Herbert Isonaga


Of the 50 or 60 in his class at Koloa School, only 20, including Herbert, continue their studies at Kauai High School.

Winning by one vote, “Landslide” Isonaga is elected senior class president.

Herbert also attends Koloa Japanese-language School where he finds the teachers very liberal in their approach to teaching.

His sister Chito is educated in Japan, his brother is sent to Honolulu to apprentice in watch repair and Herbert is sent to college.

Japanese-Language School

My involvement was very minimal. I looked upon going to Japanese[-language] school as merely a burden and a chore and I never was able to establish myself as a serious student of Japanese. I had the most difficult time remembering kanji [Chinese characters in Japanese writing].

My mother used to let me sit in front of her while she was sewing on this machine and let me read, and I would get stuck and she would whack me with a stick that she had, a two-foot measuring stick (laughs). And I sure would really get whacked because I can’t remember kanji for the life of me.

We had only one [school], Koloa Japanese[-language] School.

Herbert Isonaga, Japanese-language school
Koloa Japanese-language School graduation

I found that the teachers were very liberal in their approach to teaching. I don’t think I ran into a teacher who was really, really gung-ho about making us students of Japanese.

My teacher involved Naitoh-sensei, he was the [Koloa] Hongwanji Reverend [K. Naitoh]. And there was a lady teacher, I forgot her name. But both of them, to my mind, they had a very liberal teaching attitude different from what you would believe to be the strict, disciplinarian type of Japanese[-language] school teachers.


Our teachers were — I use the term “liberal” because they weren’t trying to indoctrinate us in the Japanese tradition of the samurai and all that. So I cannot really say that the school — although probably subconsciously, it conveyed some of that sentiment.

But I think what I got about the Japanese mentality came from my parents, both. Mostly from my mother and partly from my father.

Number one, that you have to be loyal to the family, don’t bring shame to the family, which was the primary doctrine of our family. Aside from that, there was very little effort on both my parents to make us become Japanese.

They mentioned a lot of these things, giri [duty] and shushin [ethics] and all that stuff. But I don’t think my parents were into that to any great degree. But the main thing was, don’t bring shame to the family.

Koloa School

I went to Koloa School. I maintain that my first-grade teacher did me a great disservice by skipping me a grade. My first-grade teacher was Aiko Tokimasa. She's Aiko Reinecke.

Koloa School
Koloa School, Kauai, Hawaii

I think it didn’t help me because I didn’t do too well thereafter (laughs).

What I recall about grade school is, number one, gardening, growing vegetables. We were allocated a plot and we could sell the produce. We had shop and I became acquainted with tools, which has always been very helpful.

Then most of our school projects were Hawaiian-oriented. Of course, the most fun part of the project was that you have a luau [Hawaiian feast] at the end of the project period. But that’s my major recollection of grade school.

[The teachers] never made any tremendous impression on me as teachers. I know that they tried very hard to make us students and I think they accomplished a certain degree of success. But I don’t think they were really interested in developing any kind of prospects for success in the future. There was very little of that.

There was very little effort on their part to make us, motivate us, to seek higher education. And, looking back, I suspect that they felt this prospect was dim so why get these guys worked up with false hopes? And at that time, it was partly true. Because I know when I went to college, that all the brilliant guys were in teachers’ college. Because that was the highest they could anticipate. Whereas today, it’s altogether different, right? All fields are wide open.

Kauai High School

I went to Kauai High School. And talking about going to high school, when that transition was made, I felt it was so tragic that out of my class, eighth-grade class of, say, fifty or sixty, maybe only twenty of us went to high school. That was basically because of economic reasons. To me, it was so sad to see that.

[In my family], no question, there was no discussion. You’re going to go to school, as long as you want to. That was my mother’s goal, I guess, to get us to go to school.


