Even to this day I am deeply stirred whenever I reminisce about my formative years in Kona, for despite all its natural beauties, my birthplace, which holds an attraction for tourists, had its harsh and brutal side for the toiling farmers who worked from sunup to sundown, day after day, many of them going deeper and deeper in debt year after year to the coffee factors.
There seemed to be more bad years than good, for once a farmer was set back because of storm or drought that ruined his crop, or because of low coffee prices, the coffee company mercilessly sold groceries and fertilizer on credit at frightening prices and bought the coffee cheap at prices they set. I saw neighbors leave Kona, crushed by the burden of debts. I heard complaints from farmers who had almost no way of redressing their grievances.
Their land was owned by landlords, who in some cases, like the Hinds, also had a coffee mill and store. Because they leased the land which the landlords would not sell and because most farmers fell into debt at one time or another, they were afraid to organize and take their complaints to the coffee companies. The Hinds, for instance, did not then nor do they, even today, permit farmers to pulp their coffee berries at home. This processing would mean extra income for tenant farmers, but the Hinds have the Captain Cook Coffee Company, which does the pulping.
As a child, I listened closely to all that was said, for a high coffee price meant better food and firecrackers at New Year, new clothes instead of window-patched one. I began to work early in life and I imagine that mother taught me, as other children were trained, to pick up the overripe coffee that had fallen on the ground, when I was two years old.
We watched the horizon in the spring for signs of a storm or ocean fog, for it was then that the honey bees sucked and pollinated the fragrant, snow-white coffee blossoms. Storm and fog killed the flowers and if such a calamity came, we worked the whole year round with heavy hearts.
Where the Money Came From For Schoolbooks and Church Offerings
It meant then that we had to "bootleg" the coffee we produced on the mortgaged farm, under cover of darkness. As soon as I became strong enough to carry 50 pounds of coffee, I participated in these midnight activities when mother shook us up. Barefooted, so as not to make alarming noises, we carried bags of coffee away from our farm to a party who bought them or sold them for us. Thus, we got money for schoolbooks, for occasional meat and for offerings at the church to the priest and to Buddha.
But there were years when we had bumper crops and knew, too, that our lives would be no better after all the hard work in the sun and the rain. I remember when father told us about the extensive territory that was Brazil, where more coffee was produced than the people of the world could buy, and year after year the farmers there were forced to deliberately burn their crop.
We naturally asked many questions. Why can't the people buy coffee? Why do they keep producing so much if the crop must be destroyed? Why can't the Brazilians think of us? What was depression? Why must it come back periodically? Can't someone do anything to bring happiness to people?
The questions, of course, were not put in those terms, but put forth they were with such content for father to answer.
Mother Was My Best Teacher
It was in this environment that I began to grow in mind and body some 37 years ago and my early development there charted the road I would tread in society.
Now that I am indicted by the Justice Department for allegedly teaching and advocating the overthrow of the government by force and violence, I naturally look inward and backward over the span of years to Kona. I do not do this with any doubt or misgivings in my mind that I should have taken other courses. I am proud of what I am. The charges against me and others under the vicious Smith Act, the modern version of the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts which long ago brought widespread fear, then revulsion to the people, are tissues of lies to whip up fear and bring conformity to the war program in this day and age. I now review my life in Kona principally to look at conditions, events and people that molded my early thinking.
Kona was a great school and mother was my best teacher. When I was about five, father became ill with a weak heart. For mother, a woman of small frame weighing about 85 pounds, the task and responsibility of looking after our eight-acre coffee farm was exceedingly heavy. Her hands were calloused and cracked and deeply stained by the green grass which we tried to keep down by hoeing and poisoning.
Every night about 10 or 11, like a ritual, I went to her as she sprawled out on the thin quilt spread on the floor after the hot bath. I massaged her tired and exhausted body from half an hour to an hour and a half, while asking her questions born of deep curiosity and a passionate desire to learn from her, and left her when I heard her sinking into slumber, breathing like a relaxed child, tired out after a hard day.
What Contract Servitude Was Like
Mother told me about her sugar plantation life. Father was indentured to serve three years for a sum slightly over $10 a month and mother worked for $7.50. Men, young and strong, could not take the daily ordeal and many drank soy sauce to work up a fever in order to stay home. Unfortunately, there were informers, she said, and the lunas (straw bosses and overseers), once put wise to this machination, dragged out the exhausted and sick workers and chased them into the fields, cracking their whips from atop their horses. Chinese who stayed home were dragged by their long queues as the lunas galloped their horses while hauling the men to work.
