John Y. Arisumi
Interview Robynn Takayama
Transcript created June 8, 2005
:10 My name is John Y. Arisumi and I worked for Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Company. I started to work there in 1938 right after grade school. I was paid first job as a summer employment. I worked for my dad in the stable. I was paid $.75/day. And after a couple of months summer was over. I had been making $.75/day so I went to see the field boss. And the field boss said I’m too young to go into field work. I said, “Let me try.” So he let me go into the field. That’s when we started to get $1.50/day.
1:05 WHAT KIND OF WORK DID YOU DO IN THE FIELD
1:14 Well, working in the field to irrigate sugar cane. We called it the cultivation contract. And cane is raised for 18-20 months and then they let it dry to harvest. I went through 2 cycles of that from late 1938-early 1942. It was about 4 year’s crop. And later on, I felt I couldn’t do this kind of work so I went to work in the plantation shop.
WHAT WAS THE IRRIGATION JOB LIKE
2:07 The irrigation job was each group of people have a contract together and we take care of so many acres. My first experience was to take care of about 80 acres roughly. What we used to do is we used to irrigate, we used to cut the weed, we used to fertilize, everything. All by hand.
WHAT WOULD YOU DO PHYSICALLY.
2:51 You have to after certain age of the sugar cane, or even before that, we have to weed between the lines so that the weeds don’t catch up with the … nowadays they use chemical and all the weeds are gone. Both those days, the weeds come up as fast as the cane so we have to cut the weed and irrigate the cane at the same time.
Then, when the cane gets to be about 6 months, we have to push the cane back physically. Where today they do it mechanically. We had to push it back so that the water, where the water bypasses is clear. But then that’s mechanization.
Then of course, we used to fertilize. We used to put the fertilizer in a bag and then there’s a pipe and we used to fertilize back and forth. That’s the way we used to do it.
And when our cane is ready to be harvested, it takes 3-4 months to dry, then we work in other fields where the company was trying to modernize. Instead of having 4 people in 1 field and make them do all the work, they now let the guys who irrigate the cane only irrigate the cane. Then when they had to weed the field, then they took the loose people, the people waiting for the cane to be harvested, and they had a crew, a BIG crew to go from field to field to do the weeding by contract. And we used to go by line. You cut so many lines a day, you get so much a day. But it wasn’t money you could be proud of. Maybe $1.75/day.
5:04 YOU WERE SAYING DIDN’T WANT TO DO IT ANYMORE, WHY?
5:10 First of all, that wasn’t for me to stay in the cane field working. So I decided I wanted to work in the shop where they fix automobiles and whatever. I was very fortunate that those days there was no union yet. That was in ’43. But because I knew who the superintendent of the shop was and I learned my trade from him because he used to live in the village with me, he offered me one day. He said, “You want to work in the shop?” I said sure. So I got my job as a mechanic.
6:03 YOU’RE NISEI. DO YOU KNOW WHY YOUR PARENTS CAME TO HI?
6:10 I guess my mom and dad came to HI because J wasn’t the best that they thought HI was better. And they came here and they started out working. My dad was a stable keeper.
WHAT WAS HOUSING LIKE GROWING UP
6:34 The housing. Let me tell you. We live in a house. First of all, I was born and raised in Olinda, up here. And from Olinda, my parents moved to the plantation area. And when we moved to the plantation area of course we had some other jobs we made, but we moved into a house where the assistant manager was. That was a two bedroom house with 6 children in the family and my dad and my mom. And we lived in that house.
Soon in that house, I guess the assistant manager felt that these guys have too many children. I cannot have them running around the place, so they offer my dad another job at the stable in Camp 6. Then we went to Camp 6, you wouldn’t believe it, but we moved into a house made 1×12, painted with white wash and there’s space between, as the lumber shrinks, there’s space between and the mosquito comes into the room and we have to put mosquito punk every night. And of course we had an outside toilet, outside wash room. All those things I experienced.
