Richard Okamoto
1399th Engineer Construction Battalion


Richard completes his elementary and junior-high education in Waimea.

He attends Japanese-language school but quits after six years.

Recruited by former Kauai resident George Sueoka, he attends Mid-Pacific Institute in Honolulu. Although the Okamoto family is poor, they manage to support Richard who bears part of the cost by working in the school kitchen.

Richard enjoys dormitory life, classes, and teachers. He is also introduced to city life.

Waimea Elementary

[Waimea Elementary was] about a mile [from my home]. Probably until the last couple of years, we walked. There was no other means of transportation available. We didn’t mind the walk, everybody walked. Last couple of years, I recall going to school on my bicycle.

My elementary school years are a blur. I don’t remember much about it. I don’t even remember some of my teachers. I remember some of my early ones but third, fourth, fifth, I don’t remember the teachers. Oh, fifth, I remember. I remember her only because she was the principal’s wife. She used to keep us in line.

Principal’s wife was the only teacher from the Mainland, I think.

Japanese-language School

We had a Japanese-language school right close to Waimea Sugar Mill. I went there for about six years.

[The school was a] quarter of a mile away [from public school]. But one of the problems was, by taking a small detour while walking to the Japanese[-language] school, we could go to Waimea Landing and a bunch of us used to go swimming all the time. Never made it to Japanese[-language] school. (Laughs)

Finally, I got scolded for insubordination in class, creating a disturbance. I never was too serious about learning Japanese. But I took that as an opportunity to quit Japanese[-language] school. My father didn’t scold me or anything, just let it go. I remember the principal coming to our house, talking to my father. So I think the school wanted me to stick around, but for me, that was a golden opportunity to just quit.

I think I was creating a disturbance, not minding our teacher, Mr. Inouye. There was another teacher that I minded, we all minded, he was a judo man. If we misbehaved, he’d just come from the back, grab our earlobe, pinch it and twist it. We minded him, all right. But the other guy, he couldn’t control us. I guess I was kind of incorrigible.

There was greater interest in the regular [public] school. I guess it was more interesting. To me, Japanese [language] was something that I didn’t use. At home, we used real broken local Japanese. Otherwise, I never had occasion to use what I learned in Japanese[-language] school. So, to me, there was no motivation. Not until later on when I realized that, you know, it would do me a lot of good to know how to speak Japanese. But that’s too late.

[My father and mother knew very little English.] My father spoke Hawaiian. I thought he spoke good Hawaiian. But later on, at his funeral, one of the Hawaiian, part-Hawaiian people in our area said, “Yeah, he knew his Hawaiian. It was broken Hawaiian,” from that person’s viewpoint but he could communicate very well in Hawaiian.

I never spoke English to my parents. So our communication was in broken [Japanese and English words mixed in with Hawaiian.] I think that was true for all of our family. My sisters probably were much better at Japanese, but I know my brothers were no better than me.

Waimea Junior High

[Waimea Junior High] was an enjoyable time for me, yes. I don’t remember too many things specifically. But I was May Day king one year and I did a miserable job of it. I liked the girl who was the May Day queen, so I couldn’t show affection for her, huh? (Chuckles) Instead, I kind of sauntered off. But anyway. . . that was one of our highlights.

Generally speaking, I enjoyed my classes, including agriculture. I even enjoyed algebra, and math is one of my major weaknesses. We also had a shop teacher, Mr. Merlett. Seemed to me all my classes were enjoyable.

I had one of my best teachers in junior high, that was Mr. Hirano. He was a good teacher, kind of laid-back guy. But I recall once going to see him and asking him why I didn’t get a better grade. I recall part of his answer was that I didn’t pay attention to what he was saying. I guess that was characteristic of me throughout school, mind wandering.

But it was an enjoyable part and I really felt like I was losing something near and dear when I graduated. Because at that point, I wasn’t sure about continuing into high school. With my family background and lack of anybody to inspire me to higher levels, I just went from day to day, I guess.

Mid-Pacific Institute

Then finally, this recruiter from Mid-Pacific Institute, Mr. [George] Sueoka, who was the treasurer [business office, Mid-Pacific Institute], came to talk to our family. We were real poor, we could hardly afford it but my parents and brothers and sisters must have figured they could contribute and I got to go to Mid-Pacific Institute [in Honolulu].

I recall the first year I was there, the cost was $250 dollars for board and room and tuition. I can hardly believe that from where we stand today. But I worked in the kitchen to pay part of my costs.

Mid-Pacific [Institute] was a real good experience for me. I loved the dorm life and the teachers, most of them were Mainland people, although they were old-timers. And I enjoyed going to classes.

I don’t think I even thought about whether I was going on to high school, although I must have lived with the assumption that I would at least be going to Kauai High School. Because by that time, people were commuting from the Waimea area to attend Kauai High School, coming home in the evening. Transportation was advanced enough to do that.

My sister, who’s four years older than I am, went to Kauai High School but she boarded in Lihue, so that probably was an option. But it probably would have been just as expensive as going to Mid-Pacific Institute.

Back home, I never ate tomatoes. But at Mid-Pacific [Institute], they serve you what they serve and you eat that or you starve. So for one thing, I started eating tomatoes. But I kind of liked the regimented lifestyle in a boarding [school] — in a dormitory. It was a Christian-founded school, so there were prayers before every meal. The assemblies that we had were Christian-oriented. And the kids were nice.

Most of the kids in the student body at Mid-Pacific [Institute] were from the neighbor islands or — maybe I shouldn’t say most — because there were a lot of kids from Oahu, the rural areas.

The ones from Honolulu, now, they were a different breed. My recollection is that the Honolulu kids were all rascals. Not all, but most of them were rascals. They were streetwise. They would sneak out of the dormitory, and every now and then, I would go with them. Then they were, life-wise, they were much smarter than we were. They knew the ropes. A good friend of mine was the son of a person who was either president or the top man, anyway, for Kuakini Hospital. He was one of those guys that was streetwise. He used to take me around.

We even went to taxi dances. Someplace down Hotel Street area. Don’t tell my wife about it. (Laughs) But I got initiated into that. I didn’t have any money, I don’t know how I got the money to pay for taxi dances and the like.

But one thing that I ended up looking forward to was Sunday church attendance. We all had to go to church on Sunday. Dark coats, I think they were black coats, white pants for us. I don’t know what the girls wore. But we all went to church and we — my group, anyway, we always looked for a church that had the shortest service. We ended up going to St. Andrew’s [Cathedral]. Because time-wise, probably went in late, and the service ended shortly thereafter, so after that we could walk around town.

I don’t think there was any restriction. I don’t know of anybody went to Buddhist church or Catholic church, because Mid-Pacific [Institute] itself had a Protestant background. After church, my group would always assemble at Paramount Cafe [1118 Bethel Street]. It was just outside the entrance to the present location of Hawaii Theatre.

We paid twenty-five cents for lunch, from soup to nuts, fruit cocktail, whatever, all the way through dessert. Twenty-five cents. Boy, that was a treat for us. We had to report back to school by a certain time. I forget what time was, but back in school, the time was ours to spend. So Sunday was a good break from our classroom work.

Richard Okamoto's interview reprinted courtesy of the Center for Oral History. Photographs courtesy of Richard Okamoto.

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