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A Taste of Paradise

Kona Coffee is more than a world-renowned taste sensation; it's a window into the heart of Hawaii
Paul Chutkow
From the Print Edition:
Susan Lucci, Sep/Oct 99

(continued from page 1)

"My grandfather left Japan and came to Hawaii on June 19, 1885," Sakata says, with that ever-present twinkle. "He came as a contract laborer to work on a sugar plantation. Many, many Japanese worked on the sugar plantations back then. Very, very few, if any, ever went back." For these migrant workers from Asia, life on the plantation was miserable. According to Sakata and many others on the island, the workers spent long hours in the sugar fields, doing backbreaking work for very little pay.

"My grandfather worked 10 hours a day, 12 months a year, with no letup," Sakata says. "They paid him $15 a month. They paid him another $10 a month because he had a wife. If you had a child, they paid you another $1 per month per child. They also paid overtime: 12.5 cents an hour. My grandfather spent two years working on a small plantation on Maui. Then he moved to Kona in 1887 and started to raise coffee."

The story of Kona coffee, if you distill it down to its essence, is, in large measure, the story of immigrant families just like Sakata's. That story is ably and admirably set forth in a book entitled The Kona Coffee Story: Along Hawaii Belt Road, an account researched and compiled under the auspices of the Los Angeles-based Japanese American National Museum. Kona coffee, the book notes, comes from the coffea arabica plant, which was discovered in Ethiopia more than 1,000 years ago.

The Arabs were among the first to brew and drink coffee and enjoy it's stimulative qualities. It was introduced into the American colonies around 1668 and, according to the book, coffee replaced tea in popularity after the Boston Tea Party. "Drinking coffee," the authors say, "became a patriotic duty in America, a gesture of defiance against the British."

Coffee didn't make its way to Hawaii until 1813. That year, King Kamehameha the Great, the islands' ruler, imported a ceremonial coffee tree into Honolulu. Fifteen years later, coffee plants finally arrived in Kona, in the hands of an American missionary named Samuel Ruggles. He planted the arabica plants in Kona and they quickly flourished. Coffee plants are finicky--they don't thrive just anywhere--but they loved Kona's rich volcanic soil and its warm, sunny mornings and the cool, cloudy afternoons.

By the 1890s, world coffee prices were soaring, the Kona coffee industry began to boom, and the demand for capable farm labor jumped. Thus began several successive waves of immigration to Kona, including Portuguese farmers and Chinese and Filipino workers. But the majority of the immigrant workers were Japanese, many from southern Japan and most from poor families like Sakata's.

"When I was a child, we had very little money. I still remember the house I grew up in. We had a dirt floor," he recalls. His family may not have had a lot of money but he says that what it had was much more valuable: "We were a family of six. But we all worked hard and it kept the family together. Tell me, what do you have now that keeps the family together?"

Seeing through the eyes of Sakata, you quickly realize that for him Kona coffee is not just a commodity to be grown and sold; it's his family's roots, it's the lifeblood of the Kona community, it's the twine that binds and draws together the multitongued, multihued descendants of those original immigrant families from Japan and across the Pacific. Despite its size, the Big Island is sparsely populated, with about 30 people per square mile. As a result, in both feel and spirit, the entire Kona coast is like one extended small town, but one that is amazingly rich and varied in its ethnic diversity.

In the shops and restaurants and streets of Kailua-Kona, you can see the full mosaic of the Big Island today: native Hawaiians, Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, Koreans, Samoans, Thais, and the "Haoles," the term the islanders use to refer to Caucasians with roots deep in the Hawaiian soil. Among the residents, no matter what their ethnic origins, it seems that everyone knows each other, has gone to school or to church together, or works together. In amazing harmony. Sakata tries to express this ethnic harmony and cultural richness through the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival held each November.

Sakata has been intimately involved with the festival for 25 years and has directed the celebration--an annual fete for coffee lovers and traders from around the world--for the past seven. Part of the festival is centered around coffee, with seminars, cupping contests, and discussions of crops, market prices and the like. But the heart of the festival reaches far beyond coffee. Parades, ethnic food, dances and music enliven the festivities. Each year the festival pays tribute to Kona's roots, to the hardworking men and women who left their homes and villages across the Pacific and set out to create a better life for themselves and their families.

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