The sun has set, and on a cool brisk night, on the Big Island of Hawaii, there is one brightly lit home at the end of a dark cul-de-sac. Breaking the rural tones of katydids, crickets, and coqui frogs is the increasing volume of conversations, laughter, music and the utterances of children while they play. As you get closer to the home a celebration is revealed. A young man, from the town of Pahala, in the district of Kau, has just graduated from high school and friends and family have joined together to offer their congratulations.
There are more than 50 people under the covering of a carport with a few groups spilling out to the street. One of the guests has just arrived, Capt. Melvin (Mel) Yokoyama, the commanding officer of Naval Information Warfare Center (NIWC) Pacific. Fresh from giving the commencement address at his alma mater, Kau High School, Yokoyama is ready to catch up with some of the people from around his hometown.
Yokoyama flowed through the crowd with respectful cultural greetings of “Hello auntie. Hey uncle. Eh, brah, howzit?” Never mind if those greeted are not actually blood relatives because as Yokoyama stated, and everyone agreed, “In Pahala we are one big family (ohana).” He continued to engage as he sat to enjoy his dinner of laulau, kalua pork, lomi salmon, poi, lechon, dinardaraan, Korean chicken, bibingka and puto. A nice blend of Asian and Pacific Islander dishes that richly complement his cultural background just like the community ohana of the town.
Pahala is approximately 30 miles from the most southern point of the Unites States. Surrounded by lush rain forests, black sand beaches and an active Kilauea volcano, the reported population is 1,356. The town’s borders can be circled in about 15 minutes. There is one small town store and a small snack shop. This former sugar cane plantation-built town is the place Yokoyama calls home.
The sugar cane plantation, which closed in 1996, established the town more than 125 years ago. It brought many immigrants from different countries.
“You had different camps. Immigrants would come from the Philippines, Japan and China and form their own camps around the town with many of the homes built by the plantation, including my parents’ home,” said Yokoyama. “Eventually over the years these camps converged and the town was formed.”
His Asian and Pacific Islander heritage is a direct representation of the diversity of Pahala as Yokoyama’s family ancestry is part Japanese, Chinese, Filipino and Hawaiian. Immigrants from Asian countries and other Pacific Islands, along with native Hawaiians, helped Hawaii become the most ethnically diverse state in the nation.
One of the roads leading to Pahala is an evergreen forest that lines the roadside, which Yokoyama helped plant as a plantation worker, more than 30 years ago.
“I grew up working in the fields,” said Yokoyama. “As a high school student, I worked the planation to help my family and pay for my sports, football and basketball.”
For a rural town like Pahala, with 15 miles or more from the next town, that’s true for just about every young person. However, now, Yokoyama sees vast bridges to success created by advancements in technology that provide enormous connections to expanded educational opportunities and a world of ideas. Still, he knows generations of thinking need to change.
“This is why I like to come back. This is why I like to talk to the youth. I feel it’s my personal mission,” said Yokoyama. “They can see if I, a person who stood in their same shoes 31 years ago and grew up just like them, can be successful they can do it too.”
Yokoyama is a living example of what can be done when you set your mind to something. His senior yearbook quote under his photo read, “If you can dream big dreams, you can achieve them.”
One of the ideas Yokoyama shared during his commencement address to Kau High’s 2019 graduating class was, “The only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work and the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”
Yokoyama knew he wanted to be a part of something bigger than himself. He found his “great work” in the Navy.
“I was lucky” says Yokoyama. “I found what I loved to do early in life. I love being in the Navy. I love working alongside and leading Sailors and Marines. I loved flying Navy jets off aircraft carriers. And I love my current job as the commanding officer of NIWC Pacific leading over 5,000 officers, Sailors, civilian scientists and engineers across the world.”
Yokoyama believes being a part of the military fits well with individuals like himself.
“It’s all about community,” Yokoyama commented. “It’s about being a part of a team, being a part of something much larger than yourself. The military mirrors plantation values, community values.”
There was some exposure to the military for the town. Yokoyama presumes that a large percentage of the town are combat veterans, some having served in Iraq and Afghanistan, Vietnam, and even World War II. Some of the veterans served with the historic 442nd Regiment Combat Team, which was comprised of American born sons of Japanese immigrants, most from Hawaii, who made their mark on history as one of the most decorated American units of any war for its size and length of service.
There is a greatness and a sense of pride within the blended culture and heritage of the town. From Kau High School, the second oldest public school in the state of Hawaii, Yokoyama shared stories about his time flying off aircraft carriers, being senior advisor to the Iraqi Minister of Defense when deployed to Baghdad, and now as a commanding officer of a Naval Warfare Center. From these stories, Yokoyama’s take away message to the graduates was, “Don’t be afraid of failing, define your own success and find your own purpose in life.” He urged them to always remember where they came from and to be great ambassadors of Pahala and the people of Kau.
The sugar plantation days are long since over and have been replaced by macadamia nut farms and complexly-flavored Kau coffee trees, but the people of Pahala and their values remain constant. The contributions and fusion of the different immigrant plantation camps produced a rich heritage of people who have achieved much.
“I love that my town continues to uphold the plantation values of community cohesion,” said Yokoyama. “At the end of the day it’s about what’s best for the community. Family and community.”
In a town where a high school graduation was considered the pinnacle of a person’s life, dreaming big and thinking beyond the generational thoughts of the town has led to inspiration and a push for more. The graduating class of 54 students has several graduates attending two-and-four-year colleges and universities, and six joining the military.
Yokoyama remembers the saying he grew up with to help him strive for more and can still be applied today, “Believe it. Believe in yourself.” His parting thoughts to the graduates and all in attendance was, “Make an impact. Dream big.”