t do anything to bring shame to the family name. Because, when you do anything wrong, people going say, ‘See, they don’t have a father, that’s why the kids are not well trained.’ ” So she stressed that, “Please don’t do anything to bring shame to the family.”

After my two fathers died, my brother, at the age of eighteen, I think, he became the head of the family. Boy, he saw to it that we never did anything against the Golden Rule. So he had a big responsibility, eh?

Plantation Camps

[People from the different camps] all came to the same school, so we made friends with people from all the different camps. I think in some cases, I think they do have [distinctions], “Oh, she’s from New Camp. Oh, she’s from Pump Camp. Oh, she’s from Waimea Village.” You know, or “She’s downtown.” We all went to the Japanese[-language] school or we went to the same English[-language] school, so we became very good friends.

Sewing Class

My mother sewed Japanese kimonos and futons [comforters] and things. She bought a big book, Shufu-no-Tomo [The Companion of Housewives]. That’s a book that she carried and she used that to help her along. She sewed all of our clothes but after I got old enough, I was sewing for the family, whatever I could.

[I sewed] girls’ things. But I did sew men’s things once but it was too complicated because I was only fourteen when my mother sent me to sewing night class. She said, “A girl needs to know how to sew.”

So, I used to go up to Mill Camp, where my aunty lived. I would go to the sewing class in the evening and then spend the night there at my aunty’s. And I would come home the next morning, get ready to go to work.

We learned how to draft and adjustment, but for a fourteen-year-old, you rather just go out to play. But I had to do that because my mother had to pay for the sewing. I really don’t know how much she paid for it. So I went regularly and I sewed my sister’s dress, my mother’s dresses and all that. Shirts for my brothers.

Goals and Aspirations

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When my stepfather died, I was still fifteen. I was finishing my eighth-grade class and I wanted to go to high school in the worst sort of way. But since my brothers, my older brother had to leave school, there was no way I could go. But I would say I was a good student and I just really wanted to [go to high school].

8th grade graduation
Sue Isonaga, 8th grade graduation

I think it broke my mother’s heart because she couldn’t do it, you know, allow us to go.

I wanted to go to school but I couldn’t go to school. I think I must’ve cried so much, I felt maybe if I cried long enough, my mother will give in but she never did. Because she said, “The two boys, enough.” You know, there, and besides, they needed me. So, I just accepted that.

[I would have gone to] Lahainaluna [High School]. I don’t know [the cost]. Public school, you know. There were some boarders who boarded from out-of-town and stayed there but they worked in the dairy or worked in the print shop or worked in the cafeteria, to make up for the tuition.

Well, [it was] not really cost, but, no salary, no money to bring home. You know, it would be on the family income. But then, there were many families like mine. Lot of children, so no income, so we have to all go out to work.

My brother just below me, he was able to go to high school and so did the rest, go to high school and finish. One brother went into trade school, so they all had their chance to go to school.

It was just, I was the point that couldn’t go.

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

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