The Isonaga Store
Instead of competing for the local Japanese trade, Isonaga Store gears its trade to the needs and wants of Filipino bachelors employed by Koloa Sugar Company.
The store sells iriko (parched small sardine), shrimp, bagoong (fermented fish sauce), codfish and various canned goods.
Trousers, shirts, lunch pail bags and tabi (Japanese socks), all sewn by Herbert’s mother, are also available.
Tokuichi helps with customers’ mail to the Philippines.
I don’t know where [my father] was originally located but when I grew up, the store was right in town, just below the old Koloa [Sugar Co.] Plantation Store.
The building, the front of the building, consisted of three shops. There was a Sasaki Store, the Isonaga Store in the middle and on the other end was a Korean tailor shop. The Chung family ran it. But prior to the tailor shop moving in there, a Lau family had a market. And the store buildings were in the front.
In the back, there was a two-story apartment building, where our family lived in one section of that building, and the Sasaki family — well, actually, originally, my recollection is, that the Daikoku-ya [store] family lived there. That Daikoku-ya family sold out to the Sasakis and the Sasakis moved in.
I’m sure [the building] was part of the Waterhouse estate. And we rented it. But you know, eventually, after the war, the building became available, and my parents bought the whole complex.
Next to the Sasaki Store was the barbershop, the Nakata Barbershop. And then behind the Chung tailor shop, there’s a roadway going to the back. There was another barbershop run by Mr. Koji and his wife.
That family was particularly close to us. Because my mother was so busy sewing, they helped raise us when we were infants because they didn’t have any children.
Mr. Koji had a very interesting operation. I know that in his house, the floor, you could lift it up. Then if you lifted it up, he has sake brewing underneath the floor (laughs). I know that my father bought his sake from Mr. Koji.
Then nearby was a fisherman and he had a fish store there. And in the back, there was a watch repair shop, run by the Ishihara family. And if you notice on Japanese TV, there’s an advertisement by Hallmark Jewelers, well, that’s that Ishihara family from Koloa. I know that George, the eldest son, took over the operation. And I think he passed away and somebody else must be operating that jewelry store. In Ala Moana Center.
That fish market was called Nomi. Now, Edith Nomi is married to Keiji Kawakami of Iolani Sportswear. And, of course, Keiji is not well now, so she and her son run Iolani Sportswear. But she’s a Koloa girl.
Of course, our main customer was Filipinos so we had food items mainly geared to the Filipino trade, like iriko [parched small sardine] and shrimp and bagoong [fermented fish sauce] and codfish and all the various canned items.
But more importantly, much of our store’s activity, consisted of what my mother would sew. She would sew trousers, shirts, bags for lunch pail; makes tabi [Japanese socks] for workers. So that was the more profitable end of the business.
The trousers and the shirt, [my mother] tailored it. Yeah. She was a very good seamstress. She did it all by herself, yeah.
[My mother] wasn’t as fluent as my dad was in communicating with the Filipinos but she managed. It’s amazing how much you can convey ideas without really knowing the language.
And of course, my father, because of his connection with Motoshige and a Japanese store — and they specialized in Japanese over-the-counter medicine — so we had that to offer, too. More of the Japanese trade. But that phase was relatively minor compared to the trade geared to the Filipino community.
My father and mother were in the store most of the time. I have to tell you, that my dad was a very poor businessman. When people came in the store, he didn’t get up to ask or help them in any way. He sat down and kept on reading. He loved to read.
He’s always reading. Or when the Japanese salesperson comes in, he would keep him, he’d like to talk. I mean, he didn’t talk too much but he’d like to hear what’s going on. He was very interested in what was going on in the world.
But my mother was the aggressive one and she would get after my dad all the time. She said, “Chee, how come you sitting around, why don’t you do something?”
[My father] read, of course, the dailies, Japanese dailies and he read all kinds of Japanese magazines. It’s amazing how much reading material he had. My mom, because she was so busy sewing, did very little reading. But she read the Japanese women’s magazine, like Shufu no Tomo [The Companion of Housewives] and others.
She also read the Reader’s Digest in Japanese, which really made her understand the American ideology and also the Christian way of life.
I guess she did much of her reading before she went to bed or in bed. She didn’t have much time, I tell you, for reading.
The Filipino Community
I would say 100 percent Filipinos [coming in to the store].
My dad, when I was growing up, he could mix pidgin and Filipino to make himself understood. He had no problem [communicating].
You know, I don’t really know how my father managed it, but I think, basically, he tried to hold on to the Filipino trade by stocking his store with items that the Filipinos are interested in.
Whereas the other Japanese stores, like the Sasaki Store next door, had items more suited to the Japanese trade, like a lot of takuan [pickled radish] and konbu [dried sea kelp] and stuff like that.
