1399th Engineer Construction Battalion
The Okamotos reside in Waimea Valley, a mile away from the nearest sugar plantation camp.
Waimea River is Richard’s playground: He and his friends swim. They catch opae (shrimp), mullet, oopu (goby), and hinana (young goby).
Near the shoreline in Hanapepe and Pakala, nenue (pilot fish) and moi (threadfish) are caught for the family’s New Year’s celebrations.
The Okamotos and area residents, including Hawaiians, get together on other occasions.
The Waimea River ran down, just in front of our house. And in front of our house — and before the first swing bridge over Waimea River, there was an expanse, probably about two or three acres of sand that accumulated from floods. So we had a nice bank there.
I think I spent most of my kid days swimming and playing around in the river. Besides, if I was down there, my brothers and parents would have a hard time calling me. We had a regular bunch of kids.
Most of [the kids I played with] were Hawaiians because where we lived was mostly Hawaiians. There were some salary people, wage earners. There was one part-Hawaiian woman who told wonderful Hawaiian stories, the scary kind. Well, at one point, she was behind our rice fields, Mrs. Kajiwara. She had a loud piercing voice. I would be playing with kids down in the river and we would hear her voice, “Mitsuo!” Oh boy, those guys, “Kaniala!” They took off for home, boy; otherwise they get good licking.
But they were my friends, mostly Hawaiian boys. At one point, my gang went and vandalized a commercial honeybee colony that belonged to Gay and Robinson [prominent landowning ranch and plantation family]. Fortunately, I wasn’t with my group that day. Those kids all landed in court. They were prosecuted. Some even got incarcerated, the ones who were old enough. Because [Sinclair] Robinson was nobody to fool with. He was the lord in our area
[Robinson was the landowner of my father’s] cane land. Farming land was owned by different people, different owners.
[Our house was] one mile away [from the plantation camps]. We were up in the valley; the mill and the plantation were in downtown Waimea.
[Our neighbors were not connected with the plantation.] Except for one man who was what we call, “ditch man.” He lived way up in — almost into Waimea Canyon, tending the ditch that brought water from Waimea River down into the cane lands in Waimea and Kekaha. He was the only one connected with the plantation. Some of them worked for what is now called Gay & Robinson [Sugar Company]. In my time, it was just Robinson. They owned a good part of Kauai and Niihau.
Socially, there was a tremendous gap between us lowly peons and the Robinsons so there was no reason to meet with them. Politically, I don’t know what they did, we weren’t involved with politics.
As far as employment was concerned, they employed some of the people in my neighborhood, cowboys especially, to take care of the cattle herds. That’s how my brother got in with these people and got permission to go into Robinson lands to hunt pigs and goats. I used to tag along with him, more to tend the horses than anything.
[My father farmed rice to sell.] I think [my father] tried taro for a while, too. But I don’t recall ever working in the taro patch.
I worked in his banana plot because we had to water the banana. So this water that I mentioned — the ditch man tending [it] — that water came down and part of it stayed in the valley. Then [it] was used by the farmers in Waimea Valley. But the bulk of it went to Kekaha for the sugarcane.
I think, as a kid, I went through about three Waimea River floods. Those days, a flood was a major thing because we had no embankment, no breakwater. Now, there’s a huge breakwater that goes the length of the whole Waimea River.
But those days, the river just overflowed the banks. I guess must have risen about five, six feet in our area. Well, the whole valley would be flooded. It wasn’t life threatening, just the water coming up and inundating everything. But after they put the breakwater up, that was a thing of the past. But, as far as I know, it never flowed over the breakwater.
That little ditch that flowed down through Waimea Valley supplied all the farming needs.
Catching Opae and Mullet
We did a lot of fishing, catching opae [shrimp]. With woven bamboo baskets. We put it [under] the grass, shake it up, then all the shrimp that was on the grass would come out in our baskets. Opae, sato shoyu [prepared with sugar and soy sauce]. And sometimes my parents or neighbors would add a can of Vienna sausage to the mix. That was real good stuff.
[The mullet were coming in] maybe about a mile beyond. Although about a quarter mile past our house, the river got shallow. One was Waimea River and the other was Makaweli River. Those two rivers met and formed the lower part of Waimea River.
We used to swim down there in the river all day and we never had trouble with any infections. But now, I understand, you got to be careful about — what’s that deadly infection? [Leptospirosis.]
Every now and then, we’d throw net for mullets. I had a favorite rock directly in front of my house. Anytime I wanted to eat mullet, I would go down there and throw my net over this rock. The mullet would go under the rock. Would set my net and I’d shake the rock and the mullet would dash out. So I’d get usually about half a dozen mullets with very little effort.
[The mullets were] probably about ten inches long. That was my private mullet source. I don’t think anybody else knew about it. [I ate it] fried, mostly. Fried and nitsuke [boiled with soy sauce and sugar. My mom did it]. I never cooked.
