Earlier this year, my mother received a surprise package in the mail: two books written by her older cousin, Akinori Imai, an electrician, teacher, and lay minister. This is his story, written at age 81, from his childhood through age 17.
“Our Nostalgic Heritage: Growing Up in a Place Once Called Ola’a” (2012) is a memoir about Akinori Imai’s personal experiences, childhood memories, and family history as the son of Japanese immigrants. It is a wonderful glimpse into the Japanese immigrant plantation experience, and a nostalgic look at the plantation town of Ola‘a on Hawai‘i Island.
Imai was born in 1928 to Masayoshi and Hisayo Imai, and lived with his paternal grandparents Toyoji and Kii Imai and 8 siblings. He made frequent trips to Wailea to visit his maternal grandparents, Gosaku and Motoyo Nishiyama, and his Aunty Ayako Hamada, often traveling alone. During those trips to Wailea, he spent time with Aunty Ayako’s eldest son Kazumi – fishing, swimming, and picking mango and mountain apple. He and his friends, especially best friend George Fujiwara, made their own tops, kites, wooden boats, kama pio games, and squirt guns (from African tulip tree pods), and enjoyed sliding naked down the sugar cane water flume.
The Ola’a Sugar Company’s “9 Mile Camp” was divided into two camps, mainly Japanese and Filipino immigrant workers. The workers were frugal and resourceful, and nothing was wasted. Imai reminisces that for toilet paper, families used fruit wrappings, newspaper, and catalog pages from Sears Roebuck or Montgomery Ward. Ceiling materials were often made of bleached rice bags stitched together. In the 1930,s gasoline was 20 cents per gallon, blocks of ice were 10 cents and 15 cents, candy bars were 5 cents, and school lunches were 10 cents.
Imai was 13 years old when Pearl Harbor was bombed, and war reached their remote town. On December 7, 1941, his grandfather Toyoji Imai was arrested and spent the war at an internment camp in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In Ola’a, martial law was imposed, with a curfew and complete blackout. Residents had to carry their ID papers and gas masks. There was rationing for rice and gas. Imai’s parents lost their teaching jobs, so the family planted a garden and offered laundry services for soldiers.
In those years, children took on more responsibilities at a younger age. By age 14, Imai worked in the sugar cane fields for 12.5 cents per hour. At age 15, he worked at a lauhala processing and weaving company in Hilo. He took a summer job at the California Packing Corporation, picking pineapples at Camp Kunia on Oahu. Two years later, he boarded an interisland steamship “Waialeale” with $25 in his pocket and a leather luggage to work in Honolulu. With his uncle’s help, he worked as an electrician’s helper for 65 cents per hour, and 4 months later was hired by the American Electric Company for $1.10 per hour. His narrative ends with the 1946 tsunami on April 1 that devastated Hilo.
I enjoyed the short anecdotes about Imai’s youth and the many historic and personal photos that bring his story to life. I respect his family’s strong bonds and the way that they took care of each other, even though by today’s standards they didn’t have much. And I am delighted by glimpses of my grandfather – and great-grandparents and a connection to a place that I have never visited.