And then as times went on, I moved to the shops. But then when we moved to the shops, the war broke out. And when the war broke out, we had to move from where we were. But before we moved, they built some homes in the village. And they gave one house to my dad and my mom, but it was a two bedroom home. Then later, they moved us towards the stable. They fixed up another house and it had three bedrooms.
Then of course, we stayed there a while. Couple years. Then we moved to Camp 6 because the war broke out and the navy base was next to our village. And all the J people, they put us in a place called Middle Camp 5. And then from there, they took the old lumber from the old houses in the camps we were living and they built the house and put us in there. Not with new lumber, it’s all second hand lumber.
WHY DID THEY MOVE THE J
9:55 Because we were too close to the Navy base. They were afraid, they thought maybe we were going to sabotage the base. …
10:12 I learned my mechanic trade and working as a mechanic wasn’t a bad thing to do, but as you work, I thought what am I going to do. But we continued.
Then somehow the workers start talking about union. I was very afraid because I was concerned because what if we do anything and we lose our job. But fortunately we were successful.
HAD YOU HEAR ABOUT UNIONS PRIOR TO THE ILWU?
10:58 No. I was completely naive.
THOUGH THERE WERE ONLY PEOPLE IN THE FIELDS. BUT THERE WERE ALL KINDS OF PEOPLE NOT ONLY IN THE FIELDS.
11:25 I started in the fields, but later on, to better myself I was able. Fortunately I was at the right time and the superintendent asked me to be who he supervised and I accepted it.
AND EVEN THOUGH YOU WERE MECHANIC, YOU WERE STILL PART OF PLANTATION LIFE
11:48 yes, it’s all plantation village.
DESCRIBE RELATIONS BETWEEN DIFFERENT ETHNICITIES
12:02 We heard about the 1938 F strike and they struck right in Wailuku behind the old Maui dry goods building. It’s the old Hatta building today. All the F people went over there in 1938, of course 1938 is the year I started to work and I’m completely naïve to the strike. But then they didn’t’ strike for too long because they went out separately and they can’t do anything!
12:46 When I used to work in the field, I used to work with a F man that doesn’t understand English and I worked with 2 J boys that came from J. So fortunately I knew a little bit J, enough to talk with them. But the F boy, I couldn’t communicate. BUT as I work with him, and we joke around, he was rather old. I was like 14 years. He may have been 30. But I picked up the F language and I talked F to him. And of course, that’s a kind of way that we evolved ourselves to be interracial and to know the people.
But we communicate with them. Where we were living in the camps, the J people went to all the F weddings and the F come to all the J weddings because we live right in the village with 65 houses. Somebody gets married, somebody dies, everybody’s there. 14:00 That’s how we came to be mingling around everybody.
But like I said, we were living in Camp 6 maybe 9 years. Maybe about 7 years we lived in Camp 6 because they relocated us in 1943.
14:30 MULTI ETHNIC CHARACTER. DID THE F KNOW ABOUT THE ’38 STRIKE
I have no idea. You talk about financially. Let’s first talk about how we got organized. I working in the shop now. And here comes one of my co-workers and says hey, My name is John, but they called me Yoshio. Hey Yoshiyo, sign up. Let’s join the union. Ahhh. I’m afraid. I’m in the tool room now, in the back, secretly. “No, we gotta join!” Are you sure we’re not going to get fired? “no this not going to leak out.” So we were brave enough to sign up.
HOW DID YOUR FRIEND KNOW ABOUT IT?
15:35 He and I we worked together. And he was one of the better guys because he went to Maui technical school. I didn’t go to technical school. I took all my home study course. But then, by 1946, I went to vocational school, took all kinds of trade from machinist to mechanic to whatever. And I made myself a self-made mechanic. Well this guy tells me let’s join the union. And I found out later that he approached practically everybody, but he was kinda nervous talking to me because I was friendly with the boss. But they found out differently at the end.
