“Are You From The Mainland Because You Speak So Well!”


By:  Jenn K

I speak so well because I just do. LOL

Myself, my sons, and my grandpa. His parents immigrated from Japan and spoke both Standard and Pidgin Japanese.

Last year, it became official that Pidgin English would be a recognized language.  It was an exciting announcement for many of us around the islands, as well as across the globe.  For others, it left them asking, “WHY?!”  Pidgin English in my childhood home, for example, wasn’t acceptable but it wasn’t completely barred.  I was taught that if I wanted to be taken seriously, I had to be able to speak clearly and properly but I also didn’t have to limit myself to only learning one form of the English language.

Cullen with my parents. Mom hates when I say "da kine" but my dad does it all the time!

As a very young child who was just learning to talk, I was surrounded by a variety of adults and children who spoke either Pidgin or Standard English so it took me some time to decipher.  I’d ask for clarification from my mom:  “She said ‘dat one’.  Did she mean ‘that one’?” or “Is it butter or buther?”.  Even now, as an adult, I second-guess myself whenever I say “tire tread” because I often hear “tire thread”.  It’s rather comical.

Saimin or saimein?

Other forms of Pidgin included a blend of foreign words, mostly comprised of a variety of Asian and European languages.  This began when foreign immigrants settled here and worked together in cane fields and other plantations, without understanding a word of what each other was saying.  To better communicate, they taught each other their respective languages but, eventually, created their own.  Often times, they would rely so heavily on their newfound system of communication that they would actually forget their first language.


In speaking with my Japanese family members, friends, and acquaintances around town I found that to be true.  Issei and even some Nissei relatives spoke Pidgin Japanese and could no longer communicate effectively with those who spoke the standard form.  My mother says that her own paternal grandparents were faced with this challenge, as her obachan spoke pidgin but her ojichan didn’t.

Myra Sachiko Ikeda talking story with my mom, Sherry, as she signs her book. They held up the line! Haha!

To better understand the history of the pidgin language as communicated by the Japanese here on Hawaii Island, pick up a copy of “A Harvest of Hawaii Plantation Pidgin The Japanese Way” by Hilo native Myra Sachiko Ikeda.  She put an astonishing 40 years into research and writing before finally publishing it!  It’s a fun and interesting read that I was able to purchase at a recent book signing at the Hawaii Japanese Center here in Hilo.  Myra shared of her personal experiences growing up in a plantation setting and eventually living in Japan, where she was able to communicate without the need for fluency.  Many of her stories were familiar to those in attendance and, not surprisingly, showcased a variety of terms used in different ways depending on what part of the island they were from.

The book!

What’s most helpful in her book is a glossary that charts phrases and words used in both pidgin and standard Japanese.  Who knew that “jabon” is actually “zabon”?  Not me.

Unrelated: I saw this Okinawan Snake Sake at the Hawaii Japanese Center and thought it was really cool! One of the many fantastic displays of donated items around the Center.



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