Larry Kimura – Best Of Both Worlds

Larry Kimura – Best Of Both Worlds

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M. Dolly Strazar, Ph.D.
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

In many ways, Larry Lindsey Kimura enjoyed the best of both worlds — Japanese and Hawaiian — as a child growing up in the ranching community of Waimea on Hawai‘i island. Kimura, an associate professor of Hawaiian language at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, was fortunate to have grown up in a genuinely bicultural surrounding.

His Japanese grandmother, whom he lovingly called “Baban,” adored her son Hisao’s first-born son. And his Hawaiian grandmother, whom he called “Tütü,” helped to ground him in his Hawaiian identity.

Kimura was born in 1946, the child of a “mixed marriage” between his Nisei father Hisao and his Hawaiian mother, Elizabeth Lindsey, who was raised in a home where Hawaiian was the predominant language. The marriage between the two was only the second in their small Waimea community.

The Kimura children with Baban. From left: Leila, Lester, Larry and Leo. (Photos courtesy Larry Kimura)

The Kimura children with Baban. From left: Leila, Lester, Larry and Leo. (Photos courtesy Larry Kimura)

Hisao’s father, Masajiro Kimura, had immigrated to Kohala from Hiroshima in 1899 to work as a sugar laborer. After completing his contract, he began working for the Hind family on their Puakō and Pu‘uwa‘awa‘a ranch lands. After a time, he sent for Hisamu Mitsuda, also from Hiroshima, to be his bride. Their marriage produced eight children.

For the first years, the immigrant couple worked at Pu‘uwa‘awa‘a. Masajiro worked as a wagon driver, hauling corn and hay, among other items, at Waiki‘i. Japanese was his first language, but he learned to speak Hawaiian and, of course, Pidgin, the common language of the laborers.

The couple later moved to Waimea and Parker Ranch, where the school for their growing family was more than just a one-room schoolhouse.

Larry never knew his Kimura grandfather, who died before he was born. His parents moved in with Baban, living in the ranch house that Parker Ranch had provided his grandparents.

Larry was definitely Baban’s joy — she carried him on her back and let him sleep with her as a child. He still remembers her cooking the family rice every day over an open fire made from the wood from the furo (bath house), and sleeping on the futon (comforter) she had made with wool from Humu‘ula. Their home was furnished with other items made with his grandparents’ hands — Baban’s zabuton (cushion) made with Japanese fabrics, and the big table grandfather Kimura had built himself with a puka (hole) cut into the middle of the table to make room for a coal-fed stove, which the family used to cook chicken hekka on the spot. When not in use, the stove was removed and the cut-out section of the table was replaced, creating a full table.

Elizabeth Kimura learned to cook Japanese food from her mother-in-law. Larry said they spoke a pidgin that was heavily laden with both Hawaiian and Japanese. He remembers his mother making sushi, mochi and all the other specialties that were necessary for a proper Japanese New Year’s. He says she learned what was proper for bringing good luck, such as always having an odd number of ingredients for whatever she cooked, as well as what would bring bad luck. Larry distinctly remembers that his mother always ate Waipi‘o poi with her meals.

Elizabeth Kimura had grown up in a home where Hawaiian was the predominant language. She met her husband when they were involved in preparing for a big year-end lü‘au that Parker Ranch gave its employees every year.

“I’ve never seen that kind of lü‘au ever again,” said Larry. “The whole community got involved.”

Uncle Yutaka Kimura, a Parker Ranch cowboy (far left) and Baban with Lester and Larry.

Uncle Yutaka Kimura, a Parker Ranch cowboy (far left) and Baban with Lester and Larry.

His father had been assigned to drive the area’s young women, known as “lü‘au women,” in the “banana wagon” — today’s equivalent of a sports utility vehicle — to the forests to gather palapalai fern, which were used to decorate the tables and the hall. When everyone walked into the lü‘au hall, “it was like walking into a forest,” recalled Larry.

“It’s a small town so my mother knew who he was, and I’m sure my father knew the (Elizabeth’s) family,” said Kimura.

After courting Elizabeth for a time, Larry said his father went to her home to seek her parents’ permission to marry their daughter. “I remember my father saying that he had to actually speak to my mother’s father when he wanted to marry her, and he said he remembered my grandfather spoke only one language — he was monolingual — he only spoke Hawaiian, and yet he had green eyes and he’s a Lindsey, so he was fair. But he never spoke English, so my father did the best he could and I think my grandfather could understand what he was trying to get at, to say that he wanted to marry my mother.”

Larry said the fact that his father was not Hawaiian did not seem to bother them, although Hisao’s older brothers had some objections to the marriage.

Elizabeth’s father, John Kawänanakoa Lindsey, was in charge of the paniolo (cowboys) for over forty years. Her mother, Eliza Purdy, knew some English, but preferred speaking Hawaiian.

The term “grandmother” was never a part of Larry’s vocabulary while growing up. He knew his Japanese grandmother as “Baban” and his Hawaiian grandmother as “Tütü.” Tütü is actually Hawaiian for grandparent, so if Larry was referencing his Hawaiian grandmother, he would say “Tütü wahine” or “Tütü lady,” and when referring to his Hawaiian grandfather, he would say “Tütü kane” or “Tütü man.”

