Okinawans in Hawaii

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Hawaii is home to the largest population of people of Okinawan descent in the diaspora. Okinawans are among the most culturally active and visible groups in the islands, and cultivate a distinctive and separate identity from the Japanese-American community.

Early Immigration

While immigrants from mainland Japan had been coming to Hawaii since 1868 (and more regularly since 1885), Okinawans first began emigrating to Hawaii in 1900. Though initially recruited as contract laborers, in June 1900, mere months after their arrival, the Organic Acts passed by the US Congress had outlawed contract labor, freeing Japanese and Okinawan plantation workers alike (along with those of Chinese, Korean, Filipino, and Hawaiian descent, among others) from their contracts.

Tôyama Kyûzô is generally regarded as the "father" of Okinawan immigration to Hawaii. With economic conditions growing increasingly dire in Okinawa prefecture, which had been annexed by Japan in the 1870s, Tôyama, a leader of the Freedom and People's Rights Movement (Jiyû minken undô) in Okinawa, petitioned the Japanese government to allow Okinawans to emigrate overseas in search of better lives. The first group of Okinawans to arrive in Hawaii numbered 26 men, all age 21 to 35.[1] They arrived in Honolulu on January 8, 1900, and began work on Ewa Plantation on O'ahu after going through a week or so in quarantine.[2] Most members of the initial group, not desiring to put up with the horrendous labor conditions on the plantation, returned to Okinawa within a few years; a few relocated to the US mainland. By 1935, only two of those original 26 men remained in Hawaii. However, most of these men were from urban areas, and Tôyama was sure the second time around to recruit from rural areas, where people might have more extensive experience farming, and might be more able, or willing, to endure tough conditions.

The second group was one of 40 men, who arrived in 1903, and went to work on the Honokaa plantation on the Big Island of Hawaii.[3] Finding the conditions on Honokaa unendurable, and forbidden to leave, nearly all of these men slipped away together one night, working for roughly one month on the Piihonua plantation near Hilo, before moving to Olaa, and then finally to Ewa, on O'ahu. Conditions on the plantations were not only terribly harsh in terms of the long hours and cruel luna (taskmasters), but many plantation workers also suffered from beriberi and other diseases. Even so, these men devoted themselves to their work, and within 18-30 months of their arrival, every one of them had earned enough to pay off the initial investments of the cost of their passage to Hawaii.

Though workers who returned from Hawaii spoke of the tough conditions, they also brought back with them considerable earnings, and began to buy small plots of land, and to build themselves nice houses. The numbers of Okinawans in Hawaii grew quickly therafter, with 262 arriving in 1904, 1,233 in 1905, and an astonishing 4,467 in 1906, a number which represented the peak of Okinawan immigration. More than 8,500 Okinawans were resident in the Territory of Hawaii by 1908. A number of factors contributed to the desire to emigrate from Okinawa, including the hope for sizable earnings to send home or to return with; draft dodging; and the economic recession caused by the excessive cost to the nation of fighting the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05).

The following span of sixteen years or so (1908-1924) has come to be known as the yobiyose jidai, or "era of calling over," with Okinawans already resident in the islands summoning their families to come and join them; the Gentlemen's Agreement signed between Japan and the United States in 1907 limited immigration to those whose relatives were already living in the US (and to a few other similar sets of circumstances, including those who had already previously immigrated to the US and were simply returning, and those who owned land in the US, which applied to extremely few).

Once in Hawaii, Okinawans formed their own community, separate from that of the Japanese, who tended to see themselves as superior to the Okinawans, and who viewed Okinawan language and customs as backward. The Okinawan practices of eating pork, and of women tattooing their hands after marriage, were among those most prominent, or most often pointed to as evidence of Okinawans being uneducated, uncultured, or backward. Many Okinawans responded to these attitudes by separating themselves out, refusing to assimilate into the Japanese community, even as other ethnic groups (e.g. Filipinos, Chinese), and official demographic records ignored the distinction. The Okinawans would later go on to form separate social organizations, separate Buddhist temples, and the like, from those organized and attended by Japanese.

1920s through World War II

By 1924, when the Asian Exclusion Acts passed by the US Congress outlawed the immigration of all East Asians into the United States, there were already nearly 20,000 people of Okinawan descent in the Hawaiian Islands. In 1944, the number continued to be around 20-25,000, including an estimated 5,000 issei ineligible for naturalization, and 10,000 nisei and 5,000 sansei, US citizens born in Hawaii. By the end of World War II, some sources estimate there were as many as 40,000 people of Okinawan descent in the islands.

