Connection Between Hawaii’s Local-Style Restaurants and Oroku, Okinawa

American Cafe founded by Ushi Takara in 1923.

American Cafe, founded by Ushi Takara in 1923, “on King Street near Richards Street, about where Central Pacific Bank is today.”1 Photo from the introduction to The Oroku, Okinawa Connection.

In 2002-2003, Michiko Kodama-Nishimoto and Warren Nishimoto of the Center for Oral History, Social Science Research Institute, University of Hawai’i at Manoa, conducted eleven interviews that were compiled in The Oroku, Okinawa Connection: Local-Style Restaurants in Hawai‘i and published in February 2004, with joint copyright by the Center for Oral History and the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii. The online version is available in ScholarSpace (accessed 23 Oct. 2015). The following are links to the excellent introduction (with priceless photos), interviews, and appendix.

Excerpts from the introduction:

Since the 1920s, there have been more than seventy restaurants owned and operated on O’ahu by Orokun-chu, or individuals whose families originated in Oroku, Okinawa. The earliest documented by the Oroku Azajin Restaurant Committee is American Cafe founded by Ushi Takara in 1923. Ushi Takara and non-Orokun-chu Harry Seigi Uehara, owner of Kewalo Inn, have often been credited for hiring, training, and inspiring others to open their own eateries. Orokun-chu restaurateurs also mentioned as mentors by project interviewees include: Gentaro Kaneshiro of Frankie’s Cafe and Columbia Inn, Fred Toshio Kaneshiro of Columbia Inn, Takaras and Teruyas of Kaimuki Inn, Saburo Teruya of Hibiscus Cafe, and Saburo Takara of Ramona Cafe.

Through the influence of these and other early restaurateurs and the efforts of young men and women who started as dishwashers, kitchen help, and wait help, the number of Okinawan-run restaurants proliferated. For three decades beginning in the 1930s, these businesses began offering set meals and services suited to the likes and needs of island families.

While all but a few among the seventy or so restaurants owned by Orokun-chu are no longer in operation, many are still familiar to old-time restaurant-goers. Aloha Grill, Bluebird Cafe, Columbia Inn, George’s Inn, Lucky Grill, New Capitol Cafe, Sierra Cafe, Smile Cafe, and Times Grill are places still remembered. The entrees, menus, and services associated with these establishments are longstanding standards for local restaurants and part of island history.

* * *

Oroku is the section in pink.

Oroku, the section in pink, is in Naha.

I found The Oroku, Okinawa Connection in a search after reading Bob Sigall’s “A Single Okinawan Village Spawned Many Isle Eateries” in this morning’s Star-Advertiser (23 Oct. 2015). Here are some excerpts from Sigall’s article:

Before leaving Okinawa the original group of immigrants from one particular village — Oroku Aza — pledged to help each other in their new life in Hawaii. They founded the Oroku Aza Jin Club, which began in Hilo in April 1923.

One of the first to open his own restaurant from the village of Oroku Aza in Okinawa was Ushi Takara, who opened the American Cafe in 1923. The American Cafe was on King Street near Richards Street, about where Central Pacific Bank is today.

Takara was a mentor to many, Howard Takara (no relation) says. “They worked at his restaurant as dishwashers and worked their way up to cooks. When they developed enough skill, Ushi Takara encouraged them to start their own restaurants.”

More than 70 restaurants in Hawaii were founded by people from that single village, including Columbia Inn, Kapiolani Coffee Shop and Aloha Grill.

More than 60 of those restaurant were headed by families with the surnames Uyehara, Kaneshiro, Teruya or Takara.

Most served American food. “Okinawan food is popular today but 50 years ago it wasn’t,” Howard Takara says. “They succeeded because they served food that was well liked in Hawaii, not what they personally were used to.”

1 Bob Sigall, “A single Okinawan village spawned many isle eateries,” Star-Advertiser, 23 Oct. 2015.

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