Herbert Isonaga


While some Japanese residents are active in school, church, and business affairs, as well as Japanese cultural events, Herbert’s parents tend not to participate.

At the urging of his mother, Herbert attends Sunday school at Koloa Union Church. He enjoys scouting and the Friendly Indians (a YMCA program).

The whole community of Koloa is welcome to take part in Christmas and Fourth of July festivities sponsored by Koloa Sugar Company.

Koloa Community

I think the image that a shop owner, store owner, gives to the average guy is that, oh, well, these guys are at least better off than the plantation worker. So I think we were looked upon as a little higher-class people in the community.

There weren’t any expressed feeling among the community that, well, you’re a little better off than me or anything like that. I think that our community was structured in a way that it was very harmonious. We had only one policeman in our town, and I don’t think he had any work to do.

So it was a very pleasing, harmonious community.


Most Japanese people were connected with the school. They were officials or in some high capacity; or with one of our churches, Buddhist churches; and active in the business community organization, however loosely it was formed.

But my parents were never joiners. They weren’t active church members, they weren’t active school supporters; and, so far as the business community, they kind of rotated meetings. Then we, our family, on our selected date, sponsored evening dinner for members of the community.

My parents were never active in maintaining a relationship with different store owners or church groups, etcetera. They were very independent in that sense.

Sunday School

My parents were both Buddhists by birth, I guess, or by tradition. But they weren’t practicing. They never attended church or anything of the kind. But my mother, in her late years, converted to Christianity.

I think the reason why my mother — she was the aggressive one in the family — saw to it that the children, all of us, as children growing up, had to go to church [Koloa Union Church] on Sunday, is because she looked at it as another form of education.

Koloa Union Church, Hawaii

We grew up going to church, not to church, we went to Sunday school. So that’s how the children in our family got involved with the Christian religion.

Initially, I felt that [going to Sunday school] was a chore. Because we went to school five days a week, Saturday we had to go to Japanese[-language] school and then Sunday’s another school, that’s seven days. But then eventually, we came to see it, the Christian church, as a form of a social organization, which made it more palatable, rather than as a school. Because the church supported activities which involved scouting and the YMCA [Young Men’s Christian Association] program, the Friendly Indians. That phase of the church system held us. Held me, anyway.

The Friendly Indians of the YMCA program was for the youngest group of YMCA. Then, I know you had the Hi-Y program and then it goes up. But the Friendly Indians was for the youngest group.

We went camping. Overnight camp to the beach, which was fun, yeah. But basically, that was it. It was a recreational outlet for us.

Amazingly, most of the participants [at Sunday school] were Japanese, a few Chinese. But you know the Portuguese, they have their own, the Catholic group. They have their own operation. Very few Filipinos because, of course, Filipino was more Catholic. And, of course, the haoles, they didn’t come to our church. So it was mostly Japanese.

Maybe a couple of Hawaiians. But you know, you talk about Hawaiians, we didn’t have too many Hawaiians as I recall in Koloa. I can think of the Blakes, Waialeale, that’s about it. Oh, Springwater Kaulili.

Holiday Celebrations

The holiday celebration, the major celebration, was the plantation Christmas celebration when they pass out apples, oranges, nuts and candies to the kids. The Salvation Army had their Christmas, did the same thing.

You know, in my mind today, I don’t recall our church, the Koloa Union Church, having this special Christmas pageant where they got all the kids to come in and passed out candies and fruits. I don’t recall.

[The Koloa Sugar Company Plantation Christmas celebration] was for the whole community, regardless of whether you were plantation or not. Also, the plantation sponsored a big Fourth of July celebration at the beach and it was open to the whole community.

That’s when you took the train. It took only about, at the most, half an hour. It was a very short train ride from Koloa town to the drop-off point down near Poipu Beach. So we didn’t do much on the train. We just enjoyed the scenery and the fact that you’re riding on a train. This cane [train] all dirty, you couldn’t sit on the floor because it’s all full of cane soot and all that.

Koloa Sugar Company Plantation cane train, Hawaii

At Bon [Buddhist All Souls’ Day, Lantern Festival], the reverend from the church would visit homes individually. Then they would have this Bon dance and I guess every family is expected to make a contribution. Because they would hang pieces of paper around the stand saying so-and-so donated so much. So you had to make your donation accordingly. But that’s the extent of the participation.

I know the family, the Nakata family, the barbershop near where we lived, ho, they went whole hog so far as Bon is concerned because they helped make all the decoration, they made the towels that they pass out, stuff like that. But my parents never did anything.

Talking about Bon dance, as a kid, we got up early in the morning after Bon dance to go around look for coins (laughs) people drop.

Japanese Father, American Children

It’s quite strange that my father, although he was not an active participant [in Japanese cultural activities], he was one of those that couldn’t accept the defeat of Japan [in World War II]. My mother tells me that he spent several sleepless nights when the word came out that Japan lost the war. He just couldn’t accept it. He was that emotionally tied to the belief that Japan was invincible. I guess through all this literature that he used to read, telling him how great Japan was and all that.

I believe that he accepted the fact that we were Americans, the children were Americans. And that he was Japanese but we were American.

Herbert Isonaga and family, Kauai
Herbert Isonaga and family, Kauai

I think, through my mother’s reading, she grew to understand that the American way was superior to that of the Japanese tradition. In that regard, she encouraged us to participate in Christian activities. There was no attempt on the part of my parents to stop us from becoming active in Christian activities. In fact, they encouraged us to attend Y camps, Christian fellowship meetings, as against us going to dancing, etcetera. They were not into that. (Laughs)

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

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