Preserving Kona's Stories

Maile's Meanderings

Boy's Day in Kona, 1917

From the Collections of Kona Historical Society.

From the Collections of Kona Historical Society.

It is Boy’s Day in Kona in 1917, the 5th day of the 5th month of the year. Sokutaro Ashihara stands holding his first born son, four month old Tsukao, in front of his home on Napoopoo Road, dwarfed by a school of enormous carp flags and painted Japanese banners. (The carp look at least 15 or 20 feet long in this photo!) This stunning display of brightly painted koi announced the important fact the Ashihara family had a boy in its midst! Topping off this festive tableau of fourteen carp, six painted banners and one baby boy was a pinwheel (perhaps gilded!), perched at the very top of a tall bamboo pole, another traditional part of what was in 1917 a very old and established Japanese custom. How I wish I could have been there to see those vivid flags – red, blue and black - dancing in the wind, mimicking Japan’s most spirited fish, the carp, famous for its tenacity in battling up streams and rivers.

With the assistance of Google and Wikipedia, I now know Boy’s Day has a colorful and tangled history. Originally called Feast of the First Day of the White Horse, it commemorated the arrival of horses in Japan from China in the 5th century. (I have convinced myself I see a white horse on some of those banners.) Another early celebration linked to this date is Feast of the Banners, a name that certainly comes alive in this photo, in which family crests would be on display, as well as traditional scenes of famed samurai. Somewhere along the line, May 5th became Boy’s Day. Inside the home, elaborate displays of samurai dolls and little suits of armor were often arranged near the family shrine. Outside, parents proudly hung koinobori or carp flags, gifts from family members and well wishers, which symbolized the strength, manliness and courage they hoped their sons would someday possess.

In modern Japan, the festival celebrated on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month is now called Tango no Sekku and honors boys and girls. It also marks the beginning of summer and Japan’s rainy season. This change came about in 1948 when the Japanese government declared May 5th a national holiday to celebrate the happiness of all children and to express gratitude towards mothers. However, growing up in Kona, which was predominantly Japanese in the 1950s, it was clear to everyone in Kealakekua that Boy’s Day was May 5th and Girl’s Day was March 3rd. And, Boy’s Day was much more festive and fun!

Sokutaro Ashihara came to Hawaii in 1907 at the age of 23 or 24, having served in the Japanese Army’s engineer corps during the Russo-Japanese War (1904 -1905). (Let it be remembered that Japan won this war against its much larger neighbor, Russia.) Bright, ambitious, and eager to learn, he left his first job at Kona Development Company’s sugar plantation in Holualoa and came to work for Captain Cook Coffee Company in South Kona. According to his son Tsukao, in two year’s time, his father had picked up all he needed to know from his supervisors and started running the coffee mill operation himself. He and his wife lived in company housing on Napoopoo Road, near to where a macadamia husking plant operates today. How do I know this? Because Warren Nishimoto of the Center for Oral History interviewed Tsukao Ashihara on August 16, 2000, as part of Kona Historical Society’s Kona Stores Project. (You can read the entire interview online at or just type Tsukao Ashihara.)

The story of Sokutaro Ashihara’s life in Kona should be made into a movie. A man with a lot of community spirit, he worked diligently with Kona Hongwanji Mission and was among those who organized and built Kona’s first and only Japanese Hospital (still standing in the coffee land above Dr. Yamanaka’s old dentist’s office.) After a fine career at Captain Cook Coffee Co., running the mill a little way makai of his home, Sokutaro went into business for himself. In 1926, he built and opened Central Kona Garage in Kealakekua. As a former blacksmith, he repaired automobiles, sold gasoline, and did a lot of metal work for the County of Hawaii. He was skilled in pounding pieces of metal together, an indispensable trade he had mastered in the era of horse drawn wagons.

According to Tsukao, his father was motivated by a desire “To make a farmer’s life more easy. That was his main purpose, to change from North to South Kona, all the method.” He accomplished this by improving and inventing labor saving devices used throughout Kona’s coffee belt. For example, he took a machine used by Capt. Cook Coffee Co. to move coffee parchment and transformed it into a fresh coffee cherry carrier. He invented the kuriage or coffee elevator: it picked up coffee cherry, carried it in a metal cup up a chain, and dumped it into the pulper to grind the red skin and slippery fruit off the bean. This saved a lot of man and donkey power. He changed wooden pulpers into metal pulpers. The Ashiharas went to Japan in 1933 in order that Sokutaro could work for Sumida Kabushiki Gaisha. He then went to Taiwan to build a coffee mill there. During this time, Sokutaro returned to Manchuria to revisit the battlefields and towns he remembered from his war experience. The family returned to Kona to resume their life, but after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Sokutaro was imprisoned in Santa Fe, New Mexico, as an enemy alien. When he was released, the family took up their life in Kona once more.

