Pigs from the Sea

Story by Mari Taketa. Photo by

Across the table in a crowded food court at Ala Moana Center,

Dan Nakasone is telling me a story. I’ve heard its outlines before: In 1948, after brutal fighting in World War II decimated Okinawa, local Okinawans in Hawai‘i sent pigs across the sea to help their ancestral homeland. This is a remarkable tale but one that’s hardly known. As a Japanese-American, I grew up hearing different war stories—about the US Army’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team, how its heroism helped counter anti-Japanese racism in America. Left out of this lore was the racism among much of Hawai‘i’s local Japanese population toward Okinawans, though I sensed those feelings as I grew up. That part of my history is painful, and that’s partly why I’ve come to listen to Nakasone tell his story.

Over eighty-two days in 1945, 142,000 Okinawans died in the Battle of Okinawa—more than a quarter of the population. The island was ravaged; no family escaped suffering. Relief campaigns in Hawai‘i began just after the war ended, responding to appeals for clothes, school supplies, anything. Then pig farmers came up with the idea of sending hogs: Pork is a staple of the Okinawan diet, and Okinawans dominated pig farming in the Islands at the time. But after repeated relief drives, money was scarce. “Coming off the Great Depression and the attack on Pearl Harbor, a lot of families were struggling. They were making clothes out of rice bags,” Nakasone says. “My father was 15, my auntie was 13. They had to quit school and work. But my grandfather and my aunties donated—fifty cents, two dollars. The whole idea was to help restock the farms. They knew they were wiped out. They took six months to collect the money, but they got enough.”

The plan they laid out was extraordinary: Buy 550 Chester White, Berkshire and Yorkshire pigs—breeds that were twice as big and bore larger litters than Okinawa’s black Agu variety—from farmers in Nebraska. Send the pigs by train to Oregon and then by ship to Okinawa. Hold a lottery and give pregnant sows to five hundred winning families. Hawai‘i’s Okinawan community asked Dr. Gilbert Bowles, an elderly Quaker who had spent forty years in Japan, to act as an emissary and approach the US Navy about free passage for the pigs. Local Okinawans also organized the lottery with the Okinawan authorities. Those who won sows would have to sell the whole litter but one male piglet to other families, who had to promise to raise litters and do the same. No one could slaughter a pig for food until the third generation.

Within four years, Nakasone says, Okinawa had one hundred thousand pigs. Pigs from the Sea, as the episode came to be known, eased hunger and rebuilt an industry. Okinawans erected a monument to this effort in the city of Uruma: a sculpture of three white pigs and a ship. When Nakasone visits Okinawa, people tell him stories about how the effort helped them: One farmer in a perennially typhoon-raked village was able to build a cement house and raise six children there; another sent his children to college. Nakasone included Pigs from the Sea in the Okinawa episode of the local PBS series Family Ingredients, which tells stories of multi-cultural Hawai‘i through its food and which Nakasone coproduces. Standing on the beach where the USS Owen had offloaded the pigs, Nakasone listened as an 85-year-old survivor recounted his memories of that day. Nakasone had always wondered what became of the effort. “They still have Chester Whites,” he says. “You see white-skinned pigs on Okinawa? They’re all descendants.”

Seventy years later, Pigs from the Sea is commemorated at the Okinawan Festival with a display and music inspired by the episode. The festival draws forty to fifty thousand people annually from all ethnicities, both visitors and residents from throughout the Islands.“I want Hawai‘i people to know. These stories feed my Uchinanchu, my Okinawan identity,” says Nakasone, “but they also feed my Hawai‘i identity. It’s not just about Okinawans. Even with the discrimination, the financial hardships, Hawai‘i people gave. All ethnicities. It’s their story, too.” HH