comscore Filmmaker documents lives of Kona coffee pioneers | Honolulu Star-Advertiser
Top News

Filmmaker documents lives of Kona coffee pioneers


KAILUA-KONA >> An award-winning writer and filmmaker is looking for some help with a documentary that brings to life one of Hawaii Island’s lesser-known stories, a historical tale that’s reminiscent of the Underground Railroad.

Over the past five years, Walter Dods, who owns Honolulu-based film company Saturation Point, has been working on “The Long Journey Home,” a two-hour film following the lives of the first three generations of Japanese on the Big Island, with a focus on the farmers who helped pioneer Kona coffee, a thriving industry that’s now famous worldwide, West Hawaii Today reported.

“It traces the immigrant experience in Kona from one of indentured servitude to outer space,” he said.

The film begins with the Issei, the first generation of Japanese who made the voyage to Hawaii and were assigned to sugar plantations on the Hamakua Coast. Recruiters told them if they fulfilled three-year contracts with the plantations, they would be able to return home to their villages with enough money to create prosperous lives. However, they were not told about the harsh plantation life, filled with backbreaking, tedious work, primitive living conditions and bosses who could be physically brutal.

Some decided to forego their contractual obligations and instead ran away from plantation villages at night. They headed across the rough terrain, making the scary weeklong journey to Kona, a place they were told had sympathetic locals who would give them shelter, help them change their names to avoid detection and start anew. Along the way, they hid from police patrols and bandits, stayed in houses known to provide refuge, slept during the day and traveled during the night. If caught, deserters would be beaten, jailed, stripped of earnings and have penalty time added to their contracts.

The majority of Japanese laborers on the Big Island didn’t return to Japan. Instead, many headed to Kona, where they could afford to lease small tracts of failing land, grow coffee and make new lives. Kona coffee back then was a dying industry, and the immigrants’ livelihood depended on the crop for more than half a century. Through incredible determination and hard work, they helped shape Kona coffee and make it the successful gourmet product it is today, Dods said.

The film also features the Nisei, the second generation of Japanese who tried to forge a new identity, were loyal to Hawaii and had civil liberties curtailed, and the Sansei, the third generation that included Ellison Onizuka, who grew up on a coffee farm, became the first Asian-American astronaut, never forgot his roots, and remains a beacon of inspiration to many.

Dods is in Kona until Feb. 20 shooting B-roll footage and looking for photographs circa 1880-1970 of Japanese Big Island residents, especially those of farmers growing or picking coffee in Kona. He is also searching for interesting artifacts that Japanese laborers and early Kona coffee pioneers would have or used, such as a charcoal burning iron, an old three-year contract with a plantation, an old passport and a bango, which is a metal ID tag that had a number stamped on one side and was worn around the neck of plantation workers.

Dods will scan all photographs in Kona and return them promptly to ensure that none are lost or damaged. Interesting artifacts will be photographed and filmed. Those who want to contribute items should contact Dods at 233-9298 or

This nonprofit film project is supported in part by the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii, a nonprofit organization striving to share the history, heritage and culture of the evolving Japanese American experience in the state. Dods hopes to raise between $200,000 and $250,000 to complete “The Long Journey Home,” which is his first feature film.

While Dods is pursuing grants as potential funding sources, monetary donations can also be sent to the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii and should indicate “The Long Journey Home” film as the beneficiary. Questions about how to donate can be directed to Dods.

Since starting this film almost five years ago, Dods has made great progress, completing roughly 85 percent of the on-camera interviews. Key were Shawn Hiatt, a pre-eminent cinematographer in the state who helped film a series of beautiful and moving interviews, Deborah Miller of Montaj 9, who has volunteered her editing skills, and Sheree Chase and members of the Kona Historical Society.

Dods stressed the film would not be possible without the help of so many Big Island residents, who “define the word aloha” and whose “overflowing generosity” gives him chicken skin. He is grateful for all who have bravely shared their intimate stories and knowledge. Roughly 14 characters will be featured in the film, including West Hawaii residents Norman Sakata, Claude Onizuka, Arthur Murata, Mitsugi Inaba, Sunao Kadooka and Hiroki Morinoue.

Dods plans to produce a two-hour version of “The Long Journey Home” to show at film festivals and a one-hour version for television, both of which should be finished by 2016.

Comments have been disabled for this story...

Click here to see our full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak. Submit your coronavirus news tip.

Be the first to know
Get web push notifications from Star-Advertiser when the next breaking story happens — it's FREE! You just need a supported web browser.
Subscribe for this feature

Scroll Up