In film, writing, and community events, UH Hilo Assistant Professor of English Patsy Iwasaki keeps alive the story of heroic immigrant plantation laborer Katsu Goto.
During the week of Sept. 18-23, several events were held to commemorate the heroic life and tragic death of Japanese immigrant Katsu Goto, a storekeeper in Honoka‘a on Hawai‘i Island who was murdered in 1889 for his advocacy of plantation workers’ rights. The 2023 Katsu Goto Legacy Week events were part of University of Hawai‘i at Hilo Assistant Professor of English Patsy Iwasaki‘s mission to keep alive the story of Goto through several venues including a book, documentary film, and community gatherings.
Sept. 19, at UH Hilo: Meet-the-author event
Katsu Goto Legacy Week began Sept. 19 with a meet-the-author event held on campus at Mookini Library, where Iwasaki talked with students and faculty about her book, Hāmākua Hero: A True Plantation Story.
“It was a fantastic talk story event,” says Iwasaki. “We talked about culture as portrayed in the graphic novel, with many in the audience participating in the discussion, from food culture, gender, arranged marriage, family, and lynching.”
The graphic novel, illustrated by UH Hilo alumnus Avery Berido, takes place in the 1880s and focuses on Goto who left home to work on a sugar plantation on the Hāmākua coast of Hawai‘i Island. First a laborer in ‘Ō‘ōkala and then a shopkeeper in Honoka‘a, Goto fought for justice and labor rights of Japanese plantation workers, which led to his death by lynching in 1889. He was 27 years old. The book’s description explains that this story covers “one man’s hardships, success, injustice, and tragedy, shedding light on an intriguing but little-known piece of Hawai‘i’s past.”
“Although this story happened over 130 years ago, it is essentially about identity and the migrant experience, which is very relevant today,” says Iwasaki. “The story is modern with modern themes. It’s about a regular person who did something remarkable, who exhibited courage and bravery to help others, and that is something so inspiring and worth celebrating.”
At the event, Iwasaki shared that with a grant from the Hawai‘i Council for the Humanities she received last fall, 700 copies of the book were utilized by 40 teachers on Hawai‘i Island. Having this resource allowed teachers to introduce the topic of sugar plantations and how Hawai‘i became a multicultural state through labor recruitment. Iwasaki reports that teachers say it is an informative learning resource because students don’t know about the island’s history since the plantations closed many decades ago, and that the many important themes in the graphic novel resonate with students.
Sept. 22, in Hilo: Mayor signs proclamation
On Sept. 22, at the Office of the Mayor in Hilo, Hawai‘i County Mayor Mitch Roth signed a proclamation declaring Katsu Goto Legacy Week. In attendance was State Representative Chris Todd representing Governor Josh Green and the Hawai‘i State Legislature. On the same day, members of the Katsu Goto Education Committee met with Councilmember Sue Lee Loy for recognition ceremonies.
Sept. 23, in Honoka‘a: Gravesite service, Peace Festival
Once Iwasaki’s book on Katsu Goto’s life was published in 2010, she decided to turn the inspirational story into a documentary film. Working as project director, writer, and executive producer, Iwasaki and crew began filming in 2014. It’s now nearing completion with the last of the footage taken during Katsu Goto Legacy Week events on Saturday, Sept. 23, notably at the gravesite service held at Hāmākua Jodo Mission in Honoka‘a, which included Goto’s relatives who were accompanied by dignitaries and friends from Japan.
Saturday’s commemorative events included a Peace Day Festival on the lawn at the Salvation Army, where Goto was recognized as a Honoka‘a “Hometown Hero.” There was music by the Honoka‘a High School Jazz Band, traditional bon dancing, and youth members from the cast of “Peace on your Wings” who sang songs of inspiration, peace, and hope from a new uplifting musical about Sadako Sasaki and her one thousand paper cranes.
Katsu Goto Legacy Week, the book Hāmākua Hero, and the upcoming film serve as a revival of connection between Hawai‘i’s multicultural community, the plantation era, and newer generations.
Story by Cheylan Zimmerman, an English major at UH Hilo. Susan Enright, editor of UH Hilo Stories, contributed.