Japanese immigration to Hawaii

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Japanese immigration to Hawaii represented one of the largest or most significant groups of immigrants to come to work on the sugar plantations in the last decades of the 19th, and first decades of the 20th centuries. The vast majority came from the prefectures of Yamaguchi, Hiroshima, Fukuoka, Kumamoto, and, after 1900, from Okinawa. Japanese quickly became one of the largest and most influential ethnic groups in the islands, remaining so today.

Governmental motivations

The Hawaiian government at that time was in desperate need of laborers to help support the local economy, as the Native Hawaiian population continued to dwindle, due largely to epidemics of diseases introduced into the islands by Westerners. The Japanese government, meanwhile, saw this as a way of relieving political/social tensions caused by rural poverty (and thus avoiding peasant uprisings), seeing benefit too in the remittances emigrants might send back to their families in Japan, and in the agricultural experience, techniques, and technology they might bring back with them. Most Japanese who traveled to Hawaii on three-year contracts, however, settled there permanently, and did not return.

Early Negotiations and Contract Laborers

The first Japanese to settle in Hawaii did so in 1868, and have come to be known as the gannenmono, that year being the first year (gannen) of the Meiji period. They did so without authorization from the Meiji government, however, and so most accounts of Japanese immigration to the islands identify it as beginning in earnest in 1885, with the kan'yaku imin (官約移民), or "contract laborers," who came to Hawaii and worked on the plantations under contracts legally recognized by the Japanese government. This authorized pattern of immigration only began after a lengthy series of negotiations; complaints on the part of the gannenmono against the harsh conditions contributed to Japanese hesitance to agree to authorized immigration, and to Japanese desires to ensure that Japanese immigrants to Hawaii would enjoy at least a modicum of income, safety, and quality of life.

These contracts were, initially at least, not seen as part of any formal agreement between the governments of Japan and Hawaii, but rather as voluntary agreements, on a personal or individual basis, between the immigrant and Robert Walker Irwin, the Kingdom of Hawaii's official representative in Japan. The first contracts, and immigrant journeys, came as the result of lengthy negotiations, stretching back as early as 1860, though with negotiations truly beginning in earnest in 1881. One of the key final steps in establishing this officially authorized system of contracts & immigration came in September 1884, when Irwin brought to Japan a contract proposal, a $40,000 line of credit, and a list of employers in Hawaii seeking to hire Japanese laborers. In December of that year, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs distributed "Information Regarding Emigration" pamphlets throughout the country, explaining conditions in Hawaii, and the details of the labor contracts and emigration process. Contract laborers were to be provided with free transportation to Hawaii, $9/month in wages ($6/mo for wives) plus $6/month food allowance (+$4 for wives, +$1/mo per child, up to two children). Workers were also provided with homes, medical care, and firewood, and were promised low prices on rice. Contracts were for three years, working 26 days of the month, 12 hours a day in a mill or 10 hours a day in the fields. One-quarter of the worker's earnings, however, was to be automatically deducted and held back, placed by the Japanese Consul into a Hawaiian bank account, to accumulate interest and be used to pay for workers' return voyages to Japan. All told, Japanese laborers in Hawaii in the first decade of formal immigration (1885-1894) earned on average $15/month, a considerable step up from the $4/mo earned on average by the gannenmono, in the period prior to any government oversight or policies.

Irwin is said to have expected to recruit around 600 workers in his first efforts; he received 28,000 applications. Over the next ten years, 26 journeys carried 29,000 Japanese to Hawaii. The first was in 1885, aboard the City of Tokio, which carried 944 workers, roughly half of whom were from Foreign Minister Inoue Kaoru's home prefecture of Yamaguchi. This first batch of laborers came to be known as the ikkaisen ("first ship"). Laborers were recruited through formal government announcements, word of mouth, ads in the newspapers, and, from 1900 onwards, guidebooks advertising employment in Hawaii. Those seeking to enter into a labor contract applied through their local offices and received formal permission from their prefectural government and passports from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; they then traveled to Yokohama at their own expense, where they met with a representative of the Hawaiian government to sign the contract. They underwent medical examinations in both Yokohama and Honolulu, at either end of a 10-14 day sea voyage, and after a period of quarantine in Honolulu, signed contracts with individual plantation owners through the Hawaiian Bureau of Immigration.

