Chito Isonaga
A Different View

Chito Isonaga

Born in 1915 in Koloa, Kauai, Chito Isonaga is the oldest of five children, one of whom dies in childhood. Her parents Tokuichi and Kazuyo Isonaga, emigrants from Japan, open a general store in Koloa town, with the assistance of Motoshige Shoten relatives.

Isonaga Store caters to Filipino plantation workers. Codfish, bagoong (fermented fish sauce), kerosene, medicine, and other goods are sold, along with shirts and lunch bags sewn by Kazuyo.

I was born in 1915 in Koloa, Kauai.

Isonaga Family: Kazuyo Isonaga, Chito Isonaga (center), Tokuichi Isonaga, and Kokichi Isonaga (standing)
Isonaga Family: Kazuyo Isonaga, Chito Isonaga (center), Tokuichi Isonaga, and Kokichi Isonaga (standing)

There were five of us [children], but one of them died when she was four years old of diphtheria. It was girl, boy, girl, boy, and girl. I’m number one . . . the oldest in the family. My brother, who’s next to me, will be ninety in April. [Herbert is] eighty-five. My sister will be eighty next September.

Isonaga Family.(L-R): Kazuyo Isonaga, Chito, Kokichi and Herbert. In front is neighbor and family friend, Mrs. Koji. Koloa, Kauai, Hawaii
Isonaga Family.(L-R): Kazuyo Isonaga, Chito, Kokichi and Herbert. In front is neighbor and family friend, Mrs. Koji. Koloa, Kauai, Hawaii.

Mother: Kazuyo Isonaga

My mother [Kazuyo Isonaga] was born in a fairly comfortable family [in Hiroshima]. I think my grandfather and grandmother were farmers before. He used to raise, they call it ai [Japanese indigo plant], some kind of grass that they dyed into kimono [fabric]. But, later on, they had a sake factory.

[My grandfather] didn’t believe in education for the girls. So, I think she just had a grammar school education. But, the menfolks did go to middle school. She wanted to go to middle school, but she wasn’t allowed to.

She was really raised with nursemaids. They had maids in the home. Mom used to tell us that she used to go to the maid’s home when they had festivals in the town.

[My mother’s family] lived in Misasa. It was just in the outskirts of what is now Yokogawa Station. It was the next station from the main Hiroshima Station, in a town.

Kazuyo and Tokuichi Isonaga. Photo taken shortly after their marriage.
Kazuyo and Tokuichi Isonaga. Photo taken shortly after their marriage.

Father: Tokuichi Isonaga

My father came from Yamaguchi-ken.

I really don’t know much about [my father’s] family, but I knew his mother. When I went back in [19]33, she was living with her sister. But his father passed away quite early, when my father was rather young. There were only two [children] in the family.

The Isonaga Store

The Isonaga family was related to a Yamamoto family. His cousin [Yamamoto] got married to a Motoshige in Tokyo. There was a store in Honolulu called the Motoshige Shoten. I think [my father] must have been only sixteen or seven[teen], rather young, he came to Hawaii at his cousin’s [beckon]. Mr. Yamamoto was head of the Motoshige Shoten in Honolulu [located at 169 N. King Street]. He came and he worked for the former Nippu Jiji [Japanese-language newspaper].

Later on, [my father] got help from [the Motoshige Shoten] and he opened [Isonaga Store] in Koloa town. This Motoshige Shoten was a drugstore, more or less. Had [medicinal] drugs from Japan. I noticed that we had it in the store. I can’t remember the names, but Jintan, and they had some cough medicine, too. I think we had quite a bit of Japanese medicine, but I can’t remember what they were. [They were the type of medicines they put into] small little envelopes.

Mr. Motoshige sort of helped [my mother and father] get together. They had a proxy marriage in Japan. I don’t know how it was arranged. Mother went to Tokyo and stayed at the Motoshige’s Tokyo home and then came to Hawaii. When she came to Hawaii, most picture brides used to bring just one yanagigori [wicker trunk]. Mom brought ten of ’em. So when she came, the customs officer, who was quite prominent, he came to help her.

Isonaga Family and Motoshige Family: Tokuichi Isonaga, Mr. Motoshige and his family, Kazuyo Isonaga, and Chito Isonaga
Isonaga Family and Motoshige Family: Tokuichi Isonaga, Mr. Motoshige and his family, Kazuyo Isonaga, and Chito Isonaga.

When she first came here, when she was [staying] at the Yamamoto home, somebody brought fish, the whole fish, and threw it at her to clean it. She didn’t know how to clean that fish. So she was really lost, when she came to Hawaii, for a while.

Mom didn’t know how to wash clothes when she came to [Hawaii], so she used to give her kimonos to the ladies that lived around, the neighbors. (Chuckles) They used to wash for her.

But she had to learn pretty fast, though. Mrs. Sueoka [wife of Mankichi Sueoka, founder of Sueoka Store] used to know how to sew, and so she would [make] me dresses. Mom used to take the stitches off and learn how to draft. Mr. [Ho Young] Chung, next door, was a tailor and she said she used to carry the children on her back and go and visit him and watch him draft. That’s how she learned how to sew trousers and shirts, too.

She said when we had the [Isonaga] Store, the Filipino customers would come. She used to make beautiful aloha shirts. She used to make those [denim bags that held the workers’] lunch tins and we used to sell in the store.

[My mother] first had a Singer sewing machine and she used to sew. Then, she got a White sewing machine. My father used to pay her, too. She used to have her own savings. There are books in there, small, in the notebook [ledgers], saying three dollars, like that. You know, at first they sold shirts for only three dollars.

The customers were Filipinos. So, Mom and Dad didn’t learn English. They tried to. But, Dad could speak in the Filipino language [i.e., Ilokano] because he used to deal with the Filipinos. Well, [the store carried] common things. Later on we had the dried shrimp, and that dried fish, bakalaw [codfish], things that the Filipinos would eat.

Isonaga Store (Exterior). Koloa, Kauai
Isonaga Store (Exterior). Koloa, Kauai.

Dad used to even sell kerosene. We had a huge kerosene tank in the back. I think they had a YWCA [Young Women’s Christian Association] club there, so she learned how to bake bread. She used to make raisin bread with the kerosene stove and the kerosene oven.

Mom used to raise about two dozen Rhode Island Reds — chicks. And she had a little warmer for them when they were small. She would have a little box there and she would raise them and then she’d put them in a bin. So, we had lot of eggs. On our birthdays we would have roast chicken.

Chito Isonaga's interview courtesy of the Center for Oral History. Photographs courtesy of Chito Isonaga.

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