Back to School Time in Kona!

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Konawaena School - Children with Teachers on Play Field c. 1930, Photo donated by: Paul F. Hirokawa, Konawaena High School graduate, Class of 1944


What a wonderful photograph! It captures the look of pre-World War II Kona, a district filled with hundreds of immigrant children. Row upon row of dark-haired students stand at attention, flanked by a few well dressed teachers and one classic car. (Is that a Model A?) Yes, that front row is all little girls, each one barefoot and wearing a knee-length cotton dress. No Hawaiian flowered prints, sleeveless blouses, or logos advertising “Hello Kitty” and “Barbie Dream Princess” are in sight. Peeking out from behind the girls stands a row of little boys, many of them determined to see what the photographer was up to, even if they had to stick their heads out of line to catch a glimpse. Although it is difficult to determine what the youngest boys are wearing, the older boys on the right are sporting pants that reach just below their knees – not long trousers or Bermuda shorts, but something else entirely. Long sleeves, plaid fabric, dark vests and narrow belts appear to be popular. Hair styles are simple, with many children sporting what might be called a rice bowl cut. Although there are many Hawaiian children in this group, plus Chinese, Portuguese, Filipino and Caucasian children, the vast majority is Japanese.

For a refresher course on Kona’s population statistics, I turn to Jean Greenwell’s Important Dates in Kona’s Past published by KHS sometime after 1980.

In 1890, the entire population of Kona numbered 3,565, of which Hawaiians made up 80.9%, Part-Hawaiians 7.5%, American/European 4.2%, Portuguese 3.5%, Chinese 3.5%, Japanese 0.2%, Others 0.2%. In other words, there were almost NO Japanese in Kona at the turn of the century.

By 1900, the population had almost doubled to 6,191, a change brought about in large part by the arrival of Japanese families looking for a better life. Now the percentages are: Hawaiians 45.2%, Part-Hawaiians 7.5%, American/European and Portuguese 12.1%, Chinese 7.4%, Japanese 27.7%, and Others 0.1%.

By 1930, Kona’s population was 9,405, a jump of over 3,000 persons. Hawaiians are 14.3%, Part Hawaiians 10.4, American/European 1.3%, Portuguese 3.8%, Chinese 1.5%, Japanese 51.5%, Filipino 11.9%, Others 4.6%. Only two ethnic groups have grown - the Japanese, who now make up over half of the population, and the newcomer immigrant group, Filipinos. Wow!

In 1940, Kona’s population was 7,948, a drop of nearly1,500 due to the Depression and years of bad coffee prices. Hawaiians 12.5%, Part Hawaiians 16.3%, American/European and Portuguese 5.4%, Chinese 1.6%, Japanese 52.7%, Filipino 9.4%, others 3.0%. Within 50 years, the face of Kona has changed completely!

Although we have no date for this photo, this is definitely early 20th century Konawaena School. How can we tell? Well, look at the landscape behind the children – is there a coffee tree in sight? (See October 2012’s Meandering photo for a look at how the landscape later changed entirely to coffee.) It could be that open slope is all cattle pasture, but more likely it is sugarcane, a remnant of Kona Development Company’s grand venture that went bankrupt in 1926. Sugar was growing all around this area from 1901, harvested by hand and hauled on Kona Railroad’s trains to KDC’s sugar mill at Hienaloli above Kailua Bay. The road leading up to the school seems invisible in this photo, but with one automobile in plain sight on what will become Julian Yates’ Field, we know the road exists. According to Important Dates, the first “horseless buggy” arrived in Kona in 1903 and by 1909 there were a total of 15, four of which were used as taxis. Maybe this photo was taken much earlier than 1930; how I wish we knew for sure.