The boss is the boss, but I gotta look at my own future. So we signed up and joined the union. ‘Worked for a little while trying to get a contract. I got married. And then when I got married was August 17, 1946. And September 1, 1946 is when we went on strike.
17:06 and let me tell you, financially, no body was able to do what they really wanted to do. But everybody stuck together and worked real hard. And we all assigned to do picket duty and some people hold picket signs, they picket the mill where they grind sugar. Because those days we had scabs, non-union people. They tried to pass the line, but we didn’t let them pass the line because we felt that they ain’t going to jeopardize our strike.
WHO WERE THE SCABS?
17:50 Portuguese people. A few J people but the F were very strong. And what really pushed this union through, was those days, they used to bring people from the F to work on the plantation and on these particular ship, there was a man by the name of Jack Hall. And Jack Hall managed to talk to some of the fellow sailors. And he was a sailor but he wasn’t on that boat. But he was the one that talked to the F people and then the F people signed all the card on the boat even before they landed. And until this day, I wonder, some of them signed the card, but they work for the pineapple company, so they didn’t do sugar. But Jack Hall was smart enough to sign every body up and most of them came to work in the sugar industry.
That’s how we were able to coral people together. So by that time, we knew each other. We knew the F, we knew the P. The militant P people were real militant. But we had these so called people who were considered scabs and these other guys were really tough. Even when the union came in with a contract, they didn’t want to sign the contract because they don’t want to pay their DUES! But we held the thing together.
19:50 My job during the strike was to come to Kula, further down and I used to help a Kula farmer raise cabbage. And my job was to come up here 8 hours a day and when I leave here, the farmer gave me 2 bags of cabbage and I take it to the distribution center and they look at the hardship case. People where the wives don’t work or they’re supporting a lot of kids. Then they distribute the cabbage. Some people go fishing and bring the fish back. That’s their picket duty. But we did all kinds of things.
20:45 Then, I have a book. We when the strike was over and of course, I’m not definitely sure, but making $1.50/day but then when the union came in, they considered the trade people more essential. The trade people got more pay than the field workers. From $.19/hour after a period of time, my pay came up to $.43/hour. Slow by slow. But by the time it came to 1961-2, the pay was $1.33/hour. That was my pay and after that, I left the plantation because I became a union official.
21:58 and this is where a lot of my co-workers couldn’t believe because here’s a guy that’s like the bosses pet. Very close to the boss. He offered me the job and I had a lot of respect for him. But I didn’t let him make me a bosses pet. I took leadership in the union. Started as an officer. Then after I became an officer, then I became an organizer. And after I became an organizer, I got elected as a business agent. And I got elected as a business agent in 1964, but in 1962, I worked as a fulltime official for the union. And then I worked myself up to 1978 as a business agent. Then I became an international representative for the union. And then in 1984 I became the Maui division director and held that position until I retired.
CLEARLY THE UNION HAD A BIG IMPACT ON YOUR CONSIOUSNESS. SO TALK ABOUT HOW IT DEVELOPED YOUR IDENTITY AS A WORKER.
23:35 First of all, I was a hardworking nut. Even I worked for the plantation or my brothers, they used to be contractors. I used to work every time I have a chance to work. So I can say the union helped me a great deal. And then I became smarter. I was able to talk to people. I was able to organize the hotel industry over here. And yet I come from the sugar cane field. And then of course if you don’t have support from the higher ups, you’ll never become an official. But the higher ups had so much respect for me and because of my hard working. Because I was a hard working guy for the union. And then let me tell you if you go to the old timers in the hotel industry. They all know me.
I’VE HEARD PEOPLE CALL THE PLANTATIONS THE BIG 5 AND THEY CONTROLED EVERYTHING. DESCRIBE WHAT THAT WAS LIKE.
25:10 They call it the big 5 because all these people like Davis, Castle and Cook, Seabrury, A&B, Amfact, they the big 5. They all had sugar cane so they started to call these guys the big 5. But as times went by, things changed.