In the early morning as the laborers went into the fields, the lunas cracked their whips over the heads of the indentured serfs, which mother used to describe as "just like Arthur Greenwell and his cowboys cracking their whips while driving their cattle."
The Greenwells are big ranchers and landlords from whom numerous Kona farmers lease their land. Besides the Gaspers, who were Portuguese, Arthur Greenwell and his family members were the first white people I ever saw. In driving their cattle down to the beach from the mountain pastures, the cows crowded the narrow highway and dashed into coffee farms if the stone fence was down or the gates were open. If this happened, Arthur Greenwell told us in his booming voice exactly what he thought of us. So, whenever we were working on our farm and we heard the cracking of the whips and the yelling of cowboys, we rushed to the highway to fasten our gates.
Father Brought Me My Proudest Moments
If father was there he would stand and stare back in disdain and answer in Japanese what the Greenwells said in English.
Several times I heard father say something like this: "They came with the Bible some of these landlords, taught the Hawaiians to sing psalms and took their land away. That is no way to use religion. Their God knows."
I idolized my father because he was a fighter. After he became ill, he devoted all his time to helping people iron out their problems, domestic and otherwise. He was a man of considerable influence and prestige in Kona, as oldtimers know.
Perhaps the proudest moments of my life came when I saw father stand on the rostrum in our Japanese school and in his down-to-earth Japanese, urge all students not to be afraid or discouraged but to keep attending school. This was shortly after World War I, when, as now, attacks against civil rights and privileges of non-whites, Germans and political minorities knew almost no bounds.
Makino Leads Fight for Freedom of Education
The Japanese language school was being outlawed. The Hawaii Hochi, under the militant editorship of Fred Makino, fought the case to the U. S. Supreme Court and won.
You have nothing to fear, father told us students. Tell your parents to keep sending you to the Japanese school. Men like Makino, Shibayama and Morita are leading the fight and the Japanese residents will win the right to free education, he said.
Higher Wage Demand Was "Conspiracy"
One year, we had a new principal at the Japanese school. Some of the older students whispered that he had only recently served time in prison. I asked mother if this were true.
It was then that she told me about strikes on the sugar plantations, for higher wages and better treatment. This principal of ours was a great man, she said. He did not go to jail with others because he did wrong. He went for others. He was a leader of the 1920 Japanese strike on sugar plantations. That was why the rich plantation owners used the government to put him behind bars. And she told me of Makino, a familiar name in our family, being jailed in an earlier strike (1909) because he had supported the Japanese strikers. Much later, I found out that Yasutaro Soga, editor of the Nippu Jiji, was among the many who were jailed.
We know of this 1909 strike case as a "higher wage conspiracy."
The employers charged that the organization of workers for higher wages was dangerous to the existence of capital and the government they controlled. The employes on the plantations in 1909 were getting about 65 cents a day.
"We are fortunate to have our new principal," mother said. "You must study hard."
Because we were poor, my brother and I stayed home to work during the coffee season. At that time, Kona's school system did not provide coffee vacation from September to November. To make up for time lost from school, we went to night school at the principal's home for our Japanese lessons and to Miss Kahaliano's home for our English lessons.
Kona Opened Vistas To Newer Horizons
Thus, I grew and moved toward broader and newer horizons. I came to social understanding not by way of books in those formative years, but by way of hard-knock experiences.
I am fortunate that I have a mother who forged me into a rebel who would strive to substitute good for bad and did not leave me to become an anti-social rebel who would commit crimes to eke out a living, or a spineless creature who would prostitute himself to vested interests or cringe before them.
Mother's influence on me was decidedly strong; I need only to tell a story to illustrate it.
Shortly after father's death, when I was about 10, my elder brother and I went to a game-cock fight. Mother was informed of our whereabouts and she sent for us. When I returned home, she was shaking like a leaf, crying as I had never seen her cry before. She must have thought that we had gone to the dogs so soon after father's death.
Mother asked us to kneel before father's tablet, before the shrine in our home. She asked us to promise that we would never gamble as long as we lived.
It is nearly thirty years since the incident and in all those years, this pastime has held no attraction for me at all.