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By Jenny Quill
In 1906, the first time Chokichi Kanetake came to Hawaii from Okinawa, the only method of travel available to him was a slow-moving ship, one that he would ride between Okinawa and the Big Island twice more, once in 1912 and again in 1918. On this last trip back to the Big Island, Chokichi brought with him his oldest daughter and two oldest sons, leaving behind his wife and youngest son, Choki. Finally, in 1922, 16-year-old Choki made the trip to Hawaii by himself carrying little more than a cloth bag with clothes and a few yen.
“When my dad and grandmother were coming to Hawaii, they had to stop in Yokohama and were examined by immigration people from the United States,” says grandson Stan Kanetake, an attorney who was raised in Kailua. “Grandma turned out to have an eye infection and was not allowed to come [at that time], so my dad came by himself on the ship.”
By the time Choki arrived in Hawaii, the Kanetakes had moved from the Big Island, where they made their living on a sugar plantation, to Oahu, where they first settled in Waimānalo, working the plantations there for several years. At the time, Stan’s uncle, Chozen, was living down the road in Kailua’s coconut grove. “[My father] would come over to Kailua for the weekend to be at his big brother’s house and then walk back on Sunday evenings to Waimānalo,” says Stan. “There were no lights, no real roads. It would take several hours.”
In the years that followed, both Choki and Chozen owned and operated several thriving businesses in and around Kailua. “He didn’t have much education,” says Stan of his father. “He would ride his motorcycle over the Pali and go to night school. The YMCA would have these classes for immigrants. He learned English, math and some business law.” The brothers pooled their money to open their first business, a service station in Kaneohe, which helped establish the family within the community. This was followed in 1937 by another service station, aptly named Kanetakes, which was located on Kailua Road. A general store sans the sundries, Kanetakes was part service station and garage, part radio store and part appliance store. “They were very ambitious,” says Stan. “All those buildings [at Kanetake’s] were built by them by hand.”
Not too long after, Stan’s father shuttered the Kaneohe service station and opened a radio store and Filco dealership on Fort Street “Dad closed the service station and went to Fort Street and then … Pearl Harbor happened,” says Stan.
Following the attack, Choki was arrested and his radios confiscated. However, character testimonies given by his friends saved him from being sent to the internment camps on the Mainland. Following his release, Choki returned to Kailua and opened a rent-a-car operation on the grounds of his brother’s service station. That company evolved into Choki’s final business endeavor: a used-car lot called Kailua Motors, an offshoot of which he later opened on Kapiolani Boulevard.
With the exception of his college and law-school years on the Mainland, Stan, who was born in 1942, has spent most of his life in Kailua. While his sister and brother have since moved elsewhere, Stan believes that he was meant to be in Kailua. “I always knew I was going to come back,” he says. “It’s just such a special place.” His strongest memories center on his days working at the family’s service station—“At age 10, my father gave me a toolbox and said, ‘Go work’”—and attending Kailua Elementary School. “It was a magical time,” he says of his school days, “and I’ve heard that from some of my former classmates.”
Other connections, including his current role as president of the Windward Rotary Endowment Fund, keep Kanetake grounded in the community. And, he says, it doesn’t hurt that his mother, Irene, a founding member of Kailua Christian Church, lives right next door to his office on Kuulei Road, a building that his parents have owned for close to 50 years.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Kanetake family reunions, which are held every five years, and have grown so large that the last one featured a family cookbook, replete with photos and a flush family tree. According to Stan, they’re expecting 200 or so Kanetakes at this year’s gathering.