Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Editor’s note: With the inauguration of Gov. David Ige earlier this week, we thought it a fitting time to share this thoughtful essay on Island values by James Koshiba. Special thanks to longtime Herald subscriber Jimmy Toyama for bringing it to our attention.
In 1887, my great-grandfather, Bunkichi Hotta, arrived in Kahului, Maui, to work on the sugar plantations. He had left his parents and siblings in Hiroshima, Japan, and come by boat, alone. He was 15 years old. He found life on the plantation brutal, and after only a few days, he ran away. Somehow, he made his way from Kahului to Häna, a 52-mile trek along the coastal edge of Haleakalä — a journey he must’ve made mostly by foot.
He lived in Häna for 10 years, hänai to a Hawaiian-Portuguese family whose name, sadly, I have never uncovered. They taught him to speak Portuguese and Hawaiian, dance hula and prepare Hawaiian food. He became part of their ‘ohana. If not for their kindness, it’s hard to imagine how he would have survived. Bunkichi returned to Kahului at the age of 25, met my great-grandmother . . . and the rest is family history.
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This story — told to me by my grandmother — was a wonderful gift, for it gave me a new sense of Hawai‘i and my place in it. Up to that point, I’d given little thought to the concept of aloha. Growing up in Hawai‘i, I knew the term, of course, but I understood it only as the Hawaiian word for “love,” a casual greeting and a staple of visitor advertising. Through this story, aloha took on new meaning: a caring so powerful it could transcend divisions of race and culture — bridging them with a commitment as deep as parenthood.
Thereafter, the concept of aloha also began to play a more prominent role in my life. I revisited the story of my great-grandfather whenever confronted with conflict, a challenging moment as a parent or when I needed to work hard to bridge cross-cultural misunderstandings. In short, I began to practice aloha differently — never perfectly, never all the time — but I practiced.
The story also gave me a new appreciation for Hawai‘i. After all, where else in the world of the 1880s would a homeless, foreign, teenage boy be taken in for 10 years by a family, despite differences in language and culture? The same decade that young Bunkichi was being raised by strangers in Hawai‘i, the term “anti-Semitism” was first coined in Germany, the Chinese Exclusion Act passed the U.S. Congress, and “Coolie” and “Kaffir” districts were established in South Africa. Where else but in Hawai‘i was my great-grandfather’s story — and hence, my story — even possible?
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The Hawai‘i my great-grandfather knew no longer exists. Today, like many communities, we are awash in ideas and ideals broadcast from elsewhere. Ambition, fame, individualism and conspicuous consumption play leading roles in popular storylines and these values find expression in the Islands, as elsewhere. It can seem, at times, like there is one monolithic, global culture without room for distinctive ways of life hatched in more intimate, communal settings like our Islands.
And yet, the island values my great-grandfather knew still course through the veins of modern Hawai‘i. Families in Hawai‘i continue the practice of hänai to this day, officially recognized by unique state laws governing adoption and custody. Our language, customs and even our restaurant menus reflect a wonderful blending of cultures. We continue to have the highest rate of intermarriage among people of different races of any community in the world.
And, the experience of living on islands provides fodder for distinctive values to flourish. We can stare across a vast ocean, at once humbled by our vulnerability and inspired by the resilience of islanders. We can commune with nature, experiencing its power and fragility through surfing, hiking, hunting or fishing. We can bear witness to violent clashes and peaceful blending of cultures, often within our own families. Island living provides ample opportunity to practice values like sustainability, humility, self-reliance and aloha.
On the one hand, it sometimes feels as though the values of old are slipping away. On the other, we are all here, in Hawai‘i, for a reason — drawn by the promise of a unique way of life.
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I love Hawai‘i’s culture of aloha, and I want to do my part to ensure that it has a perpetual home in these islands. My own experience suggests, though, that holding something sacred is not enough to ensure its survival. Values become wooden and lifeless without continual renewal. Just as aloha was merely a word to me before my great-grandfather’s story brought it new life, so, too, other values are sapped of their power to inspire and instruct if not rooted in meaningful narrative and continual application.
Defending and nurturing aloha — or any other aspect of island culture — demands that I invest time and energy into story and practice. I must find and share stories — from my experience or the experience of others — stories that serve as touchstones we can return to again and again, to deepen understanding and draw fresh motivation. And, I must practice them, for values have value only when their application enriches daily life. From that practice will come new stories and a virtuous cycle of cultural renewal.
We are often led to believe that in order to preserve our values we must codify them in law, defend them against different points of view and indoctrinate others. In the story of my great-grandfather, I found a different message: Preserving cherished values requires neither doctrine nor dogma. It simply demands that each of us be willing to share stories of our values in action, demonstrate their continued usefulness and continually practice those values in daily life.
James Koshiba is a writer, community organizer and consultant who works mainly with start-up nonprofit and community organizations. He co-founded and was executive director of Kanu Hawaii, a not-for-profit organization that promotes sustainability through personal commitments rooted in island values. He is also one of the founding members of Mindful Hawaii, a group dedicated to exploring mindfulness as a tool for healthy individuals and communities.