A Convention of Japanese Immigration signed in 1886 established various formal protocols and procedures for the immigration process, and provided for certain rights and protections for the laborers. Some of these rights (suffrage, ability to become naturalized Hawaiian citizens) were severely weakened or nullified by the Bayonet Constitution which was forced upon the Hawaiian monarchy by white businessmen the following year. The Convention was also revised in that year, and later revised again, to require laborers to pay out of their already meager incomes to help cover the costs of their transportation, medical care, and the like guaranteed to them by the Convention. Though the fees were initially quite high, in the end, workers in this period earned on average $12.50 per month.

In the first ten years of immigration, from 1885-1894, twenty-six boat trips brought a total of nearly 30,000 Japanese to Hawaii. The second ship to arrive, the Yamashiro Maru, which came to Hawaii on June 17, 1885, brought 988 or 989 people, most of them from Hiroshima and Kumamoto. The first Japanese Consul General to Hawaii, Andô Tarô, came on the third ship, the City of Peking, in February 1886. Other ships which carried contract labors to Hawaii in the first ten years included the Wakanoura Maru, Takasago Maru, Omi Maru, Sagami Maru, and Miike Maru, most of which made the trip multiple times.[1]

Certain portions of the emigration process were managed by private companies in Japan since the earliest days, and even though the Convention of 1886 expanded the Japanese government's responsibilities in overseeing immigration to Hawaii, the burden of administrative work associated with the process led to the Japanese government turning over operations of much of the initial stages of the application and selection process to private companies beginning in 1894.[2] These companies charged the emigrants a variety of fees, and also earned commissions from railroads, steamships, inns, and other agencies working with the emigrants, in order to make their profits. By this time, selection criteria became somewhat more selective; agents sought to recruit chiefly men from farming families (who therefore had the experience and physical ability), ages 20-30, excluding those obligated to military service, or those who sought to go to Hawaii with their children but without their wives. These private immigration companies dominated the process for about ten years, until 1905, when the Foreign Office cracked down on them for their unfair practices; from that time until the end of Japanese immigration to the US in 1924, the Japanese government handled immigration matters directly, without any private companies collecting fees or commissions.

Plantation Life

The grueling conditions of life on the sugar plantations, and the particular cultural developments which emerged as a result, have left an indelible mark on the collective memory of Japanese-Americans in Hawaii. While many locals of Hawaiian descent are today quite successful in white-collar professional fields, most look back to the plantation experience as the defining immigrant experience of their ancestors, contributing considerably to their notions of their own history and identity as Japanese-Americans in Hawaii.

Robert W. Irwin circulated materials to the plantation owners, encouraging them to see the Japanese not as "workers," but as "small farmers," working land held in trust by Hawaii-Japanese diplomatic relations, and that they should be led by members of their own community, not driven by taskmasters. Irwin, with his eye to diplomatic concerns, and the kingdom's desire for demographic growth, suggested that the Japanese should be led by a "silken thread of kindness," such that if they enjoyed life in Hawaii, they might settle permanently with their families, and contribute further to the kingdom, rather than sending money out of Hawaii, back to their families in Japan, and rather than themselves returning to Japan after their contracts ended. Many Japanese workers did send money back home, especially in the early years of immigration, as dekasegi ("working away from home") workers did both in Japan and in the diaspora. Initially, these remittances were handled through the Japanese Consulate, but after 1892, the Yokohama Specie Bank established a branch in Hawaii which began to handle these transfers.

Irwin's suggestions went for the most part unheeded, as industrialists treated their workers cruelly, seeking only the most efficient inputs of pure labor, with the goal of achieving the greatest possible volume of outputs. Though trains were used to carry laborers to the fields, and cane to the mills, and though the mills themselves involved some heavy machinery, most stages of the sugar cultivation process involved considerable manual labor. Workers wore many layers of clothing, heavy gloves, and hats, to protect themselves from the sun, rain, dust, biting insects, and especially from the sharp-edged leaves of the sugarcane. They used cane knives to pull up the cane stalks and to slice off the leaves. Luna (worksite foremen, or field overseers, generally of haole, Portuguese, or Hawaiian stock) often whipped the workers with the same whips used on oxen, to get them to work harder, or faster.