25:48 the union came in. We had our first contract. Then soon after that, because they gave us a raise, they started to charge us rent! OK, So when they started to charge us house rent, the union said no. We gotta do something. I paid $28/month and my pay was $65! But I paid $28.50 for my house and my thought was if I have my own house, I’d be better off.
So the union formed a housing committee 26:28 although some people only pay $5. But I was in a better house so I paid $28.50. But then we figured too much money. And the company wanted to go out of the housing business. So the union and the company worked together. They formed this company called Kahului Development Company. And you know the housing committee, we went out to meet all the time and the first batch of homes that they built was Dream City.
But because Dream City, I guess those days they used some federal funds. They didn’t use sugar money. The union didn’t put out any money because we didn’t have any, but I guess they must have used federal money because when it became time to sell the homes, all of us had an opportunity to sign up. And we signed up to buy the home. And then later on, more and more outsiders started to come in. People from Wailuku, else where, they used to buy homes in Dream City.
But you know the first home I bought in Dream City was $7,450. But that was big bucks! And my payment was $51/month to the bank, about 3% interest.
So in essence, what happened is the union came in. Now we own our own home. 28:14 And let me tell you. A lot of people tells me, “Before, no more union, better!” Why. “Every thing’s so expensive.” I say you know what, you buy a bag of rice. Those days we used to buy 100 pound bag of rice. $5. Today, you buy 100 pound bag of rice is going to cost you roughly $100. Back in those days, you have to work to make $5 you have to work 4 days, 3 days at least. But today, even if you pay $100 for a bag of rice, you work 1 day you get that! So you’ve got to figure things that way. And they say, “Yeah, John. You make a lot of sense.”
I bought a brand new car in 1940 29:24 Cost me $850. Today, the same type of car, Chevrolet, you’ve gotta pay $24-23,000! You see, BUT, you make the money.
I remember that when I used to file my income tax back in those days, 1946-7, my income tax was like maybe $700-800 year. Today, you make big bucks. People make $30k-35k. So the money, the value of the money is…you compare things like that, you know that you’re ahead of the game.
If it was before, I couldn’t afford a house like this. I used to live in Kahului. The house was in Dream City and the house was $7,450. And then when I moved out from there, I sold it for $58,000! And then I went to another house and I paid a close to $100k for the house and that was in 1972, but I bought it from my son so I got it for that price. But the same house today, if they put it out on the market, you can get at least $450k.
So we pay the …we had a lotta influence in the housing project so today there’s maybe 31:15 if you go around and you look around, there’s maybe 1/2 dozen plantation houses someplace. People living and maybe some of that not even plantation people.
31:30 GOT MARRIED BEFORE THE STRIKE. WHAT WAS WIFE’S REACTION
31:38 Fortunately my wife used to work in an appliance store so it didn’t hurt me like it hurt a lot of the other people. But my wife’s reaction was wow, how are you guys going to do it. But then we were young kids so we weren’t that concerned with people’s strike. Let’s go? Go!
But I have so much aloha and respect for Jack Hall. Because Jack Hall made me. When I say Jack Hall made me, he looked at me and he said, “John, you’re going to be working as an organizer for me-full time.” And those days, we used to make like, that was in 1962, I started off. I used to make about $300 every two weeks, so $600/month. That’s rough, yes. But that was big money around here for us. Bringing home a paycheck of the time I was working in the stable with my dad, when I was 14 years old and getting $.75/day. I used to make $15/month. Maybe not even that. But then it’s easy to figure out if you make $1.50/house, you make $12/day. How many days you’ve got to work to make $100! So the union took good care of me.
33:40 FROM THE ’46 STRIKE, WHAT DO YOU REMEMBER ABOUT THE UNION LEADERSHIP FROM THE PLANTATION. MIXED OF JA AND F.
33:55 Like I was telling you, Portuguese people were weak, there were a lot of scabs, but there were GOOD ones. Some of them were business agents. Good leaders.
