An Interview With 105-Year Old Restaurant Owner Mama Teshima

When I first moved to Hawaii in 1998, I was staying with a friend of mine (Bo) at his grandmother’s garage apartment. She was friends with the owner of a nearby Japanese restaurant, Shizuko “Mama” Teshima (The restaurant’s name, appropriately enough, was Teshima‘s). So whenever we would go eat there, a 91-year old lady would come to our table and greet us and “talk story” with Tutu, my friend’s grandmom.

Now, as some of you know, I worked in a dolphin facility at the time. So did my friend, Bo. One day, he arranged for his grandmom and Mama Teshima to get into the water with the dolphins. Remarkably, despite living in Hawaii her entire life, it was the first time the 91-year old Teshima had ever put on a bathing suit or gotten into the water. What a remarkable woman, having the courage to go into the water for the first time at age 91, and to then interact with a 500-pound animal while in the water! Just incredible.

When I decided to return to visit Hawaii this past August, I discovered that she was still alive at age 105, and still running the restaurant, though not on a daily basis. She lived in a small apartment right behind the restaurant with several members of her family. When I told her that I had been one of the guys who had helped bring her into the water with the dolphins many years before, she excitedly got her son to go find the photograph of her kissing the dolphin, then said to me, “You still look young but you grew.”

Mama Teshima held my arm during much of the interview. She is simply one of the sweetest, kindest people I have ever met, and I hope a few more people learn about this remarkable woman from this short interview I did. She is 105 years old, and she did not have the energy for a long winded piece nor does she like to talk about herself, so I kept it fairly short. I then went into the restaurant and interviewed her daughter, Irene, who told me more about the restaurant. While I was interviewing Irene, Mama called down from her house and demanded that my wife and I have lunch there, on the house. The food was, as always, delicious.

JGT: I want to start by asking you about the restaurant. When did you first open?

MAMA: I got married, 1927. I stayed with my in-laws until 1930, and there was a store.

JGT: And where was that located.

MAMA: Right here.

IRENE: It was a bar, a grocery store, and a barber shop, when they first opened. It was hard when they opened the grocery store, because people didn’t have money. She ran things on credit, and people wouldn’t be able to pay her until the coffee harvest came in, and then they would come in and pay.

JGT: Have you always lived in this building (right behind the restaurant)?

MAMA: This came in 1947.

JGT: So you started with a store in 1929?

MAMA: Yes, a store. Rations. General merchandise. Small, but we carried fishing tools, groceries. Old fashioned. And then when the war came, I took care of the soldiers (American soldiers were stationed next door). I fed them. They would come to the bar, and they were hungry, I used to treat them. When I was 30-something. I was young. I didn’t worry about money. Nobody had money. (laughs)

JGT: Was there any difficulty for you, when the war started, since your family is Japanese?

MAMA: There were three local people who came to check on us, and make sure everything is alright. Policemen and…FBI. There were blackouts, and we had to cover the windows, but we didn’t feel like there was war. When Pearl Harbor was bombed, they took my husband to the mainland. To the concentration camp. But it didn’t take long, and he came back. Oshima, the man with the store (His family still runs the general store called Oshima’s a couple of miles down the road from Teshima’s), wanted to come back, he had little children. He was climbing up the barbed wire. They shot him, so he died. (ed. note- I did a little research on this. Kisaburo Oshima was shot and killed at an internment camp in Fort Sill, Oklahoma.)

IRENE: I don’t think my mom had any problem with the soldiers next door. In fact, they all came to her and she would write to their parents and tell them that the boys were OK. She always felt that, what if it was her children being far away, (the parent) not knowing what’s going on?

JGT: So did the restaurant stay open during the war?

MAMA: I had the bar. The soldiers came. I said, “The soldiers are not going to live long. They are going to die.” So I gave them a lot of liquor. Other bars gave little liquor or mixture. But I felt they’re not coming back. Why not give them what they want?

IRENE: During the war, you know the church next door, the Buddhist church, was used for soldiers. And a lot of them wanted to go out to eat and drink, so my mother would cook for them. So she decided to open a little saimin and sandwich place. She started small. And then she got rid of the grocery store, and just did the restaurant and the bar.

JGT: So when did you open as a restaurant?

MAMA: I forgot the date. (Laughs) I cannot figure. (ed. note: According to several other sources, it was sometime in the 1940s).

JGT: So you’ve been in charge of the restaurant ever since it opened?

MAMA: Yes.

JGT: When you opened the restaurant, did you used to cook the food?

MAMA: Yeah. And my friend, but she’s all gone. I’m 105, so she was one year younger. She and I. She did the waitress, helped me cook, and I cooked, washed the dishes.

JGT: Where was your husband?

MAMA: Working at Captain Cook.

IRENE: He worked at the Captain Cook Coffee Company. He was a mechanic over there.

JGT: When you first opened, was it named Teshima’s?

MAMA: Yes, Teshima. The same.

JGT: What advice would you give to a person who wants to own a restaurant?

MAMA: No greed. Always try to help.

JGT (To Irene): Do you think your mother is proud of what she’s accomplished?

IRENE: Oh I’m sure. She’s not the kind of person to take credit for things. But she’s done a lot, and because of her, we’re still here. She never had an education, but through hard work, she accomplished a lot. She should be really proud of herself, even if she won’t brag about it.

True to her mantra of always trying to help, on her 105th birthday, this past June, Mama Teshima asked people to not bring her gifts…instead she asked them to donate to a scholarship fund set up for local high school seniors so that they could attend college.