In my time, we ordered bagoong from Filipino wholesalers in Honolulu and they ship it to Kauai. We used to buy them by the barrel. My father used to get these jars and let us pour that thing and it was a horrible operation because of the smell. But we did a lot of that. It came in that tub that looks more like the shoyu barrel, the wooden tubs, in the old days anyway.
Visiting the Filipino Camps
Of course, my dad went to the camps every afternoon to take orders and maintain contact with the Filipinos.
[My father] used to take me at times and he would go to the camps after work for the plantation workers. Of course, the plantation workers got through work about four o’clock or maybe earlier. So we used to go to their homes about four o’clock.
But when we got there. They were fixing meals, meal time. He would just go in there and say hello. Then he, of course, didn’t hardly say anything and they would place orders as they needed, because they knew what he was there for.
Of course, most of the time they would offer us to sit down and eat. You know, they were very hospitable in that respect. And remember now, these are all single guys. Not families now, all bachelors. I would say at the most, when we went out, we got maybe about half a dozen or so orders, which we’ll take out the next day. It was just piddling, I tell you.
We didn’t eat at all. No. They offered but we never accepted. Because we looked at it and it didn’t look too appetizing (laughs). Mostly meat and vegetables but mostly vegetables. You know, beans, I guess green papayas, stuff like that. Very meager.
My dad rendered a lot of service to the Filipinos who wanted to send money back to the Philippines. The Filipinos would give him the money and tell him how the money order should be made. He used to do all of that. He used to do the mailing for them.
The Filipinos were very generous with gifts to their nieces and nephews and what have you. They’d buy watches and some other nice things like that and send it to them for graduation or birthdays or functions like that.
[My father] could write. And if you tell him to send it to Ilocos Norte, (chuckles) he’ll work it out. He spoke in, I don’t know, one of the dialects, to the Filipinos. I think it was mostly Ilokano or Visayan. The Ilokanos and Visayans were the major representatives in Hawaii from those provinces.
[My father] never solicited the Japanese trade. And, of course, my father said that dealing with Japanese is urusai [troublesome] (laughs). He said, the Filipinos, they don’t complain. Everything is acceptable to them. Not that my father took advantage of them but he said it was so much easier doing business with the Filipinos rather than the Japanese. Japanese get konjo [a certain disposition] (chuckles).
The Motoshige Firm
[My father extended credit to store customers.] It was 100 percent credit. It was working out reasonably well. They didn’t have to go into bankruptcy but if it weren’t for the relationship they had with the Motoshige firm, where they were relatively generous in extension of credit, I don’t think they would have survived.
The only reason why they eventually met some degree of success, was the fact that World War II came and all the soldiers invaded Kauai, and they were able to sell all the old junks to the soldiers as souvenirs, etcetera. And they made out like a bandit and were able to pay their debt. But if it weren’t for the war, very questionable.
The major portion of the products that we sold came through Motoshige. Motoshige sent a drummer, we used to call him, chumontori [order-taker, salesman], every month. He came to take orders every month. So that’s our contact with our supplier.
Competition for Trade
The tailor operation [next door] was not Koloa alone. He used to go to various camps like Puhi, Kapaa and out in the area, west Kauai, to take orders. Of course, the tailor made suits. Whereas my mother made only trousers and shirts. So the tailor was more complete operation. He had a wider selection of material.
I think she got most of her sewing materials through Theo H. Davies [and Co. Ltd.], yeah. Much of the major stores, big operations like Amfac [American Factors, Ltd.] and Davies, they sent people out to solicit business.
The major competitor [for the Filipino trade] was the plantation store. Then, of course, you have the other Japanese stores like Sueoka, Okamura, Tanaka. They didn’t particularly solicit the Filipino trade but they were in locations where they could catch a lot of the walk-in trade because they were closer to the camps.
I think he would have liked to get their business but our store did not appeal to the Portuguese, the Hawaiians. We didn’t have anything in our store that would make our store attractive to them to shop in. I know that our next-door neighbor, the Korean family, used to come in to buy wakame all the time. That’s one thing they brought from us, wakame. Seaweed.
Closing the Store
I think now, my parents decided to close shop in the 50s, mid-50s, I think. Not too long after the war, they decided to close shop.
And then my mother converted this building into rental units, rooming house. And I recall she came down to Honolulu several times and she’ll take me to Tajiri’s and these operators who were selling war surplus material. You know, toilets, lumber, corrugated iron, to repair the building into rental.
So, after she closed the store, she had this rental income. But my mother was that aggressive. I would have never done it but she did it.
Herbert Isonaga's interview courtesy of the Center for Oral History. Photographs courtesy of Hawaii State Archives.