There wasn’t much by way of oopu [goby] in the old Waimea River until the fall floods came. You know, rainy season, the river would flood and come dashing down and bring the oopus. That’s when we caught a lot of oopu, both by poling and by throwing nets. But one thing we did have at that time was hinana [young goby] fishing.
Hinana were baby oopus. The oopus would be flushed down the river from way up in the canyon area, all the way down. The water would bring the oopus down. I think they went out in to the ocean to lay their eggs. After the eggs were hatched, the hinana would go back up the river. They would form a line — a real tiny little fish, maybe about an inch long. But thousands and thousands of them form a line, and we used to set up broken-down V-traps. The hinana would stay in the traps until the apex, we’d have a net there, a screen net, waiting for them.
[The traps were made out of] screen netting, you know, from the window screens. We just had flimsy [netting] — we didn’t need anything strong because we’d be tending the thing. Every now and then we’d pull the net, trap, empty it in the buckets. That [hinana] was very much in demand as far as food is concerned. Everybody used to like that.
Some of ’em ate ’em raw, while the little thing was still jumping around. I know we used to do that at home. But mostly, after a few minutes, the fish, the hinana fish, were dead. So then became a regular fish product. We never had problems getting rid of it.
But after a while, I guess the supply of oopus was depleted because we were catching too many of the hinanas. They banned these traps that we set up in the river. So we had to catch them from shore. Every now and then, the stream of hinanas would get close to shore and we could scoop ’em from shore. But the catch wasn’t anything like we got while using the V-traps.
Shoreline Fishing and Netting
My brothers went shoreline fishing — netting, throw nets — a lot in our area, mostly Pakala and Waimea.
Then every New Year’s, before New Year’s, my brothers and their friends used to go down to Hanapepe, in the ocean and they had a favorite reef, apparently. I just went along as a bag boy. But every New Year, they would lay nets, gill nets, and catch a supply of nenue [pilot fish]. That was New Year sashimi.
They were a good size. Twelve, fifteen inches, I think. They’re strong fish, but they couldn’t cope with the gill nets. I recall one holiday season, one of my brothers took us down to a pier in Pakala. Pakala is a neighboring town from Waimea. Before Waimea.
Owned completely by the Robinsons. Everybody there was on the Robinson staff. Anyway, they had a landing, a pier going out. We needed New Year fish, so my brother, from the landing, said, “That’s the moi [threadfish] hole there.” We couldn’t see it because it was all reddish water. That’s all red dirt in that area.
So he threw the net in the hole and I remember going in with four or five other people to help get the net out. And the net was full of moi. We didn’t even bother to take the fish out. We gathered the lead together, hauled it out of the water, put it in a tub, onto the truck and home we went.
I counted the fish after we got home. We had to take the fish out. We got seventy-two of ’em. Boy, that was a real quick fishing trip. One throw, gather it up and that was it.
I don’t know about the other years. That’s the only time I went with them. Of course, like any other fishing, there are times when you don’t get anything. (Laughs)
[Chores included helping my father out in the rice field, farming duties, and] heating up the furo.
I recall tending the family garden in our front yard, flowers, as well as a few vegetables. I think my mother supervised me on that. And in my memory, we had a big front yard with wi apple trees [trees in mango family that yield round, orange fruits], a couple of ’em, a jacaranda tree, and a grassy lawn.
Now when I go back in that area, drive up and down the valley, it’s just a small, small plot. But there wasn’t much to tend at home. Generally, it was bananas growing in front. I think we had about three acres. Few banana plants alongside the rice field at the back of our house. Sugarcane work was largely summer work.
But I think a lot of time [was spent] playing because I was four years below the youngest one, my sister, so I must have been kind of apart from them.
[New Year’s] was largely within our family. My oldest half-brother ’cause he had five kids and they joined us, too.
My half-brother’s oldest child is ten years younger than I am. They were all settled, their family, was settled in, eventually in Kalaheo. My half-brother who was a sugarcane field worker, ended up a baker. I don’t know how that happened. He ran the Taniguchi Bakery in Kalaheo, eventually. It was a branch of Taniguchi Bakery in Waimea. Baker Taniguchi’s father was my brother’s boss.
From the viewpoint of the older people, I think there was still a strong communal feeling because they used to have big shindigs according to the area in which they lived in the valley. I don’t recall whether it was tied in with any particular holiday.
The people in our area would get together and some of the Hawaiians must have participated in it, too, because some of them were partly Japanese, wife or husband Japanese.
But me and my father, my parents, belonged to the Buddhist congregation of the church that was farthest into the valley. So they used to attend church affairs.
I remember Bon odori [Buddhist All Souls’ Day dances], particularly. But I never became seriously involved with their religion. Anyway, after a while, I don’t know why, [my father] changed to a Christian church. The Christian minister in Waimea was also named Okamoto. We went to that church for a while, then he went back to the Buddhist church. Then why he did that, I don’t know. We didn’t ask any questions. I didn’t, anyway.
Richard Okamoto's interview reprinted courtesy of the Center for Oral History. Photographs courtesy of Richard Okamoto and Library of Congress.