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Little Known Hamakua Lynching Is Part of Hawaiʻi's Labor History

Katsu Goto’s grave at Hamakua Jodo Mission Cemetery
Noe Tanigawa
Katsu Goto’s grave at Hamakua Jodo Mission Cemetery

The last physical remnants of sugar and pineapple plantations may be rusting in the sun, but cultural influences remain.

From mixed plate lunches to palaka jams, so much of what's distinctive about Hawaiʻi is connected to our labor heritage. Labor history links the islands, and the heritage includes a lynching in Honokaʻa on Hawaiʻi Island.

Katsu Goto was born in Oiso, Kanagawa prefecture, Japan — he was 23 years old in 1885 when he immigrated to Hawaiʻi. He was one of the Kanyaku Imin, the first group of Japanese to come under sugar plantation labor contracts.

"The conditions for work were really hard," UH Hilo professor and filmmaker Dr. Patsy Iwasaki has been researching Goto's story for over 20 years.

Listen to Dr. Patsy Iwasaki's full interview from The Aloha Friday Conversation on Sept. 10, 2021.

Dr. Patsy Iwasaki - Sept. 10, 2021
The Aloha Friday Conversation

"The contract that they signed was working 10 hours a day, six days a week, sun up to sunset. And to keep the workers in line, there were lunas on horseback using the whip sometimes, to keep them working."

Katsu Goto, a photo inside Honokaa Hongwanji
Noe Tanigawa
Katsu Goto in a photo at Honokaʻa Hongwanji Mission

Goto was assigned to the Overend Plantation, commonly called Honokaʻa plantation, and finished his three-year contract. He then opened a general store in Honokaʻa.

"And the store was a stepping stone for him to get off the plantations and become successful. He already had crossed that line and become a successful businessman. But instead of turning his back on his fellow workers on the plantation, he sacrificed his life trying to help the situation that he already had left!"

Goto became a spokesperson for the workers.

"Already by then, Goto was a target because Robert Overend, the plantation owner, knew that his workers were always seeing Katsu Goto out to seek improvements to their work situation."

In early October 1889, there was a fire at the Overend sugar plantation.

"He was a targeted man already, so when the fire occurred on the plantation, Robert Overend thought this was instigated by Katsu Goto. He had already told Katsu Goto at one point that if he ever saw Katsu Goto talking to his plantation workers, he was a dead man."

On a sunny morning, on the Hilo end of Honokaʻa town, you have to work to imagine seeing a man hanging from a rope here. A simple memorial is tucked into foliage near Honokaʻa Library on Mamane Street.

The Katsu Goto Memorial
Noe Tanigawa
The Katsu Goto Memorial is located across Hamakua High School near the center of town on Mamane Street.

"This place is important because Overend Camp is further down here."

Iwasaki points downslope where the mill and worker's quarters were located.

"He was coming back from a meeting with plantation workers at Overend Camp here, to the main street because this was the main street over 100 years ago and still is the main street. He was ambushed and lynched here."

Court documents record that four men jumped Goto near the current memorial. He was tied up and hanged from a telephone pole near the current Honokaʻa High School pool.

"You know, lynchings back then, even in the American South, they were to give a message to the people in the community that this can happen to you. It was a hate crime."

Goto, 27 years old, was hanged on October 28, 1889.

The highly publicized trial of four accused began May the next year.

William Blabbin, Thomas Steele, Joseph Mills, and William Watson were convicted of murder. Watson served four years in prison, Steele and Blabbin escaped, and Mills was granted a full pardon.

The lynching, did it serve its purpose?

"I'm not sure, but it took a while before the unions came in. It took several decades to bring more equity to the workers on the plantation."

It took a monumental 79-day strike spanning 33 of the 34 sugar plantations across the islands to change things. The 1946 sugar strike united workers across ethnic lines, and ushered in a new era of political and economic participation for workers in Hawaiʻi.

Iwasaki is working on a film about Goto's life. Find out more about that on their website. Also, a graphic novel has been produced around Goto's experiences: "Hamakua Hero, A True Plantation Story" is published by Bess Press.

Noe Tanigawa covers art, culture and ideas for Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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