Japanese immigration to Hawaii
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. Japanese quickly became one of the largest and most influential ethnic groups in the islands, remaining so today.
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 remunerations 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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
- Franklin Odo and Kazuko Sinoto, A Pictorial History of the Japanese in Hawaii 1885-1924, Bishop Museum (1985).