Kukui‘ula, Kaua‘i

The Paper: “Study of a Fishing Community on the Island of Kauai,” 1939
The Writer: R.Y.
Location in RASRL:   Box A-6

Kukui'ula 1939 map
The Map

While less skillful than many RASRL maps, this map of Kukui‘ula offers a unique view of a fishing community on Kaua‘i and its relationship to an unnamed plantation, likely the McBryde Sugar Company. Outlined in red, the fishing village encompasses the fishermen’s homes, the inlet where the sampans are moored, the carpenter’s house, and boat and fish houses. Although within this triangle, the park and playground – like everything in this area – is plantation property. The fishermen and their families live apart from plantation employees but, as R. Y. describes in his paper, are intricately bound to the plantation.

The Paper

R.Y. locates the village about two miles “makai and west of Koloa, a town community, and about five-hundred yards from the famous Spouting Horn . . . a scenic wonder of Hawaii.”  According to the writer, this fishing village, one of the few on Kaua‘i, is on plantation land and has about 400 inhabitants of Japanese, Puerto Rican, Filipino, and Portuguese ancestry.

R.Y.’s focus, however, is on the twelve Japanese fishermen and their families who “more or less work independently.” Three of the fishermen’s wives have fish trucks from which they sell their husbands’ catches. The other fishermen sell their fish to middlemen from outside the community. Most of the first-generation fishermen have had some connection with fishing in Japan either as fishermen or from living in communities engaged in the fishing industry.

… these men did not migrate to Hawaii with the express purpose of making fishing their life occupation, but because of the lack of better occupations and the abhorrence of plantation work chose this mode of earning a living.

As for members of the second generation becoming fishermen: “Their parents do not encourage them to follow in the fishing trade, because they consider it strenuous work and not conducive to climbing the social ladder.”

Because the inlet is shallow, these fishermen’s sampans are small, no larger than thirty-six feet long, and are operated by individuals.   However, this community practices ko or tanomoshi, which the writer describes as a “cooperative credit union, or a form of exchange banking” and employs “cooperative measures,” called kumiai, that are typical of fishing communities in Japan. These measures include coming together to repair and repaint boats, searching for fishermen who have not returned home from the sea, and celebrating significant events.

Because these people have grasped the full significance of the importance of cooperation, an association of fishermen has been formed with the usual fanfare of club organizations such as the choosing of officers, paying dues, etc.

Although cooperative, individuals, nonetheless, compete to catch and sell fish.

There is also the conflict with the middlemen regarding the price to be paid by the middlemen for the fish to be sold.  In the summer of 1938 a “strike” was called among the fishermen [who did not retail their own catch] against the sellers regarding the reduction of the price per pound asked by the middlemen.  The fishermen refused the services  of the middlemen and disposed of the fish themselves.  Frequent meetings were held and a mediator, in this instance the manager of the plantation store located in the village, was chosen to settle this economic disruption.

Like many RASRL writers, R.Y. comments on the weak kinship ties of the immigrant families:

Many second generation youths when asked to trace their genealogy as far back as possible are “stumped” – few of them could trace their ancestry to the third generation [great grandparents]. The same can be said of horizontal kinship. Many do not know of their living kins [sic], especially those who reside in Japan.

The writer says some Japanese cultural practices are falling away, such as eldest sons and siblings not living with their parents after marriage. Some practices remain strong: when there is no son to carry on the family name, the eldest daughter’s husband takes on her family’s surname (yoshi). And many traditions and customs persist: New Year’s day celebrations and girls’ festival and boys’ day. Fathers are considered the head of and spokesman for the family, representing it at meetings, weddings, funerals. However, R.Y. says that mothers are becoming more influential

… the central figure around which the family gathers.  She settles disagreements and grudges among her children.  Whenever the brothers quarrel, the mother tries her utmost to bring them together; she is most active in ironing out entanglements and keeping the family unified.

Wives manage the household but are also partners to their fishermen husbands, seeing to it that the men are prepared to go out to sea and helping them repair the fishing equipment.   Wives are the ones called upon to visit the sick and to “attend  religious meetings (Buddhist sekkyos) in the community.”

Like fishermen in Japan, these families celebrate ebesu matsuri, a feast that honors the sea god. These families are Buddhist, but because Kukui‘ula has no temple, they travel to Kōloa for religious services.

In the writer’s estimation, Kukui‘ula is a dying community with few marriages.  Some of the first generation have returned to Japan, and the plantation is using abandoned homes as dwellings for the increasing numbers of plantation workers. As one fisherman tells the writer, the few villagers who remain will make a lot of money. “The fish prices are going to rise to a high.”

(Note:  the Japanese terms used here are ones R.Y. used.  They may or may not be accurate.)

The Writer

R.Y. shares nothing about himself in his paper. What we know about his student years is from campus publications. In the 1940 issue of Ka Palapala, his graduating year, he lists his hometown as Kōloa, a neighboring town of Kukui‘ula, and his major as Social Science. During his junior and senior years at UH he played intramural sports and was a member of the campus YMCA club and the Theatre Guild. He apparently was a strong student.  Ka Leo O Hawaii, the campus newspaper, reported that he made the honor roll in Spring 1939 (Sept 25, 1940, vol. 19, no. 2, p. 3). His obituary states that he was born in Hanapēpē, Kaua‘i and was an interpreter in Okinawa, served in the military, and had a career as a social worker.

