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Tiny Volcano Schoolhouse Plays Big Role in History

January 4, 2018, 10:03 AM HST
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The Old Japanese School is still standing strong. PC: J.M. Buck

If you wander through the historic neighborhood of Volcano Village, you might venture down Kalani Honua Road and notice a small red building with a wooden sign that reads “Old Japanese School.” Sounds intriguing enough, but what’s so special about this place?

A lot. For one, it is one of only two surviving one-room schoolhouses in Hawai‘i.

The Old Japanese School has roots going back to the original Japanese families that settled in Volcano, and is connected to events that occurred in Hawai‘i during WWII.

Flanked by sugi trees and camellias, The Old Japanese School exhibits the form of traditional plantation architecture common throughout Hawai‘i from the 1920s to the mid-1940s. However, it’s not the schoolhouse itself that’s so interesting, but the history of how it came to be and the part it has played in the Volcano community.

Early History

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In 1823, missionaries began visiting Kīlauea Caldera. William Ellis was one of the first, followed by Elisha Loomis in 1824. In 1846, Benjamin Pitman Sr., the husband of High Chiefess Kino‘ole, built Volcano House, an inn overlooking Kīlauea, which became a favorite haunt of Mark Twain. Two rugged dirt trails led to the Volcano area; one was part of a circum-island route, the other originated in Hilo and led to Kīlauea Iki.

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As early as 1880, the Volcano area had full-time residents. Volcano House manager Oliver T. Shipman was one of the first residents of Volcano Village, as the area three miles north of Kīlauea would come to be known.

Between 1888 and 1894, a new road running from Akatsuka’s to Volcano House was established. The greatly improved access opened up the Volcano area to increased settlement.

On Oct. 17, 1910, a 200-acre tract in Volcano Village was granted to Hilo Trading Company owner Martin Porter. In 1911, the land immediately bordering the east and south of Porter’s property was subdivided. Several wealthy missionary families quickly applied for and were awarded land grants in the new ‘Ola‘a Summer Lots subdivision.

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However, it was not just the wealthy who were interested in living in the nascent Volcano Village. A 1911 plat map reveals land grants to several Japanese families.

By 1914, approximately 35 Japanese families were living in ‘Ola‘a Summer Lots. Many were farmers; others worked at Volcano House or as groundskeepers for wealthy landowners. Some worked for Tsunesako Honma making ʻōhiʻa wood railroad ties for a new narrow-gauge railway that was to run between Hilo and Glenwood.

In 1927, Porter subdivided part of his 200-acre tract into 59 parcels—Anuhea Volcano Houselots. Japanese families purchased 33 of the lots; Honma purchased five.

Realizing the necessity for a Japanese language school, the Volcano House Japanese School House Association (Kazan Nihon Gi Chiho Kumiai) was formed. Honma donated his newly purchased Lot 32 in Anuhea Volcano Houselots to the Kumiai for the purpose of building a school, and local Japanese contractor Miyano constructed a 576-square-foot, one-room schoolhouse that opened in 1928.

The school taught Japanese reading, writing, mathematics and customs.

The building also served as a Japanese community center, where Japanese holiday events took place, such as weddings, dances and Japanese films.

In 1931, Motoi Shiotani became the school’s first principle. Shiotani had a four-room teacher’s quarters constructed behind the school and replaced the outhouses with flush toilet bathrooms. The school operated under Shiotani until Dec. 8, 1941, when General Order No. 6 mandated the closure of all schools in the Territory of Hawai‘i, both public and private.

The War Years

On Dec. 4, 1941, three days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, a letter was sent from Honolulu FBI Special Agent in Charge R.L. Shivers to the FBI director in Washington. The subject of the letter was detention of Japanese, Italian and German aliens. The letter discusses the infeasibility of seizing all those of Japanese ancestry in Hawai‘i; at the time, Japanese made up approximately one-third of Hawai‘i’s population.

The letter stated “…that there are now a total of 338 Japanese aliens to be seized… [including] nine American citizens of Japanese ancestry.”

The letter went on to describe who was on the detention list. On the Big Island, the list contained the names of 82 Japanese men and women, including school principle Motoi Shiotani and his wife, and Y. Matsunaga, one of the Kumiai’s eight founders.

After the Dec. 7, 1941, bombing of Pearl Harbor, Kīlauea Military Camp (KMC), an Army recreation facility inside Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, turned into a Japanese interment camp literally overnight.

All Big Island detainees were brought first to KMC and were later sent to either the Sand Island internment camp on O‘ahu or to Mainland camps. Shiotani, his wife and Matsunaga were held in detention for the remainder of World War II. In all, nearly 1,500 Japanese from Hawai‘i were detained.

In October 1942, all Japanese language schools were ordered to liquidate their assets. The Kumiai donated their funds to Cub Scout Troop 8 and allowed them use of the property; the schoolhouse also continued to be used for community functions. The following year, title to the property was transferred from the Kumiai to the Volcano Vegetable Growers Association.

After WWII Until Present

In 1947, the property was transferred to the Volcano Community Association (VCA). The Volcano Japanese School reopened in the 1950s, and was again used for Japanese education and cultural functions.

As the years passed, attendance at the school dwindled. In the 1970s, the property was leased to the Volcano Art Center (VAC), which purchased it on April 14, 1989. The teacher’s quarters were minimally renovated as an office, and the schoolhouse was used for art classes and dance performances.

VAC held title until Feb. 3, 2009, when Satoshi Yabuki purchased the school property and buildings. Yabuki, owner of the neighboring Holoholo Inn hostel, still owns the Old Japanese School. Yabuki, who is originally from Japan, said that he intends to keep as much of the building as original as possible. All the windows (with the exception of three), the doors, floor, ceiling and blackboard are all original, and the building is eligible for inclusion on the National Historic Register and the Hawai‘i State Register of Historic Places.

Visiting classes, student groups, and the Volcano community still use the schoolhouse for various functions. Though the times and ownership have changed for The Old Japanese School, it is still alive, still Japanese-owned, and still very much a part of the Volcano community.

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