Filipino, same thing. Some of them business agents. Very little J people because you know why. F used to control the votes. You vote for your officer. If you F you get elected. It’s the same thing that happened in the hotel industry today. Even for the union itself. Racial. Still get the racial thing. But you can’t help it.
WEREN’T THERE PLENTY J?
34:50 There were, but they elected some J people, but most of them were F.
WHAT IS A BUSINESS AGENT
34:57 Business agent is the person that goes out to service the people. When they got problems, they approach the boss and try to resolve the problem. That’s the business agent’s job. And then of course, like I was a business agent, but I was a business agent organizer. And I used to go out and recruit people for the union and do all my day work servicing the places I’m assigned to service and after work, I go out and do organizing work. That’s why Jack had a lot of love and a lot of loyalty for me. Because I wasn’t afraid to work.
And the F people challenged me for my position 35:53 They can’t beat me because all the F are my friends. I know all of them. I put them into the union. I improved the working conditions for them, WE, I should say we, not I. The ILWU improved the working conditions for them. But if it wasn’t’ for people like myself and hustle and go out and do all the work, most of the work after work, the union wouldn’t be expanded like this today.
36:28 We were talking the other day. Politically, the union is getting very weak, but in the old days, we would say we’re going to endorse so many people for council or board of supervisors. We endorsed them and we make sure that 6 or 7 people we elect get elected because every body was gung ho! Every body was struggling. But today, you know what, all the retired people like myself, we have a club formed. The club, the retired people are going out politically. The working guys that works in the plantation, they just don’t have the time they said. But they’ve got time if they really want to help, but they’re lazy.
So one of these days, you still young, you’re going to remember, “Mr. Arisumi told me one of these days, the union is going to be gone.” I hope not because then we really in trouble.
37:52 AFTER STRIKE WAS WON, WHAT DID THAT MEAN TO THE WORKING PEOPLE ON THE PLANTATIONS.
37:59 A lot of people were back in their payments. You know what we used to do? We were real lucky because we had some smart guys. We used to go to the banks and we used to talk to the bank people. They’re going to borrow money or they can’t make payments to their car. Of course, not too many people were in that kind of situation where they could borrow money from the bank.
You know, those days, you know what they call “tanimoshi”? You know what is that? Tanimoshi is, you know all the camp people 38:38 especially the J people, they get together, see. And then every month, you get $5 tanimoshi or $10 tanimoshi. So let’s say you get 20 people. Now 20 people put out $10. That’s $200. That’s the tanimoshi money. You bid for that: $.35. If other people don’t bid, you take that $200 and then you keep paying your $10/month. That’s how we used to make a living. I remember my mother used to, “We gotta go take the tanimoshi money,” telling my dad. My dad is saying if you need ‘em, go get ‘um. But you have to bid for the money. And we make sure we trust the 20 people. In the village, that’s what we used to do.
WHY DID YOU HAVE TO DO THAT INSTEAD OF GOING TO THE BANK
39:50 But then you see, of course, soon there after, credit union started coming out. Credit unions were a big help to plantation people because they take payroll deduction and they’re saving our money. I was a die hard credit union member because that’s the only way I can save. But as times went by for me, I was fortunate because my wife during the war, I call her a canary. And those canaries go out and take nursing course in case there’s a disaster, they go out and volunteer to be canaries. She took the course and she was a canary and then later on, the plantation hospital needed practical nurses and she got a job and there after, we were real fortunate as years went by. And then we saved some money and that’s how we did a lot of things.
41:15 And of course 1958, I don’t know if you know the sugar strike in 1958. Well.
TRYING TO FOCUS ON IMMIGRANTS. SO BY ’46, LOTS OF SECOND GENERATION. WHAT WAS THE RELATION OF HI BORN FOLKS AND WOKRING WITH THE IMMIGRANT FOLKS
41:47 We had no problem I had no problem because to us it didn’t mean anything. We go to work, we’re friends.
HOW COULD YOU COMMUNICATE?
