INTO THE NEXT STAGE: Remembering Kapoho, Hawaii’s Pompeii

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By GUY AOKI
(First published in The Rafu Shimpo on Dec. 1, 2011.)

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In March of 1990, I sat in a Disney office with JACL National Director John Tateishi reading the shooting script for the studio’s upcoming film “Pearl Harbor.” During the infamous bombing, one of the Japanese pilots flies over a baseball field, sees children playing, and waves them away, not wanting them to be hurt. I was encouraged, as the enemy wasn’t being depicted as bloodthirsty devils but human beings, and I pictured Asian Pacific kids below.

So when I saw the trailer for film the following spring, I was disappointed that all of the children were white. It wasn’t the first time I’d overestimated the intelligence of Hollywood, which cares less about reflecting reality than reflecting itself—very white.

“Kapoho: Memoir of a Modern Pompeii,” $16.95, from Watermark Publishing.

As I pointed out at a press conference criticizing the movie’s many flaws, when the U.S. military retaliated and missed, their bullets killed civilians in the area and 40 percent of them were Japanese Americans. How ironic would it have been to show that—Japanese Americans dying from their own countrymen defending themselves against the Japanese enemy. Once again, we were caught in the middle of the U.S. vs Japan struggle.

As always, it’s left to the Japanese American community to tell its own stories. And as we get close to the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, I can’t recommend enough a collection of short stories by a Japanese Hawaiian who was just five years old at the time, but whose memory and recall of details is amazing and provides deep insight into not only the suspicions cast upon the community, but of the small village she grew up in that was covered in a 1960 eruption. It’s “Kapoho: Memoir of a Modern Pompeii” by Frances Kakugawa.

Full disclosure: She’s my aunt, my mother and uncle are thanked in the foreword for helping to fill in missing memories, I wrote a blurb for the jacket and encouraged George Takei to do the same. And she tells me that some of my personal columns gave her the courage to tackle this with equal honesty.

Since this is the author’s 10th book (four between 1970 and 1976 and six since 2002) though, I’m not just promoting a vanity book. It’s published by Honolulu’s Watermark, which also released her previous works dealing with caregiving and Alzheimer’s (I reviewed “Breaking the Silence” earlier this year).

Young as she was, Kakugawa did her part for the war effort, as she recalls in “The Enemy Wore My Face.”

Too young to entertain soldiers, I discovered a secret way to help our soldiers. My sister pointed them out to me one day, “When you see these green bugs that look like a fan, kill them. We can win the war if we kill these Japanese bugs. Each time you kill one, the Japanese army gets weaker.” 

I searched for those bugs and crushed them under my bare feet. “There,” I said. “Die so we can win the war.” 

She also recounts the gas mask drills at school in preparation for another air attack by Japan.

I went to bed every night during the war years with a special prayer on my lips. One might have expected that I prayed for our soldiers. But it wasn’t for the soldiers. “Please God,” I prayed, “Keep me alive, don’t make me die. Let me live until the seventh grade.” 

Frances Kakugawa

Kakugawa immortalizes many of the people she knew in this town (35 minutes south of Hilo) of less than a thousand. In this instance, she makes you think about how American at heart someone can be despite outward appearances.

Mr. Naka, an elderly Japanese neighbor who spoke no English, would stop and salute every soldier he met in the village. One day I saw him by his gate in his white boxer shorts, saluting soldiers. My friends and I followed him around, making fake salutes and laughing behind his back. He would be the first to lose a son in the war. 

While the military police were rude—entering homes without warning and throwing rocks at the homes of Japanese Americans if their lights weren’t turned off at night—Kakugawa’s father became friends with four soldiers who would come around during on off-hours and play cards in their living room. One of them, an Italian American, lived for her mother’s spaghetti and taught her how to make “real” pasta.” Three of them didn’t come back from the war.

In 1942, the plantation hospital recommended that every child should have their tonsils out by Dr. McKenzie, whom many thought of as “a horse doctor.” 

Mrs. Honda, one of the mothers in the village, placed even greater faith in doctors, or anyone with a title before their name. She scheduled her daughter, Hiroko, to be the first to have her tonsils out that summer… There would be no other tonsillectomy that year. Hiroko died on the operating table. The “Horse Doctor” had overdosed her with ether. 

[At the funeral] Mrs. Honda reached out and touched my face. 

“Hiroko, Hiroko, honto ni kawaii,” truly precious, so beautiful… A few months later, I passed Mrs. Honda on the way to the store. She stared at me, and then began to weep and said, “If Hiroko were alive, she would look like you.” I stared back at her without saying a word… 

It’s in stories like this that “Kapoho” makes you stop and contemplate the humanity of good people in tragic circumstances. Many of the anecdotes will haunt you while others will make you burst out laughing, as they capture the hilarious nature of Hawaiian pidgin English and the innocence and naivete of children

Not long after we were seated, Sammy began to goad me, “Go ask da teacha why her eye all smash.” I looked over at our teacher and examined her closely. Miss Yamane’s right side looked like someone had pressed her eye toward the center of her face… 

I walked up to the teacher and asked, “How come your eye all smash?” A hush fell over the classroom. I felt courageous for the first time. 

