A Home for Island Values

From “Nurturing Our Taro Patches,” a column in Hawaii’s monthly Paradise Post, by Jimmy Toyama


This month I’m pleased to introduce James Koshiba to you. Until recently James was the Executive Director of Kanu Hawaii, a community building organization of which he was a co-founder.  I have known James for a number of years but it wasn’t until recently while working on a project that we became more engaged.  We, of course, had time to “talk story” about many things, one of which was about “Island Values.” The more I listened, the more I became fascinated with the depth of James’ insights.  Without hesitation I asked James if he would share some of his thoughts with the readers of The Paradise Post

Below is his initial (hopefully more to follow) rendering of evolving ideas about “Island Values” and community.

In 1887, my great-grandfather Bunkichi Hotta arrived in Kahului, Maui to work on the sugar plantations. He’d left his parents and siblings in Hiroshima, Japan, and came by boat, alone.  He was 15 years old.  He found life on the plantation brutal, and after only a few days, he ran away.  Somehow, he made his way from Kahului to Hana, a 52 mile trek along the coastal edge of Haleakala — a journey he must’ve made by mostly by foot.

He lived in Hana for 10 years, hanai to a Hawaiian-Portuguese family whose name, sadly, I have never uncovered.  They taught him to speak Portuguese and Hawaiian, dance hula, and prepare Hawaiian food.  He became part of their ohana.  If not for their kindness, it’s hard to imagine how he would have survived.  Bunkichi returned to Kahului at the age of 25, met my great grandmother, and the rest is family history.


This story — told to me by my grandmother — was a wonderful gift, for it gave me a new sense of Hawaii and my place in it.  Up to that point, I’d given little thought to the concept of aloha.  Growing up in Hawaii, I knew the term of course, but I understood it only as the Hawaiian word for “love,” a casual greeting, and a staple of visitor advertising.  Through the story of my great-grandfather, aloha took on new meaning:  A caring so powerful it could shatter human divides and forge commitments as deep as parenthood.

Thereafter, the concept of aloha began to play a more prominent role in my life.  I revisited the story of my great-grandfather when confronted with conflict, a challenging moment as a parent, or when I needed to work hard to bridge cross-cultural misunderstandings.  In short, I began to practice aloha differently — never perfectly, never all the time, but I practiced.

The story also gave me a new appreciation for Hawaii.  After all, where else in the world of the 1880s would a homeless, foreign, teenage boy be taken-in and raised for 10 years by a family across differences of language, race, and culture?  The same decade young Bunkichi was being raised by strangers in Hawaii, the term “anti-Semitism” was first coined in Germany, the Chinese Exclusion Act passed the US Congress, and “Coolie” and “Kaffir” districts were established in South Africa.  Where else but Hawaii was my great-grandfather’s story even possible?  I was humbled and proud.


The Hawaii my great grandfather knew no longer exists.  Today, like many communities, we are awash in ideas and ideals broadcast from elsewhere.  Ambition, fame, individualism, and conspicuous consumption play the leading roles in popular storylines, and these values find expression in the islands, as elsewhere.  It can seem at times like there is one global culture, without room for distinctive ways of life hatched in more intimate, communal settings.

And yet, the values at the heart of the island culture my great grandfather knew still course through the veins of modern Hawaii.  Parents in Hawaii continue the practice of hanai to this day, officially recognized by unique State laws governing adoption and custody.  Our beaches belong to the public, barred from private ownership which would render them inaccessible. We continue to have the highest rate of intermarriage among people of different races of any community in the world.

And, the experience of living on islands continues to offer fertile ground for distinctive values to flourish.  We can look out across a vast ocean and be humbled by our vulnerability or inspired toward resilience.  We can commune with nature, experiencing its power and fragility through surfing, hiking, hunting, or fishing.  We bear witness to the clashing and mixing of diverse cultures, often within our own families.  Island living provides ample opportunity to practice values like sustainability, humility, self-reliance, and aloha.

On the one hand the values of old feel like they are slipping away.  On the other, we are all drawn here by what continues to be a unique way of life.


I love Hawaii’s culture of aloha, and I want to do my part to ensure it has a perpetual haven in Hawaii.

My own experience suggests, though, that holding ideals sacred is not enough — values can become wooden and lifeless without the continual renewal.  Just as aloha was merely a word to me before my great grandfather’s story brought it new life, so too other values are sapped of their power to inspire and instruct if not rooted in stories of real people and real application.

Defending and nurturing aloha – or any other aspect of island culture — demands that I invest time and energy into story and practice.  I must find and share narratives — from my experience, or the experience of others — stories that serve as a spiritual well we can go back to again and again, to deepen understanding and draw fresh motivation.  And, I must practice, for values are only valuable if their application enriches daily life, even as times change.  From that practice come new stories that replenish the well.

What I learned from my great grandfather and my grandmother is this: Story and practice build a home for values.  No doctrine or dogma is required, just the generous sharing of personal tales, a commitment to continual practice, and a community of people who hold some cherished ideals in common.

Re-posted by permission of the publisher from the April 2014 issue of The Paradise Post. Cover image courtesy The Paradise Post. Home page photo: Mandolin Davis.

About the Lead Author

James Koshiba
James Koshiba
Born and raised in Hawaii, James spent seven years on the mainland and moved home to be closer to family and to be part of a community where he felt at home. In 2008 he helped launch Kanu Hawaii, a nonprofit that promotes and supports Island-style sustainability.

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