Okinawans in Hawaii

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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, and began work on Ewa Plantation on O'ahu a week later.[1] The group was one of 40 men, who arrived in 1903, and went to work on a plantation on the Big Island of Hawaii. The numbers of Okinawans in Hawaii grew quickly after that, with more than 8500 resident in the Territory in 1908. 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.

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.


  • Franklin Odo and Kazuko Sinoto, A Pictorial History of the Japanese in Hawaii 1885-1924, Bishop Museum (1985), 80.
  1. Odo and Sinoto, 200.