I think only a couple of years we had public bus service. Because bus service was never successful, financially. So families would buy a car and sign up students to ride their car to go school from Koloa. They charged five dollars a month for transportation to Lihue and back. So that was a tremendous cost for the average family when the breadwinner was bringing home only thirty dollars a month. Dollar a day was the going rate at the plantations.

My neighbor, my Korean neighbor had a car, sign up. And then somebody else, when they gave it up — I mean, all the children graduated, another neighbor. One year, I took the bus, when the bus was operating.

When I was in high school, we had a car. The reason why we had a car was not that the family could afford car, but, you see, the Motoshiges sent a salesman monthly. So we had a contract with them that they would use our car when they came every month. So I guess that agreement, contract, helped to maintain the car in the family.


There weren’t any particular activities or courses that was particularly stimulating. Everything was quite routine. The only outstanding recollection I have is that we had an English teacher. Her name was Anderson and she was a real stickler on the English language. She was heavy into diagramming. That’s about it, in my days.

But prior to my days, there was a Dr. [Robert W.] Clopton. I don’t know what kind of teacher he was at Kauai High School but I’m sure he must have been of a type that was particularly motivating. I understand that people say that he stressed the need to know the meaning and understanding of words. He was very verbal in the sense that if you asked him what the meaning of certain word is, he could give you the definition of practically any word you can think of.

When I went to Kauai High School, I think there were two Japanese teachers. The rest were haoles or Hawaiian, part Hawaiian. I thought like some of the teachers were quite good and outstanding and they gave me a better perspective of life.

Mrs. Anderson invited us to her cottage at times to visit with her and she would entertain us and make us aware of how other people lived. My history teacher, he used to join us during free periods and talk to us and make us aware of things that were — they relate their experiences with us, which was quite broadening for us.

Then we had a physics teacher, he was a vegetarian. I think he was a Mormon or Seventh-Day Adventist. His thoughts were a little different. But it was interesting. Like he believed that God created the world in seven days and he would express that. He said in the days of the Lord, I remember, he said the days were beautiful, there was no rain, no snow. So we said, “Well, if there’s no rain, how did they get water?” He said, “Well, you know what? There would be a heavy dew on the ground every morning and that was enough water.” (Laughs) Interesting.


I don’t know why but I ended up as the senior class president. I don’t know how I did it. I know I won by one vote (laughs). So just like Lyndon Johnson, they called me “Landslide” Isonaga.

I wasn’t particularly into student government and all that. But I guess my friends railroaded me into running. But that’s about it.

We had minor functions, class functions. But nothing really challenging. Student government at Kauai High during my days was minimal. No emphasis was given to student government. We had no authority.

I participated in speech contests and I was involved in trying to promote student participation in athletic activities. You know, like developing cheerleading and get the students to be more enthusiastic at our athletic events.

We had contests on recitation. You know, like “Four score and seven years ago . . .” whatever. Yeah, that type of — not original speech developed by the student. It was more recitation.

Kauai High School never did — the schools on Kauai never did have ROTC programs.

Mother’s View on Education

I really don’t know [why my sister Chito was sent to Japan] but my guess is my mother, who was the prime mover in our family decided that she wanted her to be educated in Japan. She sent her to, what they call, Hiroshima Jogakuin. It’s a women’s college. I’m surprised but she graduated and came back home, completed her education shortly before the war started in [19]41. I think she came back in [19]41.

It was my mother’s design. It was my mother’s design that when my brother graduated from high school, she noticed that my brother was good with his hands, repairing things. So she arranged for him to go to Honolulu to apprentice to become a watch repairer. He apprenticed at Maggie Inouye’s father’s [Tokuyoshi Awamura’s] shop. It was called Heiwa-Do.

[My mother’s design] for me to go to college. And so she supported me going to college.

Herbert Isonaga's interview courtesy of the Center for Oral History. Photographs courtesy of Herbert Isonaga and Hawaii State Archives.

All rights to the reproduction or use of content in the Hawaii Nisei web site are retained by the individual holding institutions or individuals.

Please view the Hawaii Nisei Rights Management page for more information.