In 1948, Sokutaro and his family opened Ashihara Market at the bottom of Kona Hospital Road. On an acre and a quarter of land purchased from the Ackerman family, this unbeatable man went to work once more in his garage and repair shop attached to the back of the family store. Up front, Tsukao’s wife Kikue ran their general merchandise store, and Ashihara Market became known for its excellent fresh fish and extensive liquor supply. Tsukao went to work for J.M. Tanaka’s construction company as a welder during the day, but spent many a night driving to Suisan in Hilo to pick up fresh ahi and mahimahi to sell, arriving back in Kona by dawn. Meanwhile, in his garage, Sokutaro kept his inventive mind at work. In 1960, at the age of 74, he went to Japan and he brought back a new coffee pulper made entirely of aluminum. Tsukao said in 2000, “Today that pulper is the most popular pulper in Kona today. All metal, they call that ‘Japan Pulper,’ made by my father.”

Sokutaro died in 1965, having made a lasting contribution to Kona’s coffee farmers, his countrymen and fellow residents, and to his new home. His bright engineer’s mind stamped Kona’s coffee equipment with practical designs – efficient coffee pulpers, coffee hullers and coffee dryers. His son Tsukao passed away in 2001, less than a year after his oral history interview was recorded. He admitted on tape he had been slowed down by a few strokes, but he was still repairing parts of his father’s coffee equipment for Kona farmers. Fortunately, while he was still feeling fit, Tsukao volunteered his mechanical wisdom and coffee experience, inherited from his father, to the Kona Historical Society to help with the restoration of Uchida Coffee Farm. Surely it pleased him to see his father’s inventions on display for a new generation of coffee farmers and visitors. He also donated this marvelous photo of his father and himself to KHS, an image that recalls a time when Kona’s newest residents were Japanese, perhaps homesick for their distant nation and eager to maintain links to their own proud heritage.

Kona’s population numbers may help shed some light on how very Japanese Kona was in the 20th century. Thanks to the late Jean Greenwell for her helpful pamphlet called Important Dates in Kona’s Past printed by the Kona Historical Society.

1890 Population of Kona: 3,565. Hawaiians 80.9%, Part-Hawaiians 7.5%, American/European 4.2%, Portuguese 3.5%, Chinese 3.5%, Japanese 0.2%, Others 0.2%.

1900 Population of Kona: 6,191. Hawaiians 45.2%, Part-Hawaiians 7.5%, American/European and Portuguese 12.1%, Chinese 7.4%, Japanese 27.7%, Others 0.1%.

1930 Population of Kona: 9,405. Hawaiians 14.3%, Part-Hawaiians 10.4%, American/European 1.3%, Portuguese 3.8%, Chinese 1.5%, Japanese 51.5%, Filipino 11.9%, Others 4.6%.

1940 Population of Kona: 7,948. Hawaiians 12.5%, Part-Hawaiians 16.3 %, American/European and Portuguese 5.4%, Chinese 1.6%, Japanese 52.7%, Filipino 9.4%, Others 3.0%.

Thus, at the outbreak of World War II, the majority of people living in Kona were Japanese. After Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, many of Kona’s leading Japanese citizens – priests, teachers, storekeepers - were arrested and sent away to remote and desolate camps to spend the next four years thousands of miles away from their families and homes. The utter unfairness of arresting innocent people because of racial discrimination under the pretext of wartime hysteria and “homeland security” was and is appalling. Sokutaro, such a proud young father in our photograph, must have appeared especially dangerous to the military powers controlling the Territory of Hawaii after the United States of America declared War on Japan. After all, as a former soldier, a capable engineer and mechanic, a devout Buddhist, and a married man with a wife and two children, he was a nearly 60 year old saboteur in waiting.

Having Sokutaro’s experience running through my mind, I was interested to read in this morning’s issue of West Hawaii Today, (April 25, 2013) a column by George F. Will of the Washington Post. In it, he warned his readers to learn from America’s past mistakes, in particular, the locking up of innocent Japanese Americans during World War II, and thereby to avoid repeating racist, arbitrary, and unconstitutional acts in the present. He was writing in response to the outcry from some circles to treat the Boston Marathon bombing suspect as an “enemy combatant” and to have him detained by the military, a position with which Mr. Will completely disagrees. I also learned that although the U.S. Congress apologized in 1988 for unlawfully interning Japanese during the war, Peter Irons of the University of California at San Diego wants the Supreme Court to revisit the part their predecessors played in the 1944 “Korematsu decision.” In fact, he wants the court to issue a “repudiation” of its Japanese internment rulings! Wow! George Will wrote this in response: “It is less important that the decision be repudiated than that it be remembered.” For any historian, that word “remembered” is sweet music to hear, but as a human being, the word “justice” has powerful appeal.

I have no Japanese American blood flowing in my veins, but I like the idea of “repudiation.” Standing happily in front of your home, holding your son with carp flags floating overhead, is not a crime. Being one race instead of another, one color instead of another, is a horrible basis for determining guilt. If a legal motion now (better late than never!) could re-ignite the court’s awareness that it has the power to prevent what happened in Kona and across the American West from ever being repeated in the future, it would be well worth the effort to get it done. As we say in Hawaii, I mua! Go forward!

Aloha no, e Kona.

P.S. Note the lovely detail of the porch railing of the Ashihara home in the photo. That white painted gingerbread is very reminiscent of other well known porches in Kona; most notably, Hulihe`e Palace in Kailua and Mrs. Maud Greenwell’s residence in Kalukalu.