They lived in barracks associated with the plantations, and lived on the company's clock, being woken, generally at extremely early hours of the morning (4:30AM was typical), by company bells or whistles, and working 10-12 hour days before being allowed to call it quits for the evening. Company doctors determined whether someone was too ill to work on any given day. Workers from different ethnic backgrounds (and with different native languages) were combined in the fields, as part of a strategy to prevent them from organizing strikes or protests. The Japanese workers eventually organized major strikes in 1909 and 1920 nevertheless, the second of these being organized alongside Filipino workers, and coming one year after the Japanese workers were able to form an official labor union. This 1920 strike involved roughly 5300 Japanese and 2800 Filipino workers on all but two plantations in the Territory, and cost the plantation owners around $12 million. It is notable both as a strike organized across ethnic lines, and for the way in which the plantation owners denounced the strike as part of a scheme by the Japanese to take over the industry and the islands,[3] a nativist attitude evidenced as well in attitudes and attacks against Japanese schools in Hawaii. Encouraged by Acting Governor Curtis Piehu Iaukea to clear themselves of suspicion of harboring anti-American attitudes or intentions, Japanese began organizing events in which they marched with American flags, and pictures of Abraham Lincoln, drawing upon his association with having freed the slaves to make reference to their own labor situation.[4]

On some plantations, younger and stronger workers called hippari men were paid an extra ten cents a day for their ability to work a little harder, or faster, and were encouraged to set a faster/harder pace for the other workers. This generally attracted the ire, however, of the other workers, who could not (or would not) work harder, or faster, and who saw the hippari men as collaborating with the luna. This system further evolved in a variety of ways. One system known as ukepau, from the Japanese uke for "to receive," and the Hawaiian pau for "done," allowed workers to earn being done for the day if they completed their work early. On some plantations, this later developed into a system of paying workers not by the day or by the month, but by the actual amount of work they completed (e.g. in pounds of sugarcane processed). Another system, known as ukekibi (J: "receive sugarcane"), functioned similarly to tenant farming. Families or groups of workers would be given a plot of land to tend on their own, without managers or overseers, and would turn over the sugarcane they produced each year, being paid by the size of their harvest. Finally, after the 1909 strike, many plantations created systems of bonuses, allowing workers to earn extra for reliable, loyal, or extra service. In addition to those working in the fields and in the mills, many Japanese and other immigrants with more specialized skills worked as engineers, carpenters, and mechanics.

Grueling though the schedule was, plantation life was more than just work, and Japanese on the plantations began to form their own communities and local cultural practices and experiences. Many groups invented and sang work songs called holehole bushi, which sang of their toils, while other ethnic groups came up with songs of their own. Some Japanese managed to become peddlers, traveling around the communities selling traditional herbal remedies and the like, while others worked as cooks (called ôgokku) instead of in the fields; still others took on other occupations.[5] Before long, Japanese constituted the vast majority of barbers on the islands, not only on the plantations but also in the cities. On and off the plantation, some Japanese began operating funeral parlors, providing more proper funerary services to replace burial in the basic wooden boxes provided by the plantations, while others took up fishing, sailing, raising hogs, or producing fresh noodles, fishcake, tofu, or other Japanese foods. Some took advantage of their literacy to serve as interpreters or translators, or to produce documents of various sorts, including simply writing letters home for others, for a fee. Many Japanese also got involved in prostitution, either as prostitutes themselves in the case of women, or as purveyors or procurers in the case of the men, though this of course became the target of Japanese Christian leaders and others who strove to improve the morality and lifestyle of the Japanese.

Many Japanese on and off the plantations formed rotating credit groups called tanomoshi kô, in which all the members contributed a small amount, and then one member received it all, either by lottery, by need, or by merit of their ability to invest it most effectively. These were often spent on wedding or funeral costs, repaying debts, or the like, but many also saved or invested this money, so as to start shops or businesses.

People on the plantations rarely enjoyed fresh meat, poultry, or fish, but got their protein mainly from tofu and other soy products, and from canned fish. After the first immigrants to Hawaii realized a dearth of familiar vegetables, subsequent groups brought with them seeds to plant gardens; by 1900, Japanese communities on the plantations were growing their own daikon, lettuce, green onions, string beans, eggplants, turnips, kabocha, gobô (burdock), and shiso (perilla; Japanese basil/mint). Workers soon were able to enjoy standard, if quite basic, Japanese meals of rice, vegetables, miso soup, and tea, with the occasional fish. Saké became available in Hawaii in 1888; in addition to saké, Japanese frequently drank beer, wine, whiskey, and a local/native drink called ʻōkolehao, made from the roots of the ti plant. A former plantation worker named Sumida Tajirô established the Honolulu Japanese Sake Brewing Co. Ltd. in 1908, the first saké brewery ever opened outside of Japan. Located in the Pauoa Valley, Honolulu, it is still in operation today.

Though garbed in heavy layers for work in the fields, many Japanese wore ikat (kasuri) yukata or the like at home. Some women in the community supplemented their income sewing, repairing, and washing Japanese garments.

