Herbert Isonaga
VVV

Youth

Herbert and his friends ride horses, fish and dive at Poipu Beach, swim in the river, hook and eat frogs, and pick fruit. They also “borrow” chickens from Koloa School to feast on hekka [a meat and vegetable dish] at the beach.

When his sister goes to school in Japan, Herbert and his brother assume household duties.

In the summers, Herbert does ho hana [weeding] in the fields of Koloa Sugar Company and stacks cans in the cannery of Kauai Pineapple Co. Ltd.

Recreational Activities

I’ve been giving some thought to recreational activity, growing up. Our neighbors had horses. To maintain the horses, they had to go out to cut the grass for them. I used to enjoy going with them, riding the horse, to go out near the river bank and cut the buffalo grass and bundle them up, put ’em in sacks and take them home.

Then on weekends, we used to get on their horse and go out to places where they had mangoes, mountain apples, tamarind. That was very enjoyable. Then we went up on the hill and used the boxes or the rim of the huge palm base. You know the palm that grows like this and then the leaf grows out and you pull it off and you have this bowl-like thing. We used to use that to sled down the hills near Koloa town. Because if you look from Koloa town up towards the mountains, you see a small little hill, gentle hill. We used to do that.

And, of course, we used to go fishing, diving at Poipu Beach. We used to walk to the beach and along the way, we used to pull up this tar from the road. On a hot day, they would get soft and we used to chew on that tar.

Poipu Beach
Poipu Beach, Kauai, Hawaii

At grammar school [Koloa School], a part of the program involved raising chicken. So we used to go and “borrow” some chicken from the school and take them down to the beach and have a chicken hekka [Japanese meat and vegetable dish]. So we used to have fun, a lot of fun.

Herbert Isonaga, Koloa Grammar School
Herbert Isonaga, Koloa Grammar School

We used to go swimming in the river. Of course, sometimes when we swim, we’ll see dead pigs and chickens come floating down. But that river flowing through Koloa town, it goes by that bridge by Yamamoto Store and that old theater. We used to make tin boats out of corrugated roofing iron and we used to go boating on the river.

Frogs and Fruit

At night, we used to go and hook frogs. I don’t know whether you had experience hooking frogs but when you go for frogs at night, you shine the flashlight, they still floating up and you wiggle this triple hook with a red cloth on it and they jump at it, and you hook the frog.

We used to eat them. Delicious. Frog’s delicious. You can eat the back, shoulder and the legs. So, you know, there’s quite a bit of edible parts. Although, of course, most of the meat is along the two legs.

We used to go and look for beehives, yellow jacket hives and drop the hive and get the larva and fry the larva, bee larva, with shoyu and eat it. Tastes like peanut. (Laughs) Was good.

[We got] mangoes, plum, wi apple [apple-flavored fruit from a tree in the mango family]. And that yard, you know the property right across Koloa Union Church, used to be an all empty lot and there was all kinds of fruit trees in there. Mango trees; a fruit we call cream, I don’t know what the real [name is]. . . . Purple fruit about this big and inside is little pockets, little seed with meat around it; and then there was this momi apple tree [mammee apple]. And cherries. But that was the type of fruits available.

Movies

We had a family called Iwamura and they ran the Japanese movies. And periodically, they would have a showing near the church grounds at night and it would be the benshi [movie “talker,” or narrator] type of movie.

Then the theater, the original movie theater, was down near the Japanese[-language] school. I think it was operated by the plantation. And my recollection, I think it was owned by the plantation.

When we were kids, we worked at the plantation during the summer. If we worked six days, they would give us one free movie on Saturday night. So we used to make it a point to work at least six days a week to get to go to the movie free on Saturday night.

Then, I think when the talkies came, the theater closed and then a new one was opened by a private individual. I think it was the Teves family, they built that theater. It remained the primary entertainment for us for a long time.

I think I was able to go movies once a month. Aside from plantation working days where I worked six days and get to see a movie free on Saturday.

If you wanted to go movie, we asked [my mother]. So, in those days, I remember I think it was ten cents at one time. I think later on it was twenty-five cents or thereabouts when I was going to the movie. Unbelievable.

Stores

The only time I went to the stores [in town] was when my mother asked me to go down to a certain store to buy takuan [pickled radish] — which we didn’t have — or to go to the vegetable store to buy vegetables. But since we didn’t have any money, we didn’t go browsing around the stores.

But during my high school years, of course, high school was in Lihue, so after school when our bus stopped in Lihue for us to go the library, etcetera, we used to browse around Lihue town and go to the stores. But mostly we used to go to the magazine stores where they had, in those days, sheet music. By sheet music, I mean just the words of certain songs. But no money, we didn’t go to stores. No need to go to stores.

Work

My plantation labor consisted, number one, we called it ho hana, just weeding the rows of [sugar] cane, and they used to pay us so many cents a line. A line was maybe thirty feet. So we used to go like hell and try to get as many lines hoed as possible.

But if we were lucky — our daily rate was thirty-seven-and-a-half cents a day — so if we were lucky, we could hit that thirty-seven-and-a-half cents or forty cents. But that was about it. My recollection is, our paycheck amounted to five dollars or less a month. Thirty-seven-and-a-half cents a day or was it thirty-three-and-a-half cents a day?

But when we got to be sixteen years old, we could work in the [pineapple] cannery. Kauai Pine[apple Co. Ltd.]. The cannery in Lawai. Now the cannery then paid us seventeen-and-a-half cents an hour or something like that.

I recall one year, three of us formed a gang and went into contract labor in the cannery stacking cans. The cans were stacked up in the warehouses, I would say, about twenty, thirty feet high. So we had to lift up these trays of cans and by hand, stack it up. One summer, one month, I recall making the princely sum of ninety dollars. That was a tremendous amount of money for a month of work at that time.

You just tell them, “Look, we want to go stack cans.” I mean, it was no big deal. They were looking for gangs to be formed to stack cans. Not hourly. It’s the more cans you stack, the more you make.

We made more money. Because I think on the regular seventeen-and-a-half cents an hour rate, you probably would make not quite half of that amount. Although we really work hard.

Chores

Aside from, like I mentioned earlier, filling up bagoong bottles, my mother made raincoats, sewed raincoats, and we would put on the coating to waterproof it.

My sister went to Japan after she graduated from high school. So when she left, my brother and I did all the washing and ironing of the clothes.

Because my mother was so busy sewing, we did most of the basic preparation for the evening meal. And my principal chore was to get the furo [hot bath] going, which was the biggest headache for me because I wanted to go out and play in the evening, afternoon but I couldn’t go or stay too long because I had to get the bathwater going.

We used to buy this wood, all chopped up, of course. And, talking about the wood — and this wood about this long and this wide — would be stacked in the bathhouse. And, of course, we’d start the fire. When we were - when I would misbehave, my mother would come in when I’m taking a bath, and get this jagged wood with all kinds of loose ends and come and try to whack us (laughs).

But looking back, I can’t picture what did I do to deserve that kind of treatment, you know? Which I thought was cruel. She’d probably go to jail if she did that today (laughs).

I wasn’t a bad boy. But, you know, my mother’s standard was — she expected a little bit too much from us. Like if you stayed out late, that was bad. Or if you didn’t get the bathwater going early enough, that’s bad.

But like I said, after my sister left for Japan, I was indoctrinated to a lot of household chores. Ironing, washing, cooking.

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

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