Though most Okinawans in Hawaii in the 1920s-30s continued to be plantation workers, many others moved into other professions. Some became independent farmers, and some luna (plantation field overseers), while others moved to the cities and became bakers, butchers, barbers, doctors, teachers, pharmacists, news reporters, or publishers; others opened auto repair stores, bathhouses, or general stores.

Prominent Okinawan figures such as Ôta Chôfu and Iha Fuyû visited Hawaii in the 1920s-30s, and found the quality of life and strength of the community much stronger than in the earlier years. Ôta came in 1925, in an official capacity as vice president of the Okinawan Overseas Association (Okinawa kaigai kyôkai), while Iha came three years later, describing the plantation at Lihue on Kauai as much better than conditions on certain farms in California: Japanese and Okinawan workers at Lihue, and their families, enjoyed free housing, water, fuel, and medical care, and a minimum wage of $1 a day, a very reasonable wage at that time, especially for new and inexperienced workers. Only five percent even earned this minimum wage, with the vast majority earning $1.50 to $4 a day. Iha expressed concern, however, that the Big Five plantation corporations so dominated the industry that it left no room for Japanese or Okinawans to become successful entrepreneurs themselves.

By the 1930s, the Okinawan community was well-situated in Hawaii, with a great many people feeling Hawaii to be their home, and planning to continue living there permanently. While nisei and sansei born in the US, too, were of course native-born citizens, though, issei born in Okinawa, like all other immigrants born in East Asia, remained ineligible for naturalization until the 1950s, with only a few exceptions. In 1919, 33 Okinawans, along with 39 other Japanese who had served in the US Army, were granted US citizenship.

Okinawans continued to experience discrimination from the Japanese in Hawaii throughout this period, however, being regarded as less civilized, less educated, backwards, or even simply as not being Japanese. Actual circumstances of poverty, violence, and lesser education among the Okinawan community only added to the stereotypes. Nakamura Gongorô, leader of the Okinawan community in Los Angeles in the period, wrote in 1925 that not only were Okinawans generally less educated than their Japanese brethren, but that they were often not even aware of the rude behaviors and uncultured speech which invited such derision, and thus did not even know to be ashamed of themselves. Another writer noted in 1928 that even when Japanese and Okinawans received the same pay, Okinawans ate, dressed, and lived poorer lives, and yet also did not accumulate greater (or any) savings. Others noted an extent of violence, gambling, bootlegging and the like in the Okinawan community far exceeding that in the Japanese community.

Some events and phenomena helped Okinawans maintain, or regain, confidence and pride, however. In 1927, Admiral Kanna Kenwa visited Hawaii; he was an Okinawan who not only successfully became an admiral in the Imperial Japanese Navy, but also served as captain of the Katori which carried Crown Prince Akihito to Europe on a tour in 1921, making him an impressive example of success, and a source of pride. Iha Fuyû's lectures in 1928 contributed to Okinawan pride as well, as he presented research indicating that the Okinawans were of Japanese ethnic stock, and that the Okinawan language, rather than being an inferior dialect, a form of "bad Japanese," in fact developed out of the same linguistic origins as the Japanese language, making Okinawan a very valuable tool for researching ancient Japanese. Beyond these individual and scattered incidents, several local groups began in 1908 to publish periodicals aimed at educating their fellow Okinawans, and many members of the community began to individually seek greater education. A group called the Showa Gakuyukai, formed in 1923, likewise was dedicated to encouraging and supporting education for Okinawans; it published a regular journal, called Manabi no Tomo ("Friend of Learning"), and held lecture meetings in rural areas such as Waipahu and Kahaluu. Twelve Okinawan students graduated from Hawaii public high schools in 1927, and in 1929, Edward Kushi of Maui became the first Okinawan to graduate from the University of Hawaii. Within the next few years, a number of Okinawans were actively attending universities in Hawaii and on the US mainland, including medical schools, normal schools, and schools of nursing and dentistry.

Okinawans in this period also began to form strongly Okinawan congregations for both Buddhist and Christian worship. The Jikôen Temple, which remains today a major center for Okinawan cultural activities in Honolulu, was founded in 1935, while the Christian Reimei Kyôkai (Church of the Dawn) was established in Palama around the same time.

Meanwhile, many Okinawans began to find success opening small businesses, many of them using funds from tanomoshi groups.[4] According to one estimate, by 1941, Okinawans owned 80% of the cafés and restaurants in Honolulu. The vast majority of these were small "mom and pop" operations, but by the end of the 1940s, some Okinawans found success in much larger ventures. To name just two examples, State Poultry Processors, which remains prominent today, was started by Uezu Yasuo in 1943, and Times Supermarket, which today has 24 locations across the state, was started by two brothers named Teruya in 1949.