From the very beginning (in 1885), Japanese workers demanded various services, and soon received many of them. As mentioned above, many came to serve as barbers, cooks, tailors, and launderers serving the community. In addition, the very first group of immigrants demanded Japanese-style baths, and were soon provided them. The plantations provided the baths & bathhouses themselves, as well as fuel and water, while members of the community were made responsible for maintenance, and for collecting maintenance fees from those who used the baths.

As of 1901, Japanese represented roughly 70% of the nearly 40,000 plantation workers in the islands.

Annexation and the end of contract labor

The annexation of Hawaii by the United States in July 1898 brought with it the end of contract labor, which was outlawed by the US government in 1900. Japanese plantation workers in Hawaii at this time earned on average $15-18.50 per month. Now freed from their contracts and free to move elsewhere, many Japanese did so, in the hopes of finding better paying jobs or better living conditions otherwise. Between 1901 and 1907, more than 50,000 Japanese left Hawaii for Seattle and San Francisco. Meanwhile, roughly 75% of those who came in 1885-1890 had already returned to Japan or moved to the US mainland after their contracts ended, rather than settle more permanently in Hawaii. Of those who stayed in Hawaii, some became entrepreneurs themselves, with some finding considerable success in their business endeavors. By 1900, there were already more than 170 Japanese-owned stores in Honolulu Chinatown alone.[6] Some Japanese even managed to become plantation owners themselves, growing pineapple, or to establish cannery businesses canning pineapple or other fruit. Ônishi Zenroku was one such entrepreneur, opening the first Japanese-owned pineapple cannery in 1910. Meanwhile, outside of Kona (on the Big Island), efforts to grow coffee were largely unsuccessful prior to the 20th century. By 1914, however, Japanese were responsible for more than 80% of the coffee production in Hawaii.

Thus, fearing a continued dramatic loss of labor for the plantations, plantation owners worked to recruit more Japanese immigrants. In 1898-1899 alone, roughly 30,000 Japanese newly arrived in Hawaii, roughly doubling the Japanese population there. This influx is credited with contributing greatly to the vibrant cultural life and cohesiveness of the community, and thus leading to more Japanese in the islands becoming interested in staying in Hawaii and settling there more permanently.

Japanese in the islands continued to observe Japanese customs and celebrations to a certain extent, though limited by available materials/accoutrements, by their heavy work schedules, and in the early years by the absence of elders who might encourage the younger people to practice traditions, and teach them how to do so. Still, Buddhist temples began to be established in the islands in the 1890s, and members of the community continued to celebrate both traditional festivals such as Boys' Day and Doll Festival / Girls' Day, and more modern, nationalistic festivals such as the Meiji Emperor's birthday. The Japanese community in Hawaii organized sizable celebrations following Japan's victory in the Sino-Japanese War in 1895, and again in 1905, when Japan emerged victorious in the Russo-Japanese War. The surge of ethnic pride which accompanied the latter victory provided an impetus for members of the community to press more forcefully for civil rights equality. However, the first major military victory of a non-Western power over a major Western power also heightened tensions between the US and Japan in the geopolitical arena, over control or influence in East Asia and the Pacific, and led to enhanced anti-Japanese sentiment in the United States.

This rise in anti-Japanese sentiment contributed, in part at least, to the declaration in 1907 of a US Presidential Order which banned Japanese from moving from Hawaii to the mainland United States. The following year, in response to nativist and anti-Japanese sentiment among Americans on the West Coast, the US and Japanese governments entered into an informal agreement, known as the Rout-Takahira Gentlemen's Agreement, which further restricted Japanese immigration to the United States. Only Japanese who had previously already emigrated to the US, and their immediate relatives, could now enter the country. This sparked the birth of the phenomenon of "picture brides" (shashin hanayome) in which Japanese men in the US married women from Japan, based only on their photo, or other limited information, enabling the woman to then emigrate to the US. In 1908, for the first time, the Japanese government issued roughly equal numbers of passports for men and women to travel to Hawaii. Between that year and 1924, nearly 60,000 more Japanese emigrated to Hawaii. Of them, it is estimated that more than 20,000 of them were picture brides. The practice was not exceptionally unusual for most of those who took part in it, since arranged marriages were still quite common in Japan at that time, and in some cases, the two had actually known one another before the man shipped off to Hawaii. Matchmakers known as baishakunin or nakôdo, or in Hawaii as shimpai, helped organize the arrangements, and the wife was entered into the husband's koseki, making the marriage official under Japanese law. Many of these women then married their husbands immediately upon arrival in Hawaii, in mass marriage ceremonies performed on the wharf.