RASRL Context

This is not the only paper by R.Y. in the RASRL collection, something to be expected from a social science major. R.Y., as part of a student committee (what we might call a group project), researched and wrote “Slums of Honolulu” with six others. Committee papers focused on large, complex topics. The group of students would provide historical background on the topic, gather statistics, produce a scatter plot map to show population density or locations of incidents reported.  They would interview experts and include case studies. Because several students worked together, committee papers could explore more complex problems and larger geographical areas. R.Y.’s Kukui‘ula paper allowed him not only to focus on a small neighbor island community but to provide a more textured and intimate view.

In the Kukui‘ula paper, R.Y. cites as one of his sources about tanomoshi an article published by UH student Ruth N. Masuda in the 1937 issue of Social Process in Hawaii. RASRL writers were encouraged to use the Sociology Department’s journal as a source, and occasionally students mentioned reading other student papers from the Lab’s collection. Masuda must have been an acquaintance since in his footnote he cites her as “Nobu Masuda.”

R.Y.’s isn’t the only RASRL paper to focus on fishing as an occupation but it is unique in its detailed description of a tight-knit village of families on a neighbor island. Other RASRL papers about fishing exclusively focus on Japanese fishermen in Honolulu, some of whom were family men. However, many were bachelors. Some worked only hard enough to afford time off for fast living. Others wanted to marry but had no opportunity to meet “nice girls,” and even when they did, the women’s families didn’t approve of the relationship due to, as R.Y. states, the low status of fishing as an occupation. Kukui‘ula families, although feeling the influence of American culture, live in a rural area on Kaua‘i, among their own ethnic group. The fishing area of Kukui‘ula seems as if it could have been a fishing village transplanted from Japan.

Social Historical Context

Working as a fisherman was in stark contrast to the regimented and literally soil bound occupations immigrants had on the plantation. Yet Kukui‘ula was part of the plantation and the fishermen depended on it:

The people live on plantation land and in plantation built and owned houses. None of the fishermen own any piece of land. For these things, they pay [unlike plantation workers] the yearly sum of thirty-five dollars. The right to the plantation owned wharf can be acquired by paying a fee of ten dollars yearly. The fishermen obtain their supplies and necessities from the local plantation store. They are extended credit and are treated in the same manner as the plantation employees. The children of these people play on [sic] plantation built parks; and during the summer, they are employed by the sugar corporation to work in the fields.  . . . the people here have a deference for the plantation and the lunas who represent the control of the plantation.

R.Y.’s history of a place begins with what he presumably knows firsthand and has learned from families of Kukui‘ula. This paper’s focus is narrow and ethnic-specific. However, what the paper gives us shouldn’t keep us from speculating about what it doesn’t. If Kukui‘ula was a thriving fishing village for the Japanese in the 1930s, it’s likely that it had been a favored fishing area for Hawaiians. In an “Oral History Interview with Tadao ‘Barber’ Kawamoto” (Tape No. 15-22-1/87, March 4, 1987, Warren Nishimoto) who was born in 1911 and grew up in Kukui‘ula, Kawamoto mentions that the land around Kukui‘ula was owned by Hawaiians at one time (p. 54).

In his “Occupational Trends among Immigrant Groups in Hawaii” (Social Forces, vol. 7, no. 2, Dec. 1928), Andrew W. Lind reported that the total number of Hawaiian fishermen had dropped from 668 in 1890 to 295 in 1920; most of these Hawaiian fishermen were located in rural sections of the Territory.  What made the fishing industry significant, according to Lind, was that it provided an occupation outside of plantation labor.  Prior to 1910, the Chinese were the most important non-Hawaiian group of fishermen, many of who leased Hawaiian fishing ponds from Haole owners.  But prior to World War I, a group of Japanese fishermen from Wakayama prefecture were induced to come to Hawai‘i to build the languishing fishing industry (p. 298).

Lind_Occupational Trends 1928In his article, Donald M. Schug explains that many Japanese turned to fishing once their plantation labor contracts were up. Schug cites two reasons for Japanese displacing Hawaiians in the fishing industry: the Japanese fished day and night, Hawaiians fished sporadically; and the Japanese introduced advanced fishing techniques, such as the use of gas or diesel powered sampans that gave them access to previously unexploited areas. “By 1930, the Chief Warden of the Territorial Fish and Game Division recorded that ‘practically all the fishing [in Hawai‘i] is done and controlled by Japanese’” (“Hawai’i’s Commercial Fishing Industry: 1820-1945,” The Hawaiian Journal of History, vol. 35, 2001 p. 18).

The fishing industry was immediately affected by the attack on Pearl Harbor. Japanese fishermen were arrested. The fear was that their sampans might be enemy craft or that their boats, which were predominantly manned by Japanese aliens, might rendezvous with ships from Japan. Action was swift in Honolulu, but news of the attack was delayed several days due to lack of information channels on neighbor islands. “Suspense and fear were probably even greater on neighbor islands than Oahu. There was confusion, no one knew what to do; orders were contradictory; and invasion seemed certain” (Gwenfread Allen, Hawaii’s War Years, 1950).

In September, 1992, Hurricane Iniki devastated the south central coast of Kaua’i, where Kukui‘ula is located.  According to a report, “Maximum overwash was located under the right frontal quadrant of the storm in the Kukuiula Bay to Keoniloa Bay region of southeast Kauai. . .” (“Hurricane Iniki’s Impact on Kauai,” National Foundation Grant report prepared by Arthur N.L. Chiu et al., December 1995, p. 6).

About 80 percent of Kauai’s 17,613 homes were damaged or destroyed, mostly from high winds. “Sixty-three homes on the south coast of Kauai were destroyed or heavily damaged by wave impact and collision with floating debris (e.g. lava rocks, other structures) that was generated by storm surge” (NF Grant report, p. 94).


Today, Kukui‘ula is a resort destination.