Okinawan Restaurant Project

Hawaii Okinawan Restaurant Project Exhibit now open at Honolulu Hale – January 19th to February 8th, 2018, 8 am to 4 pm

When Columbia Inn closed its doors, the Executive Director of the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii urged the owners to document the history of the family’s iconic restaurant. They replied that their story was part of a much larger one, a story that encompassed 75 restaurants owned by Okinawans who emigrated from the same village, Oroku.

Gene Kaneshiro (last owner of Columbia Inn) and Howard Takara (whose parents ran Yuki’s Cafe) along with Howard’s daughter Holly (then President of the Hawaii Oroku Azajin Club) spearheaded the Hawaii Okinawa Restaurant Project. They began documenting the remarkable story of Ushi Takara who started American Café in 1923 and took dozens of fellow Uchinanchu from Oroku under his wing, teaching them the trade from the ground up and helping them to open restaurants of their own. Overall, the project identified over 325 restaurants in Hawaii that were owned or being run by Uchinanchu.

Phase I focused on Oroku owned restaurants. For years, they gathered together restaurant families and met once a month talking story and painstakingly pulling knowledge from people’s memories. They meticulously recorded and checked restaurant names, owners, locations, and approximate opening and closing dates. Phase II focused on all the other Uchinanchu restaurants, eventually identifying 250 additional restaurants across the state.

Securing grants, Howard and Gene worked with UH to record the oral histories of 12 restaurateurs and the creation of an Oroku Restaurant exhibit. This level of community archivism is remarkable, both in the span of time dedicated to the project and the incredible body of work produced. It is thanks to Howard, Gene, and Holly that the story of Uchinanchu owned restaurants will not be forgotten.

Many people lament the stories we “lose” because no one dedicated the time to document or preserve it. Most people take no action citing lack of time. When Howard and Gene became aware that the story of Okinawan-owned restaurants would be lost if something was not done, they invested a significant amount of their time – mobilizing a host of volunteers to capture community memory, collecting primary source materials, recording oral histories, and creating an exhibit. I honor Howard Takara and Gene Kaneshiro for their inspiring and commendable “community archivism.”