Japanese plantation laborers held a major strike for the first time in 1909, and in 1913, California put into place restrictions on Japanese ownership of land. The Japanese sugar plantation workers formed their first labor union in 1919, and held their second major strike, this time alongside Filipino workers, the following year. In 1921, the local government in Hawaii imposed restrictions on Japanese language schools in the islands, against which the Japanese community filed a lawsuit, claiming the law to be unconstitutional. Meanwhile, the Pan-Pacific Newspaper Conference held a discussion between anti-Japanese groups, and Japanese supporters, on the subject of the possibility of Japanese assimilation into American society. The average wage for Japanese plantation workers in Hawaii was around $20/month at this time.

Asian Exclusion Act

This early period of Japanese immigration to Hawaii (and the rest of the United States) came to an end in 1924, as the US Congress passed the Asian Exclusion Act, which barred East Asians from immigrating to the country. By that time, however, there were already over a quarter million issei (immigrants) and nisei (US-born children of immigrants) in the United States; roughly half of these lived in Hawaii.

Japanese were not permitted to immigrate to the US from 1924 until 1952. It was also not until 1952 that Japanese were able to become naturalized citizens of the US. An act of Congress in 1790 limited naturalization to whites, and though this was extended to blacks in 1870, it was never formally extended to Asians until that year; a small number of Japanese were able to naturalize earlier, however, in individual cases where judges deemed them to fall within the category of "white." A handful had also been able to become naturalized citizens of the Kingdom of Hawaii, but this lost most legal meaning after the kingdom's fall. Some Japanese were able to become naturalized citizens of the US in 1935, when a special bill granted citizenship to a number of World War I veterans of Asian descent, but this came only after a lengthy process of petitions or complaints. Japanese had to fight to be allowed to enlist in the military to begin with, as well. Furthermore, from 1922-1931, American women could lose their US citizenship by marrying Asians. Certain state laws in the 1920s, such as in California, and implemented soon afterwards in the Territory of Hawaii, barred "aliens ineligible for naturalization" from owning land, without explicitly discriminating by ethnicity. According to the law of jus soli, however, those born in the United States, regardless of their ethnicity, were born American citizens; nisei and sansei born in Hawaii after the overthrow were thus both US citizens, and by the law of jus sanguinus, Japanese citizens as well.[7]

1920s to World War II

The Japanese community in Hawaii continued to grow in prominence, however, and culturally, becoming one of the largest, most influential, and most culturally prominent groups in Hawaii. By the 1920s, Japanese represented roughly 40% of Hawaii's population. Students of Japanese descent represented roughly half of the students attending public school in Hawaii in 1924, and in 1928, the first regular Japanese-language radio broadcast based in Hawaii began. In the 1930s, many families sent their children to Japan to attend school, after which they would return to Hawaii, or the mainland United States, coming to be known as kibei (帰米, "returned to America"). Entertainers, sports teams, and the like regularly traveled from Japan to perform in Hawaii.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, roughly 110,000 people of Japanese descent living in the mainland United States, 2/3 of whom were US citizens, were rounded up and removed to internment camps. They lost nearly all their worldly possessions, as well as their claims to land, businesses, and homes, and most West Coast Japanese communities never recovered. The Japanese community in Hawaii was spared such widespread, wholesale destruction, but roughly 2,000 Japanese in Hawaii, including roughly 700 kibei, were interned. Buddhist temples, martial arts schools, language schools, and the like, and the community as a whole, came under heavy suspicion as the United States entered the war against Japan. Many members of the Japanese community, more eager than ever to prove their loyalty to the United States, or feeling great pressure to do so, sold or destroyed family heirlooms such as kimono, musical instruments, and the like, and suppressed or halted their observance of certain Japanese customs. A number of members of the community, like their brethren on the mainland, volunteered for the US military, becoming members of the 100th Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, or Military Intelligence Service, the 442nd eventually becoming the most-decorated unit in US military history, with numerous Purple Hearts and Congressional Medals of Honor, and with all three units being honored with the Congressional Gold Medal.


  • Franklin Odo and Kazuko Sinoto, A Pictorial History of the Japanese in Hawaii 1885-1924, Bishop Museum (1985).
  1. For a breakdown of the number of immigrants on each of these voyages, see Odo and Sinoto, 43.
  2. The most major of these companies are listed on Odo and Sinoto, 44.
  3. Odo and Sinoto, 201.
  4. Odo and Sinoto, 203.
  5. A fuller list of occupations held by Japanese in Hawaii in 1926, listed by demographic numbers, by gender and by island, can be found on Odo and Sinoto, pp178-179.
  6. Odo and Sinoto, 156.
  7. This would change in 1985, when a law was passed prohibiting Japanese citizens from holding a second citizenship.

See Also