The Kona Coffee Story
Explore Hawaii's unique and inspiring history, as told by the pioneers of the world famous Kona coffee industry
This is the story of America’s most unlikely mavericks… it’s secret renegades.
Recruited to work on the many sugar plantations which sprawled across the "Big Island" of Hawaii, the Japanese were imported specifically because they were seen as docile, rule-followers. From the very outset, however, these “meek” sojourners defied the expectations of their new masters. Having signed three-year contracts of indentured servitude, the “Issei” (first generation Japanese) were honor-bound to fulfill their commitments.
Many of them, however, were horrified by the living conditions they were expected to endure and the cruel treatment they often suffered at the hands of their overseers. Rather than accept this brutal new reality, a small group of Japanese did the unthinkable... they broke their contracts (dishonoring themselves and their family name) and fled these sugar plantations in the dead of night.
Not speaking the local language or having ever been off the plantation before, these runaways knew only the name of the next person in a small chain of "safehouses" on their way to the district of Kona. They traveled at night, to evade the teams of men sent looking for them by the plantation, as well as the Hawaiian Kingdom's police force. More dangerous than recapture, though, was the threat of being ambushed by the many bandits who waited for the runaways along the path to Kona.
Having reclaimed their freedom, those runaways who survived the perilous journey faced the new challenges of finding food and shelter as well as figuring out what they would do with their lives now that they were hunted men.
Changing their names to avoid detection, many runaways gravitated towards the small coffee fields that had been abandoned by their Hawaiian and Chinese predesessors. Though there was little money in it, the independence that growing coffee provided, was a god-send to these pioneers.
Realizing that a return to Japan was now impossible, many of the runaways sent home for "picture brides." These brave women (and the calming influence they brought with them), helped create the first stable community in Kona. Their arrival, witnessed the establishment of the first churches, schools and civic organizations in what had formerly resembled the "wild west" more than a South Pacific paradise. And with that, the Japanese finally began to lay down roots in Hawaii.
Growing up picking coffee on the family farm, the "Nisei" (second generation Japanese) learned the value of hard work very early in life. Though it was physcially challenging, the Nisei enjoyed a stable, wholesome childhood. This childhood like many others in America, came to an end on December 7th, 1941. Following the attacks on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese community faced a pivotal moment in their history. Though most were spared, the Kona Japanese watched many of their neighbors being taken away to internment camps without any formal charges.
Expected to go down quietly, the Nisei surprised everyone. While they were initially barred from participation in the US military, they fought for the right to serve their country, and eventually convinced President Roosevelt to create a segregated, all Japanese unit against the advice of many of his closest military advisors. Upon discovering that they would be allowed to serve, the Nisei volunteered in numbers so vast, men had to be turned away because there just wasn't enough room for them all. In the end, only 2686 men were accepted from over 10,000 Hawaii volunteers.
Those accepted into the US military, often performed their basic training in the segregated South of the United States, where it wasn't long before they made their presence felt. Refusing to be told where they could sit, the "Kona Boys" became notorious for getting into fist-fights with bus drivers and angry Mississippi locals who didn't like it when they insisted on sitting at the back of the bus. A decade before Rosa Parks made her historic refusal, these renegades fought for civil rights and equality even as their friends and relatives languished in American prison camps.
When they finally reached the frontlines of Europe, the untested soldiers of the all-Japanese 442nd Regimental Combat Team performed remarkably. Defying all expectations, these brave men repeatedly survived what others had deemed suicide missions. Two of these missions, "The Lost Batallion" and the "Battle of Monte Cassino," made them legends. Initially underestimated, these Japanese soldiers went on to win the respect of their peers and the high command, becoming the most decorated unit in US military history.
Returning home from the war, one Nisei's gutsy decision to pull the entire Kona Coffee crop out of the world market, and create a new "gourmet" niche for their product, would change the coffee trade and Kona forever. The new premium their coffee commanded, was sweet recognition of the quality of the cherry (red coffee fruit) they had been producing for so long. As the coffee drinking public awoke in the late 80s, they discovered the smooth, deep aroma, rich body, and incredible balance of flavor, for which Kona coffee is known.
Having achieved financial independence as a result of their coffee's iconic status, the Sansei (third generation) of Kona finally had the opportunity to send one of their own, right to the top.
The hard work and discipline he had learned growing up in the coffee fields of Kona had prepared Ellison Onizuka for his secret dream of becoming an astronaut. Always giving credit to others, this brave man, rather quietly became the first Asian to fly in space.
And so, through the untold story of this proud community, we see how it is possible to go from the depths of indentured servitude to the heavens of outer-space in just three generations.
These invisible renegades chased the American Dream... in a land that had yet to become American.