Stories

Every Grain of Rice: Portraits of Maui’s Japanese Community

A kidnapped bride. A Japanese American cowboy. A swim coach who trained champions in an irrigation ditch. A carpenter who made Lindbergh’s coffin—at the legendary aviator’s request.

These are just a handful of the many ordinary—yet also extraordinary—people whose stories and images make up a remarkable book by Rita Goldman, chronicling life in Maui’s vibrant Japanese community from the mid-1800s to the years following World War II.

Here, in the book’s introduction, the author describes her moving experience in researching her subjects and the special meaning of the book’s title.


* * *

On a summer day in 1998, I sat in the living room of Fusayo Koike, a slight grey-haired woman of nearly ninety. The house was typical of many in this Wailuku neighborhood: a hollow-tile structure of modest size and simple furnishings. Typical—except for an elaborate collection of radio equipment, and cabinets filled with vinyl records and old audiotapes in Japanese.

This paraphernalia occupied half the living room, a legacy from the forty-seven years that Mrs. Koike had hosted the Japanese language radio program that transformed her into an accidental ambassador, a voice for Maui’s Japanese community.

I had come to ask Mrs. Koike’s advice for a book about that community. In the course of many hours, as we pored over old family photos, this unassuming slip of a woman recounted her own stories: of immigrant parents who had labored long and hard on Maui’s plantations, of wartime hardships when her husband, the principal of a Japanese language school, was interned on the mainland for the crime of wearing an Asian face.

In the months to come, I would hear many stories. And I would be struck by the dignity, humility and resilience of a people who endured adversity to make life better for the next generation, and the next. Ordinary people who had, in the course of their lives, done extraordinary things.

Officially, this book began as a project to benefit the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center in Wailuku, itself a tribute to the American soldiers of Japanese ancestry who fought with such legendary courage in World War II. But this is not a war story, so much as a reminder of what those brave men fought for, more than half a century ago: family, tradition, freedom, respect, acceptance.

And here a caveat: that the author is neither a historian, nor Japanese—shortcomings for which I beg the reader’s indulgence. My sources were the personal memories of those I interviewed, and the stories their families had handed down; also newspaper articles, many of them written at a time when objective journalism didnít always apply to nonwhites. And so this book makes no pretense of being comprehensive or academic, but is rather a series of “portraits,” in photograph and essay, of Maui’s people of Japanese ancestry. They are a remarkable lot, these plantation workers and champion athletes, these cowboys and shopkeepers, farmers and ministers, artists and lawmakers. They are your neighbors, your co-workers, perhaps your relatives; and their lives are, beyond a doubt, worth remembering.

The vignettes that appear in these pages are far more abridged than they deserve to be, and chances are the reader will think of individuals who should have been included, but were not. For that, too, my apologies—and one suggestion: Add your own family history to this book, so that the next generation, and the next, will know the people they came from. Name names. Say whatever you think is important to remember.

When I asked Mrs. Koike, and others I interviewed, what wisdom their parents had taught them, I often heard, “Don’t waste a single grain of rice.” You see, they’d explain, it takes so much effort to grow it, that although all the grains of rice seem ordinary, one no different than the next, each one is precious.

The more they shared their life stories, the more apt a metaphor each grain of rice became.

—Rita Goldman, Introduction to Every Grain of Rice: Portraits of Maui’s Japanese Community (Copyright 2003 by Rita Goldman and the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center.)

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