One thing is certain; Paul Hirokawa, donor of this photo, is alive and kicking in Kona. He is a very interesting 88 year old artist who walks two miles a day for his health and continues to create colorful, abstract collages. I went to visit him when Pixie discovered his name in the telephone book, taking along a Konawaena High School year book from 1941 in case he was in it. (KHS does not have a complete collection of year books. If you have an early one and would like to donate it, please get in touch with us at 323-3222.) We found his picture in the Freshman Class, smiling at the end of the Second Row in a group of teenaged boys. According to class notes, on August 13th, 1941, ninth grade commencement exercises in the gym marked the end of the Paul’s intermediate school career and opened the door to high school. Looking back from 2013, we know when Paul returned to school in mid-November as a sophomore, the coffee schedule then being in full swing, he would enjoy less than a month of normal high school freedom and fun. Once enemy bombs exploded at Pearl Harbor on December 7, his life as the son of Japanese immigrants in a district filled with Japanese would become difficult. “We tried to do normal things,” said Paul, “but it was too hard.”

In the opening pages of 1941’s Ka Wena O Kona, printed before Pearl Harbor Day, Principal Ernest de Silva wrote this inspiring message:

“A peace loving nation is grimly beating her ploughshares into swords and methodically toughening her every sinew to meet what appears to be a gigantic struggle to determine whether liberty and intelligence shall prevail among men or whether the ruthless militarism of modern Europe shall mark the course man shall take. Exactly in what manner we shall act is still an undecided question; but through the web of confusion and indecision which is spread over much of our thinking today we see an important American decision. It is a decision to oppose with the full weight of the will and courage of the American people any force which endangers the American way of life; a way of life which is becoming a religion with us In response to every call for sacrifice and cooperation which we expect shall come from our national and community leaders we shall find graduates, students, and teachers of Konawaena eager to do their full share and more. May this yearbook serve to remind you of the things you have learned regarding the American way of life and the important role which every American school plays in preserving those great principles of American democracy which we are now arising to defend for ourselves as well as for those who follow us.”

The Hirokawa family certainly did their fair share for their adopted nation and community. Paul’s two older brothers joined the Army, one becoming a member of the famous 100th Battalion and the other part of the equally well known 442nd. Paul was drafted shortly after his graduation and found his Japanese background much in demand for intelligence work. Later, after a stint in Germany during the American occupation, he left the military and headed to the Chicago Art Institute on the G.I. Bill. About half-way through his fine arts program, Paul realized he did not want to be a school teacher and quit to become a graphic artist. After working in Chicago and later in San Francisco, Paul decided he wanted to come home. For many years he worked in Kailua at the Kona Hilton, doing everything from bar tending to managing hotel maids.

This photo is a poignant image. Every single one of these Konawaena students will have his or her life turned upside down by the onslaught of World War II. Innocent games of baseball and hide and go seek will give way to gas mask practice sessions. Black out restrictions will stop evening dances and carefree picnics at Honaunau. Men like Paul’s father, hard working farmers and supporters of Japanese language schools, will be questioned and criticized. Some will be interned. Some of their sons will be killed in the war. Life will never be the same for any of them. After the War, Paul’s parents became United States citizens, taking a permanent place in Kona’s multi-cultural landscape, our colorful patch-work quilt of different races, languages, and customs.

I admire Ernest de Silva’s message very much and think Konawaena was fortunate to have his leadership at that critical period. He obviously believed public schools were the great proving ground of America’s dreams. Today, as the Middle East grapples with freedom and Americans of all colors recall Martin Luther King’s message of equality in our nation’s capital, I find myself grateful for the lessons taught at Konawaena. Paul Hirokawa remembers Mr. Tatsuno, his Social Studies teacher, and Mr. Ide. I am grateful to Mr. Herbert Saito, an inspiring 6th grade teacher, and to Mrs. Nakamaru, school nurse and artistic spirit, who tried so hard to teach a class of 7th graders how to read and write in Japanese. Those teachers and many more all deserved medals.

Alma Mater
Hail Konawaena, pride of Hawaii, we, thy children sing,
Daughter of Pele, Mauna Loa cradled, make us worthy of thy name.
To thee, oh jewel of the Konas, jewel within the island jewel
We, thy loyal sons and daughters, pledge our lives, our hopes, and aims.
May the light of truth you’ve kindled, burning bright as Pele’s fires,
Lead us on throughout the ages, hail, Konawaena, hail to thee.


Children are the hope of the future, then and now.

Aloha no, e Kona.

by Maile Melrose