Gourmet Kona Coffee Roots
Reach Deep Into Japan

Hawaiian Kona Coffee Industry's Debt
to the Perseverance of Japanese Immigrants


Establishing the world-class gourmet Kona coffee and preserving an industry and its unique culture in Hawaii - little did Daisaku Uchida know how important a role he and other immigrants like him would play in this when he left Japan for Hawaii in 1906.

Destination Hawaii

At age 19, Daisaku Uchida left Honmura, a small village in Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan, for Hawaii seeking to improve his lot to better provide for himself and his family back home. With nine other persons from his hometown, he boarded the Nihon Maru, part of the waves of Japanese immigrants during that time who fanned out abroad for faraway destinations, primarily to South America and the U.S., insufficiently prepared in both language and knowledge of the countries they were going to.

In Hawaii, the large sugar plantations beckoned to many, in part because job brokers told potential laborers that by working a three-year contract under attractive living conditions, they could save 400 yen (about $340) in three years, something that would take ten years in Japan at that time.

However, upon arrival in Hawaii, conditions of life on the large plantations were far different than what the laborers had been told with harsh physical working conditions from dawn to dusk overseen by lunas (foremen) who were allowed to use whips to get higher production. Even though Japanese immigrants made up over 60% of the workforce, they received the lowest wages and poorest houses.

It is little wonder that when Uchida worked and completed a three-year indenture contract to Lihue Sugar on Kauai, he made his way to Kealakekua in the Kona district on the Island of Hawaii where he held several jobs before his arranged marriage to Shima Maruo, his cousin, in 1912. (Photograph: Shima and Daisaku Uchida (courtesy of F. Takahara))

The Coffee Homestead

Because both had been raised on farms in Japan, the idea of independent farming appealed to the Uchidas, and by 1913, they had leased land from the Greenwell family near Kealakekua in Kona to establish a farm. In 1925, the Uchidas built two redwood water tanks, an ofuro (bath house), and the house with six rooms where three daughters and two sons grew up. In 1926, Uchida built his pulping mill and hoshidana (a drying platform with a rolling roof).

Uchida's success was typical of other Japanese farmers in that they were the first immigrant group to farm in small parcels, willing to live modestly, and had large families. During this period, child labor was crucial for the survival of the farm. Today the Uchida farm in its original state preserved by the Kona Historical Society is still operating and producing coffee now for visitors looking for a unique experience. (Photograph: Old Coffee Picker (courtesy of KHS))

Birth of Kona Coffee Culture

Coffee was brought to Kona first in 1826 but did not become a consistent and worthwhile crop until later that century. At first, it was grown on large plantations, but the crash in the world coffee market in 1899 caused plantation owners to lease out their land to their workers. Many of these workers were originally from Japan like Daisaku Uchida, and they worked leased parcels of land between 5 and 12 acres as independent family concerns, producing quality coffee crops.

Over its 140-year history, the coffee industry in Kona has endured more than its share of boom and bust periods, and only until recently, was highly subject to movements in world prices linked to the commodity products of large coffee-producing nations. Acreage in coffee has peaked four times at about 6,000 acres only to fall to nearly half each time during subsequent coffee market depressions. In fact, thirteen years ago, acreage dropped as low as 1,200 even while the Kona coffee name was growing in popularity.

Uchida Farmhouse (courtesy of KHS)

Through it all, the independent family farms were kept running by Japanese immigrants and their descendants, and later, the Hawaiians, Portuguese, and Filipinos, followed most recently by Americans from the mainland U.S.A., helping to keep coffee as an important crop in Hawaii even while large corporations folded their operations.

Even so, coffee farming to this day has been described as "subsistence farming." Fusae Takahara, Daisaku Uchida's youngest daughter, attributes some of their ability to survive to the generosity of the cattle rancher landlord who offered her father work when the going was rough. Today, an average farm still is only about five acres with their owners, an independent breed, cultivating and harvesting nearly all their coffee cherries by hand to maintain the quality Kona coffee is known for.

In spite of the hardships, the tradition of running family farms has continued throughout Kona. The Japanese-origin families along with others of different ethnic groups all strive to keep their farms productive, their crops as perfect as can be, and their family lifestyle serene. This family orientation has produced a unique culture with care and compassion to spare and a friendly welcome for all who come to visit.

Through never-ending busts and infrequent booms, they have maintained an unshakable work ethic characterized by strong family and community ties creating a lifestyle that is now synonymous with coffee farming and unique in modern Hawaiian history. With roots deep in Hawaiian soil, these third and fourth generation farmers with extraordinary stories all know each other, and regardless of ethnic orgins, work together in perfect harmony, sharing one common bond, their passion for Kona coffee. For the farmers, it is more than coffee, it is a way of life. With the Internet, many now ship directly to customers interested in fine quality coffee, extending a hint of that culture beyond Hawaii.