The teacher answered, “When I was small, I pulled the cord of the iron when my mother was ironing and the iron fell on the side of my face. So when your mother is ironing, stay away from the ironing board…” 

I turned around, put both my hands on my hips, looked at the class and proudly announced, “Her face all smash because da iron wen smash her eye.” 

The collection also reminds us of how callous comments (e.g., an irresponsible Catholic preacher who said she’d burn in hell for not going to catechism) affect the world view of children and chronicles the dreams of a girl who, from the first grade, wanted to break away from the local pidgin English dialect in order to fulfill her dream of becoming a writer. At the same time, she had to put up with classmates who resentfully accused her of acting too big for her britches (“Eh! You tink you Haole?”).

In elementary school, instructors tried to help the class learn how to speak proper English. Our homes had no telephones, so in school, the teachers used role-playing to teach us telephone etiquette. 

“Hello.” 

“Hello. May I speak to John, please?” 

“One moment, please.” 

Instead of: 

“Eh, I like talk to John.” 

“Wait, eh, I go call ‘em.” 

Even upon graduating from high school, however, Kakugawa was still not writing at a “mainland” standard. At the University of Hawaii, she failed her oral exam for the Speech Board, which prevented her from taking more speech courses, a prerequisite to getting into the College of Education so she could become a teacher.

My Pidgin dialect gave me away. I stood there dumbfounded. After all my years of practice, I still couldn’t speak like a haole. I should have taken up accounting. 

So she hired a tutor from the South and tried again. 

One of [the board members]… burst into laughter after my short speech. “My God,” he said, “How did she end up with a Southern accent?” 

“Oh, sh*t,” I frantically thought. “Now I have two dialects!” 

The board conferred and let it go; I was headed for Speech 105. Whew! I left before they could change their minds. I walked toward the door, turned around and said, “Bye, y’all,” and smiled back at them. 

As in her past books dealing with Alzheimer’s, Kakugawa remembers her late mother in the chapter “Taxi Money.”

She was my mother for ninety years. She was my mother and never told me, “I love you,” or that she was proud: she never hugged me or held my hand. Instead, up to the time she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, she gave me taxi money instead… 

During the last year of her disease, she didn’t recognize me. I hugged her. I massaged her legs and arms. I kissed her forehead. Her speech was gone. My name was gone. Why did I wait so long? Perhaps I waited until her mind was no longer there, so I could finally hug and show her physical affection without disrespecting and defying that dance we had danced throughout her life. Or was it my dance alone? 

The book ends with the 1960 eruption (“Once There Was a Kapoho”). In the village, Pele, the goddess of fire, was believed to take human form from time to time. How people treated her often determined their fate.

My father’s relationship with Pele was personal. He often went fishing at nights and returned in the early hours of the morning. When he returned within an hour, we knew there was a story that he would tell us later. 

“I was about to throw my net when something told me to turn around. I saw this old woman with long white hair, standing behind me on the rocks. She had no feet. I know it was Pele warning me that the waves were too rough and dangerous, so I picked up my nets and said, ‘Thank you, Pele,’ and came home.” 

When the eruption came, his house was saved. Not that her father assumed it would be. Away at college, Kakugawa grew upset at the news coverage as viewers regarded the event as an amazing, even thrilling spectacle. In anger, she stood up in class and expressed how the catastrophe was affecting her family.

My family has evacuated to my aunt’s house. I was there last weekend when my father’s name shrieked from the radio to identify the next house that was destroyed. My father’s response made me feel afraid for him as I watched his disbelief. I was afraid that his mind could crack… 

My father looked at us and said, “That can’t be me. That must be another Sadame Kakugawa.” It was spooky to hear him say that. 

When my mother told him, “It is your house. There is no other Sadame Kakugawa,” my father just sat there. I could see him looking for some way out. The hardest thing I had to watch that sad day was his resignation. He said, “If Pele wants my house, she can have it.” 

And that’s just one story, mine. There’s a village full of stories like this, and the saddest part is, there isn’t even a village anymore. You want spectacle? There’s a spectacle for you. 

I sat abruptly down. At least one person had heard me that day, because for the rest of the year, my lunches were paid for at the snack bar. All I knew about my benefactor was that he was a veteran. 

Kakugawa’s book tour kicks off in Honolulu, appropriately, on Dec. 7. “Kapoho: Memoir of a Modern Pompeii” is available at bookstores, online and direct from the publisher at www.bookshawaii.net. Contact Watermark Publishing at (866) 900-BOOK. To reach the author for lectures and workshops—or to just say hi —contact her at [email protected] For more info on her life and work, go to her website, www.francesk.org.

Till next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

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Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo

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4 Comments

  1. Thank you for capturing the essence of these stories, Guy. I received emails from readers who
    found this review posted here. One stranger mentioned how it gave him hope for his own dreams. And this is what this is all about, isn’t it, to make a difference in people’s lives through our own writings, yours and mine, in this instance. Thank you.

  2. Terrific, and truly heartfelt review. Reading her stories makes me ashamed to be haole. Ms. Kakugawa always finds a way to impute a quite yet imperative lesson in her stories.

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