41:59 That’s what I say, the J people I could communicate because I could talk pidgin J. I went to 8th grade J, but you tell me to write my name today I couldn’t because I forget. But I had 2 people, they came from J in 1942 and they came directly to the field and worked with us. Then the F man he was there kinda long and I worked with him and I guess we talk a lot of things. 2 guys we don’t know anything: he talk to me in F and I talk to him in English. He doesn’t know what I mean. But somehow we communicated and then later on we were ok. In fact I used to tell him, this F old man, I used to tell him if you’re going to the show tonight. In F. And then he answers YES. And I get because they used to come to the camp and they used to show outdoor movie. The guy come and charge you $.15. In fact, if you don’t want to pay, you can still go because it’s all wide open. They tie the string on the tree and watch the movie over there. All silent movie.
43:40 But I don’t think we had any problems with the F because when the F immigrants came, a lot of them can talk English. But the ones that were then from the early ‘20s, that’s the kind of guys that only F language.
MAYBE YOU NO PROBLEM WITH THEM, BUT DID THEY HAVE PROBLEMS WITH YOU? J WENT IN TO WAR IN F.
44:17 It wasn’t anything like that, though. In fact, like I said, they moved us out from the village because we were too close to the navy base and when we moved out, F and K, we used to have lots of K, too. We used to get mad. Why they take all these people out, but war times, so you no can do nothing.
And then later on, they built a separate camp for us outside further from the base. But we went 4 miles away where other people were.
ANYTHING ELSE ABOUT THE ’46 STRIKE?
45:28 During the ’46 strike, we used to have people make garden, raise vegetables. We really struggled, but my wife was working so I didn’t depend too much on the supplies from the union. But there were people there who had a hard time. But in my situation I went to help this farmer every single day, Saturday and Sunday. And I made sure I brought back the 2 bag cabbage for them. And it was right up here and I was living in Kahului. …The farmer supplied my car. He wanted help. He chose the right guy because I wasn’t afraid to work.
SOUNDS LIKE LOTS OF COMMUNITY SUPPORT
46:30 I know there’s a lot of people made donations. They bring it to the soup kitchen. But how much of that…what they used to bring, I cannot remember, but we were pretty well supported by the community.
’46 STRIKE WAS TRANSFORMATION AND THE IMPORTANCE OF IT ON YOUR IDENTITY
47:06 One of the things I can tell you is this is I’m not b.s. or anything. I’m telling you the fact. Those days, you want a house and you know the camp boss, the guy that issues the house, if you put a chicken in the bag, he give you a house. Those things went on. It’s hard to believe. You want a job and there’s no such thing as you going apply for a job. They kind of put a notice out and then if you want you tell them you want the job. But then the guy who bribes them first gets the job! So like in my situation, if I wasn’t friend with the superintendent, because I used to live in the back where he used to live and I used to go to his house and help him fix automobiles and stuff like that. And he took a liking in me. And then I took my dad’s car over there to fix and we fixed it and I learned. And then I got my job.
48:30 At least I had some training before I went in there. But there’s people who came in after me and they were the supervisor’s son or a good friend’s friend, they get the job. They don’t have to go to school! Of course, in those days, not too many people can afford to go to school.
Like I said earlier, we had 10 children in our family. By the time the war started, I think the 10th child was already born.
WAS THERE TENSION WHEN YOU RETURNED FROM THE STRIKE?
49:21 No. I think the plantation handled this thing real good. No matter what you did I guess the boss said don’t bring back old memories. Just take the workers back. Because they don’t want another strike, right?
We weren’t prepared for the strike. Not prepared at all. So we struggled to take care of the guys who had a hard time. But we did all kinds of stuff. People used to go FISHING. People used to go HUNTING. They used to…I don’t know where they got the wild pig from. Used to get wild pig. All kinds stuff used to come to the soup kitchen. Not soup kitchen. To the distribution center. …We had a nice soup kitchen. Every body would go over there to eat their meal. But not the best meal. They ate cabbage with sardine. They cook ‘em together, but they need to eat!