What Makes Kona Coffee Unique?

As compelling as the story of Uchida and other Japanese immigrants in helping to keep the coffee industry alive is, the story would not be complete without the coffee itself. Kona coffee is a highly unique coffee not only because it is the only commercial coffee grown and produced in the United States but also its superior quality that one only associates with a gourmet coffee.

Back in 1866, Mark Twain wrote in his "Letters from Hawaii" that "The ride through the district of Kona to Kealakekua Bay took us through the famous coffee section. I think Kona coffee has a richer flavor than any other be it grown where it may...." Today that famous taste and aroma are even better. Grown on the dark volcanic lava rock slopes of Kona, with enviable consistent quality, Kona coffee is a deliciously rich, medium-to-full-bodied and slightly acidic coffee with a heady aroma and complex, winey, spicy taste.

Like fine vintage wines, 100% Kona coffee is distinguished from other coffees and coffee blends by the wet-method processing, hand-cultivation, and tremendous extra care taken throughout every step of the process. The end result is a coffee that carries the unique stamp of the Kona region - delicate yet flavorful and with a rich aroma - a product that is famous among coffee drinking societies throughout the world. This excellent quality and rarity (less than 1% of total world production) has made coffee from Kona one of the two most highly valued pure coffees in the world.(Photograph: Kona Coffee Cherries (courtesy of Tiare Lani)

Kona Coffee Today

Credit America's new-found love of gourmet coffee and Kona coffee growers decision to go after the gourmet market in the early 1990s for the fact that the number of acres planted in coffee trees has been growing once again. In spite of higher land leases, rising production costs, and the most labor-intensive cultivation methods in the coffee-growing world, coffee farmers are eking out a living on their small hillside farms.

Perhaps the most remarkable difference that Big Island coffee production has undergone in the last few decades is the price gourmet beans command on the international market. The mystique of the Hawaiian Islands and the high quality of Kona Coffee have made it the second most expensive coffee in the world, retailing for $20 to $30 per pound, second only to Jamaican Blue Mountain at $35 per pound.Kona coffee growers have the reputable Kona coffee quality and educated consumers to thank for creating a more stable gourmet coffee market shielded somewhat from the violent fluctuations in the commodity prices determined by South American production. These consumers have a higher sense of appreciation of coffee, and similar to the spreading wine culture, have identified and spread the word of those coffees worthy of distinction including Kona coffee.

For their part, Kona coffee farmers and the State of Hawaii have gone to great lengths to guarantee the quality of Kona coffee through a combination of state certification and industry self-regulation. The result is quality standards and regulation unequalled anywhere else in the coffee-growing world.(Photograph: Modern Coffee Orchard (courtesy of Tiare Lani))

Remembering the Past

Both Daisaku and Shima passed away on the coffee farm they worked so hard to create and maintain, she in 1966 and he at the age of 99 in 1986. Their family continued to live on the farm until 1994 when it was acquired by the Kona Historical Society to become its first restoration project intended to preserve the unique coffee culture of Kona, a testament to the saga of the Uchida family and other immigrants.

Today, the Uchida Farm is Hawaii's only living history museum showcasing the hard-working lifestyle of an earlier era in the history of Kona's burgeoning coffee industry. Many of the original trees, nearly 90 years old, still produce coffee for visitors who come to see the farm in its original state operating in exactly the same way it did in those days gone by. Fusae Takahara, the youngest of Uchida's three daughters, still works on the farm as a volunteer while running her own five acres north about a mile away.

Perhaps it is only appropriate that the culture Uchida and so many others like him helped to create would also be remembered by showcasing the actual results of his efforts and perseverance.(Photograph: Uchida Family (courtesy of F. Takahara))

Copyright 2003-2010 by Lawrence Taguma. This web publication may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the prior written consent of Lawrence Taguma.

Acknowledgments and Credits

The author wishes to acknowledge and credit the Kona Historical Society, Kona Coffee Council, Les Drent (owner of Coffee Times and LBD Coffee LLC), and Fusae Takahara for their cooperation without which this article could not have been produced. All rights to content and images in this article are reserved by Lawrence Taguma. This article may not be reproduced in whole or part without the prior written consent of Lawrence Taguma.

For more about people like Daisaku Uchida, please see Gerald Kinro's book on Kona coffee and its history.

(Author's Note: This article was originally written for publication in Japan in December 2003. Comments are welcome at this e-mail address .)

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