As was the case in the Japanese community as well, it became not uncommon in the 1930s for children to be sent to Okinawa for schooling, returning to Hawaii afterwards and coming to be known as kibei ("returned to America").

World War II & the Occupation

A number of Okinawan-Americans served in the US military in World War II, in the 100th Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, or Military Intelligence Service. The 442nd would go on to become the most-decorated unit in US military history, with numerous Purple Hearts and Congressional Medals of Honor, and all three units were honored with the Congressional Gold Medal. Japanese and Okinawans, the kibei in particular, proved themselves as members of the Military Intelligence Service, intercepting and translating Japanese military communications. While the 100th and 442nd fought mainly in Europe, members of the MIS also served in Okinawa, where in some cases (though, sadly not in others), they were able to speak with Okinawan civilians, encouraging them against committing suicide, and to emerge from the caves, trusting the Okinawan-American soldiers to lead them to safety. Some soldiers, kibei in particular, met siblings, cousins, parents, or former classmates in Okinawa; some, sadly, found themselves fighting on the battlefield against these relatives or former friends.[5]

The experiences of World War II, whether on the front lines, in internment camps, or at home, led to a unity across ethnic boundaries between the Japanese and Okinawan communities in Hawaii, and a breakdown or weakening of the earlier discriminatory attitudes. Soldiers who served overseas found a powerful sense of camaraderie with their brothers-in-arms regardless of race or ethnicity, and people back home and in the internment camps found that in the eyes of the government, and of most others, Okinawans were no different from any other "Jap."

Further, of the Okinawan-American soldiers stationed mainland Japan during the Occupation, many ended up marrying mainland Japanese wives, and many Japanese-Americans stationed in Okinawa ended up marrying Okinawan women, bringing the two groups closer together, at least for those particular families.


Today, Hawaii is home to a great number of Okinawan groups and associations, and cultural activities and events. The University of Hawaii at Manoa is the only university in the US to boast a dedicated Center for Okinawan Studies, and offers courses in Okinawan language, Ryukyuan dance, and classical Okinawan sanshin music.

The Hawaii United Okinawa Association (HUOA) and Hui O Laulima, along with other groups, organize a three-day Okinawa Festival every year. In its 32nd iteration as of 2014, the festival, held in recent years in Honolulu's Kapiolani Park, features special guest performers & MCs from Okinawa, and performances by Okinawan music and dance groups from throughout the State of Hawaii, including sanshin, taiko, lion dance, and hula. Members of the various associations prepare and sell andagi and other Okinawan foods, and a number of other tents sell a variety of Okinawan goods. This typically takes place the last weekend of August, or the first weekend of September. A number of other annual festivals are celebrated quite largely as well, with Okinawan Lunar New Year (typically in February, at the same time as Chinese New Year) seeing tens of separate dinners or parties in honor of the occasion. Between the Okinawan and Japanese communities, Bon dances fill up the summer, with one society or association or another holding one nearly every week.

Hawaii is also home to a number of Okinawan restaurants, grocery stores, and the like, something extremely rare even in the largest and most culturally/ethnically diverse cities of the US mainland.

Ukwanshin Kabudan is one of many groups in Hawaii which works to promote pride in Okinawan identity, and to maintain or revive traditional Okinawan arts. Members of the group regularly teach Ryukyuan dance, sanshin, and Okinawan language, and hold workshops, guest lectures, and the like addressing other aspects of Okinawan culture and identity. The group also organizes an annual "study tour," in which members of the community join the group on a tour of Okinawa, with a particular focus on history, traditional culture, and identity.


  • Franklin Odo and Kazuko Sinoto, A Pictorial History of the Japanese in Hawaii 1885-1924, Bishop Museum (1985), 80.
  • Mitsugu Sakihara, "Okinawans in Hawaii: An Overview of the Past 80 Years," in Uchinanchu, University of Hawaii (1981), 105-123.
  1. Thirty had left Okinawa with Tôyama. Three, however, did not pass health inspection at Yokohama, and one was turned back at the Honolulu quarantine station. Sakihara, 106.
  2. Odo and Sinoto, 200.
  3. Forty-five people left Okinawa, and ten were detained at Yokohama, but five of those ten managed to make it to Hawaii later, making the total forty. Sakihara, 107.
  4. Tanomoshi groups, common among the Japanese community as well, collected up money from all the members, and gave the total to a single member, whether by lottery or by some other system, allowing individuals, with the support of their fellow Okinawans, to amass enough money to pay off debts, open a business, fund weddings or funerals, or the like.
  5. MIS: Human Secret Weapon (documentary film about the Military Intelligence Service), dir. Junichi Suzuki, 2012.

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