His grandmothers knew each other because they had earlier lived in close proximity to each other in North Kohala. “Whenever my two grandmothers got together, like when my Hawaiian grandmother would come over for dinner or some party or something, and they would sit and talk, they would speak in very Pidgin — the real Pidgin, where two people can’t speak each other’s language. My Hawaiian grandmother couldn’t speak Japanese, and my Japanese grandmother couldn’t speak Hawaiian, but when they spoke Pidgin, I thought a lot of those words were actually Japanese words, but they actually were Hawaiian words.”

Baban rarely spoke pure Japanese to Larry. Instead, she spoke to him in Pidgin, which he picked up over time. “Apparently, what I remember is the very crude Japanese,” he laughs.

Hawaiian was used almost exclusively among the ranch cowboys, thus perpetuating it at a time when its use was being discouraged in other places of Hawai‘i. Even Alfred Carter, one of the early managers of Parker Ranch, spoke Hawaiian. Larry recalls always listening more carefully to those speaking Hawaiian around him, even at an early age.

At home, his parents spoke English to their five children. “In our home, my father and all his siblings’ first language was Japanese, but when they went to school, of course, they had to learn English.”

The history of local Pidgin is believed to have developed during this period — 1915, 1916, 1920s — among the children of immigrants who were non-native speakers.

“It kept evolving and evolving, even as I was going to public school in Waimea,” said Larry. “We all spoke Pidgin, but maybe not exactly the same as how during my father’s time. It kept evolving, changing.”

“Among ourselves, my parents really tried to encourage us to speak good English,” Larry recalls. “But, you know, they weren’t that strict about it, because even my father, he worked out in the fields and on the pastures with the workers and everybody, so he spoke regular local English, Pidgin. Of course, he tried to speak good English as well. He could; he did very well at that. . . . He was eloquent in his English if he had to be.”

In those days, Parker Ranch supplied its workers’ families with some of their food on a weekly basis. The allotment included 10 pounds of meat and milk. They also received a big bag of thick poi in a large cloth bag wrapped in ti leaves. The families picked up 5 pounds of meat twice a week from the butcher shop. With her children in tow, Larry’s mother would take her mother’s allotment of meat and poi to her throughout the week. It turned out to be one of the ways Larry got to hear his mother and Tütü speak Hawaiian on a regular basis.

Most of the Kimuras’ neighbors in Waimea were Japanese truck farmers with whom they exchanged foodstuffs. Unlike the Kimuras, who were directly involved in ranching, the truck farmers worked on Parker Ranch in different capacities. One of Larry’s uncles was a paniolo and his father was an agronomist, who worked on pasture feed for cattle and was responsible for eliminating noxious weeds.

After completing the seventh grade at Waimea Intermediate School, his parents decided to send Larry to Kamehameha Schools for Boys in Honolulu. His two older sisters, who were attending Kamehameha School for Girls, had raved about the school, which excited Larry.

“When I got there, I was very disappointed because I just thought it was a Hawaiian school, which is heard all the time, you know — ‘It’s a Hawaiian school; you have to have Hawaiian to go to that school’ — and I assumed that, therefore, not just Hawaiian blood, but it’s going to be more of a Hawaiian school.”

Instead he found a militaristic type of institution whose philosophy was very American.

He said back then, Kamehameha was known as a trade school. “Their graduates were becoming firemen, policemen and getting into other trades kinds of things. But they weren’t going to college. . . . So Hawaiian [language and culture] was totally out of the picture.”

The only “Hawaiian thing” he remembered about Kamehameha was that they had to memorize many songs in Hawaiian. “Singing and music were ‘Hawaiian subjects’ that had been started long ago that the administrators liked and kept as part of the curriculum. “But that’s the closest to something Hawaiian,” he said.

His utter disappointment changed with the arrival on campus of Dorothy Kahananui during his sophomore year. Her class was “the savior” he longed for, and, fortunately for him, Kahananui remained at Kamehameha until he graduated. Although she had never formally taught Hawaiian language, he said she was committed to teaching her students.

In the early 1960s, a new audio-lingual way of teaching language was being introduced at Kamehameha. Basically, the student would listen to a native speaker and then repeat after the speaker. Dr. Samuel Elbert, a linguist at the University of Hawai‘i and co-author of numerous Hawaiian language reference books, was asked to find a native speaker of Hawaiian for this project. Assuming she was a native speaker, Elbert approached Kahananui, who spoke Hawaiian, but was out of practice.

Kimura recalls that the class was packed for the first week or so. “But by the end of two weeks, I’d say there were only eight or nine of us left, boys and girls.” By the second and third year, only two boys were left, one of them being Kimura, and only four girls.

“I just loved it, so I stayed my junior year and my senior year.

Larry Kimura knew he had found his passion, and his life from then on would be centered on ‘ölelo Hawai‘i — the language of Hawai‘i.

Editor’s note: Larry Lindsey Kimura’s work in reviving — and perpetuating — Hawaiian language will be the focus of the second part of this story, which will be published in the Aug. 7 edition of The Hawai‘i Herald.

Dolly Strazar retired as president and executive director of the Lyman Museum in Hilo, where she continues to reside.

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