Japanese schools in Hawaii

From SamuraiWiki
Jump to navigationJump to search

The first Japanese schools in Hawaii were established in 1895-1896, roughly ten years after the beginning of formal Japanese immigration to Hawaii.

Most of the Japanese who came to Hawaii as contract laborers in the 1880s-1890s intended to remain only for a few years, for the length of their contract, and then to return home to Japan. In the end, roughly 75% either returned to Japan or relocated to the mainland United States. Thus, it was of great importance to these issei (first-generation immigrants) that their children be well-prepared to re-integrate into Japanese society, and the Japanese education system, upon their return. Among those who intended to settle in Hawaii, too, there was surely a strong desire to have their children raised knowing the language, history, and customs of the culture from which they came. Thus, schools were eventually established where children were taught not only Japanese language, but Japanese culture, customs, and morals (shûshin), and the history of Japan and of the Japanese community in Hawaii.

Though banned for a time in the 20th century, many Japanese-language schools operate today in Hawaii, educating children of Japanese and non-Japanese descent alike in Japanese language, customs, and the like.

Japanese children in public education in Hawaii

There were more than 100 children among the 944 Japanese who arrived in Hawaii aboard the City of Tokio in 1885, the first group of official Japanese immigrants.

All school-age children in Hawaii were required to attend public school, where lessons were conducted in either English or Hawaiian.[1] Out of nearly 9000 children enrolled in Hawaiian public schools in 1888, 54 are recorded as Japanese. Roughly a decade later, roughly 260 Japanese children were enrolled. These numbers increased dramatically in the ensuing decades, as the Japanese population grew. There were around 1,500 Japanese enrolled in public schools in Hawaii in 1900, more than 7,000 in 1910, and nearly 26,000 - representing roughly half the student body - in 1924.

Meanwhile, a survey of Japanese immigrant adults and children both in 1896 found that 69 percent of men and 25 percent of women were literate in Japanese, while another 285 men and 28 women could read and write in English, and 68 men and 6 women were literate in Hawaiian.

The First Japanese Schools

For the first ten years, there were no organized Japanese schools in Hawaii, though lessons surely took place in some more informal way within the communities. The first Japanese language school in the islands was established by Fukuda Seiji, on Maui, in 1895, and the second by Rev. Okumura Takie in Honolulu the following year. Okumura hired a licensed teacher, Kuwabara Hideo, who was recommended to him by Rev. Kanda Shigefusa; public school students would attend Kuwabara's Japanese language classes for one hour each day after the end of their public school day. Kuwabara initially had thirty students, but after Okumura's school began to attract a greater number of students, they moved into a larger school building in 1899, facilitated by monetary donations from members of the haole (white) community.

Though Okumura was a very prominent figure in the Japanese Christian community in the islands (becoming head of the Japanese Christian Church in 1904 and establishing the Makiki Christian Church that same year), he was careful to disassociate the school from his religious activities, fearing that a more overtly or explicitly Christian Japanese school would lead to others creating a Japanese Buddhist school, and the enhancement of rivalries and tensions between the two religious groups. Despite these efforts, there were rumors that these schools' lessons might have contained elements of pro-Christian and/or anti-Buddhist attitudes, and so by 1902, Bishop Imamura Emyô of the Buddhist Honpa Hongwanji Mission started the first Japanese Buddhist school in the islands. By 1910, Buddhist schools dominated the private Japanese school scene. These Buddhist schools generally held longer sessions, and while the content and themes taught at the two types of schools overlapped considerably, the Christian schools are said to have placed a greater focus on American history, culture, and values. Both types of Japanese schools also became sites for community celebrations and festivals, lessons, demonstrations, and competitions in martial arts, and lessons & performances in traditional arts such as music and dance.

By 1900, there were eleven Japanese language schools, serving over 1500 students. This number grew to nearly 5000 students & 120 schools by 1907, reaching a peak in 1933 of over 43,000 students at nearly 200 Japanese language schools throughout the islands.[2]

Attacks on Japanese Schools

Plantation owners and the like would continue to donate to Japanese schools, feeling it would help worker morale, and would help inspire more workers to return to Japan after their contracts were over, feeling their children were more adequately prepared for (re)integration into Japanese life.[3] However, attitudes began to shift around 1907, not only among the haole community, as it became evident that many of the nisei (Hawaiian-born American citizens) planned to stay in Hawaii, and not to return to Japan; where the schools had previously been supported in helping prepare children to reintegrate into Japanese life, concerns now arose that such schools were a detriment to the assimilation of the Japanese community into American identity and society. However, inspectors working with the aid of translators found nothing in the Japanese schools' textbooks that suggested anti-American rhetoric. Even as Christian-Buddhist rivalry continued, heads of both Christian and Buddhist schools asserted that they were dedicated to the Americanization of their students.

A Territory-wide Japanese Educational Association was formed in 1915 to try to unite the Christian and Buddhist schools under a single umbrella, and to work together to combat these attacks on their schools. Among the Association's projects was to come up with new textbooks that were better suited to the Hawaiian/American context; up until now, textbooks had mostly been simply imported from Japan. One of the first such revised textbooks was devised by a scholar from the University of Tokyo, Haga Yaichi, who worked with Tsunoda Ryûsaku and others in Hawaii to do so. However, the resulting textbook was criticized by some for incorporating too much of Japanese nationalistic rhetoric, and by others for omitting certain elements of the same. Japanese efforts to assert their loyalty to the US, and dedication to Americanization, faced further obstacles as many in the haole community worried it was an intentional effort to mislead, i.e. that the Japanese "doth protest too much," as it were. Buddhism was seen as fundamentally or inherently non-American.

In 1917, five Japanese language teachers arriving in the islands were denied permission to disembark, an emblematic result of the hostile attitudes of the time. Though they eventually won the resulting legal case and were permitted to settle and teach in Hawaii, World War I created a considerable swell of nativist fervor across the United States, and a slogan of "One Language Under One Flag," attacking primarily German and Japanese communities, became popular across the country. In 1918, measures to control or restrict foreign language schools were passed by state senates in 21 states.

The Japanese Christian churches, Buddhist temples, and language schools contributed to supporting a major plantation workers' strike in 1920, and in the aftermath of this, the Territorial government cracked down on language schools, imposing various additional requirements and restrictions in stages, between 1920-1923. Many plantation owners and the like continued to support the schools at this time, for the same reasons they had supported them initially - chiefly, in order to keep the Japanese community happy, in order to maintain their labor force. However, other members of the haole community criticized these plantation owners, accusing them of putting their own profit and greed ahead of American or haole concerns.

Imamura, along with other prominent members of the Japanese community, including editors of several Japanese-language newspapers, took part in a legal case against the Territorial government, seeing to overturn these restrictions. A US Supreme Court decision in 1923 of the unconstitutional nature of Nebraska's efforts to ban German-language schools in that state set a helpful precedent, and in 1927, the Supreme Court struck down many of the Territory of Hawaii's policies as unconstitutional as well.


  • Franklin Odo and Kazuko Sinoto, A Pictorial History of the Japanese in Hawaii 1885-1924, Bishop Museum (1985), 127-131.
  1. Odo and Sinoto, 135.
  2. Figures for other years can be found in Odo and Sinoto, p131. A list of schools by name, location, and date of their establishment can be found on pp134-135.
  3. The logic being, at least in the minds of some of these businessmen, that they wanted the Japanese workers for their labor, but feared them gaining too much demographic, cultural, or political influence in the islands; thus, supporting their morale in order to avoid strikes or protests, and encouraging them to be able to return to Japan would prevent the Japanese community from growing too large, too strong, or too well-established.