Okinawan Eateries: The Dawn of Honolulu’s Restaurant Scene

Feb 2, 2018

Howard Takara's father was the proprietor of Yuki's Cafe, a family business that helped put Takara through school to become an engineer. The Hawaii Okinawan Restaurants Project is charting the amazing number of popular and influential eateries begun by Okinawan immigrants after they left Hawaii's sugar plantations.
Credit noe tanigawa

How does immigration work when it works well?  Perhaps Okinawans in Hawai‘i provide a good example.  HPR’s Noe Tanigawa reports on the Hawai‘i Okinawan Restaurants Project on view now at Honolulu City Hall.

Gene Kaneshiro, proprietor of Columbia Inn, the iconic restaurant started by his father, points to the village of Oroku, Okinawa. Kaneshiro, Takara and others involved in the Okinawan Restaurants Project have documented 75 restaurants started by immigrants from Oroku in Honolulu. They have documented over 300 restaurants started by immigrants from Okinawa, and the list is growing.
Credit noe tanigawa

The Hawai‘i Okinawan Restaurants Project continues at City Hall during normal business hours through February 8th.  On Thursday evening, February 8th, 2018, from 4 pm to 6 pm you’re invited to a special guided tour and celebration of the project with Gene Kaneshiro, Howard Takara, and others in the Okinawan and restaurant communities.  Let's face it, everyone of a certain age went to these restaurants.

Here in the atrium at Honolulu Hale, old timers are remembering Howard Takara’s  family restaurant, Yuki’s Cafe.  He and Gene Kaneshiro of the famous Columbia Inn are often here these days, reminiscing with visitors to the Hawai‘i Okinawan Restaurants Project display.  You have to Ooo and Ahhh over the menu items and prices, and the views of Honolulu style.  Takara says Ushi Takara’s (no relation, except they’re from the same village in Okinawa) American Café, opened in 1923 at King and Bishop Streets, currently Tamarind Square.

Howard Takara:  His restaurant was the number one restaurant at that time.  All the business people, the legislators and what not used to be patrons of his place, American Café.

The menu was largely American food, steaks, chicken, stews, and this was no diner!   There were tablecloths, and waiters with bow ties and white aprons.

Takara:  What Mr. Takaka did, was you know all the people coming off the plantation?  He would invite them to work.

They would wash dishes, wait tables, and eventually, cook

Takara:  And when they came good enough, he said, Hey, you go across the street, go open your own restaurant.  And he supported the guys.  Harry Uyehara was another mentor in a similar fashion.  Always when we talk to the old-timers, these names always come up.

Harry Uyehara’s Kewalo Inn  was at Ward and Ala Moana, where the Old Spaghetti Factory was.  Takara and Kaneshiro have documented over 75 restaurants that were started exactly that way by Okinawan immigrants from their one home village, Oroku.  There are fifty villages represented in the Hawai‘i Okinawa Alliance here, and well over three hundred restaurants started by Okinawans have been documented so far in Honolulu.  These community historians would love to have more menus and photos  from any and all Okinawan eateries in the state.  They've begun documenting them on the neighbor islands.

Takara:  When our grandparents came from Japan, they had no credit, they owned no land, they had no references, right?  They could not walk into the bank and say, I want a five thousand dollar loan.  They’d kick you out!  But you have friends and family that trust you, know you and are willing to invest in their tanomoshi, right?

Tanomoshi is an informal collaborative funding pool that participants can draw on.

Takara:  Our tanomoshi had sixty people, with hundred dollars a month, so that thing lasted for sixty months.

Call it venture capital.  The system is somewhat intricate, and was used to fund hundreds of businesses and other ventures.  Takara used his tanomoshi  for the down payment on his home.  Kaneshiro says networks of supporting businesses sprang up too, Higa Meat, Fred’s Produce, Aloha Tofu.

Kaneshiro:  On the surface it looked like competition between Columbia Inn, and Wisteria and LikeLike, and Flamingo and all that.  In fact, we all knew each other and were willing to help each other and because of that, all the restaurants became successful.

Credit noe tanigawa

Takara:  It was a common thread for many of the families, they were successful in what they did, they educated their kids, they did okay economically, so they said, Hey, I’m going to retire and that’s it!  Because the younger guys, they look at their parents working and say, That’s crazy!  I know I did!  (Howard Takara's parents made sure he went to college, he became an engineer.)

Just as Gene Kaneshiro was musing that there are no restaurants owned by Oroku people anymore, Howard Takara corrected him.  This is how it is with restaurants, there’s always one you forgot or that closed and reopened or moved, and sure enough, Takara pointed out Tatsuo’s, a small lunch spot on Sand Island,  run by the grandson of the originator of Smile Café---never heard of Smile Cafe?  Wisteria? Flamingo?  Columbia Inn?  All Okinawan owned, more on their stories next week.