#AsianHeritageMonth: Patsy Iwasaki’s graphic novel sheds light on immigrant experience

UH Hilo English instructor Patsy Iwasaki tells the story of an immigrant plantation laborer who was lynched in 1889 in the town of Honokaʻa on Hawaiʻi Island. The anti-Asian issues surrounding Katsu Goto’s life and death are relevant today even after 130 years.

By Lauren Okinaka.

Book cover and page out of novel.
At left, the book cover of Hamakua Hero: A True Plantation Story by Patsy Iwasaki and illustrated by Berido. At right, a page from the book Hamakua Hero: A True Plantation Story, manga style graphics depicting the first moments of the crime the night Katsu Goto was hanged.

A graphic novel about the Japanese-Hawaiʻi immigrant experience on Hawaiʻi Island was featured as part of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Heritage Month at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo. The virtual event was hosted by the Center for Global Education and Exchange and University Housing.

Patsy looking through film lens
Executive producer Patsy Iwasaki on the set of the documentary film on historic figure Katsu Goto. Photo by Bob Douglas, click to enlarge.

Set in the late 1880s, Hamakua Hero: A True Plantation Story is written by UH Hilo English instructor Patsy Iwasaki and illustrated by UH Hilo alumnus Avery Berido. The true story is about Japanese immigrant laborer Katsu Goto who was murdered in 1889 for advocating for Japanese plantation laborers.

“This story deals with a lynching, an absolutely horrific, very public form of terror,” Iwasaki says. “A lynching is not private, it’s not only an act against the victim, but it’s a message to others, it’s meant to instill fear in others.”

Goto’s body was found hanging from a telephone pole in Honokaʻa. Four men were prosecuted and jailed: two escaped, one was pardoned, and one served four years.

The graphic novel art form of Hamakua Hero successfully conveys and tackles these sometimes ugly parts of humanity, Iwasaki says.

The book also is being made into a documentary film and currently is in the post-production stage. (See The making of a documentary film about historic hero of Honokaʻa, Katsu Goto.)

A story of significance

Iwasaki learned about Goto’s story when she applied for and was awarded the Goto of Hiroshima Foundation grant after earning her bachelor’s degree in 1993. Goto’s adopted niece, Fumiko Kaya, established the foundation because she felt that communication and understanding were absent between Goto and those who lynched him. Kaya wanted to honor his memory and increase mutual understanding and friendship between Japan and Hawaiʻi.

“His story immediately captured my heart, mind and spirit and I felt as if his immigrant story and legacy were significant of the Japanese American experience,” Iwasaki says. “It had all the elements of a riveting story: adventure, relinquishing of succession rights, adoption, challenge, triumph, success, social injustice, human dignity and unfortunately, tragedy via a violent lynching.”

The need for a just society

Iwasaki says the issues in Goto’s story are relevant today even after 130 years. This story is about migration, about immigrants, so it is not just an American story but a global story.

“Migration and immigration continues even as we speak all around the world,” she says. “Thousands risk their lives, and children are separated from their parents, to make a life in America or other parts of the world, to pursue their dreams of a better life.”

Iwasaki says there are many factors affecting immigration: economic recession, political and social instability, and the hopes for a better life, and the pursuit of the “American Dream” or “Western Dream.” These were reasons in the past and are still reasons today.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused widespread fear, misinformation and conspiracy theories. Chinese Americans and other Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are being targeted, leading to many Asian-hate incidents around the country. Similarly, Goto was an early emigrant from Japan and many of the Asian American and Pacific Islanders targeted today are emigrants from parts of Asia and the Pacific.

“There is a need for a more equitable and just society,” Iwasaki says. “Katsu Goto needed it in the past, and Asian American and Pacific Islanders and others need it now in the present.”

“All of us, no matter what color, shape or form need to practice social responsibility to help create a more equitable and just society, and world. We are all one people living on one planet facing universal truths of love, joy, family, survival, pain, suffering, struggle, hope and life.”

Story by Lauren Okinaka, who is earning a bachelor of arts in communication with a minor in English at UH Hilo.

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