Japanese shops in Hawaii

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Though Chinese are stereotypically associated with being the Asian immigrant group leading the establishment of small shops in Hawaii, Japanese immigrants were historically not far behind. Today, Japanese-Americans own a great many of Hawaii's largest and most prominent businesses, as well as many of its oldest and most locally-famous small shops and restaurants.

Early shops

Suzuki Kunizô, who arrived in Hawaii aboard a German whaling ship in 1867, was the first Japanese to open an individually-owned shop in Hawaii. He did so in 1886, after many years working on a plantation, and later as a personal servant to a wealthy American. Known colloquially as "Hilo no Kuni" ("Kuni[zô] of Hilo"), he served simple meals and sold local Hawaiian fruits, chiefly to Japanese plantation workers.

The Japanese contract workers who began arriving in the islands in 1885 brought with them considerable demand for Japanese foods, and so Nakayama Jôji, head of the Japanese section of the Hawaiian government's Bureau of Immigration, established a small import store run by his government section. This project soon failed, but before long private enterprises begun by members of the local Japanese community were so strong (or at least so strongly supported by their fellow locals) that major Japanese corporations attempting to establish chain branches in Hawaii encountered considerable difficulty. By 1895, there were 32 Japanese-owned shops in Honolulu, and by 1898, eighteen in Hilo, on the Big Island. By 1900, many of these merchants, in Honolulu at least, had organized into a Japanese Merchants Association, the predecessor to the Honolulu Japanese Chamber of Commerce.[1] They represented roughly 176 businesses, having become a significant presence in the city.

Honolulu Chinatown was destroyed in a fire in 1900. There was no fire insurance, and the Japanese business community pressed the Territorial government for financial aid in rebuilding. Though they received only about half the amount they had petitioned for, the community realized and demonstrated its ability for collective action. In addition, while rebuilding was of course expensive and difficult, the fire destroyed most of the brothels and gambling halls which had served as power bases for gangsters who controlled Chinatown, and into which many Japanese had poured too much of their money. The destruction of these institutions, and of the organized crime rings, presented the community a fresh start to build a more upright and clean neighborhood and community.

Post-war and today

Of course, today, there are countless Japanese- or Japanese-American-owned businesses in Hawaii, including numerous branch locations of major Japanese chains, such as the curry restaurant Coco Ichiban, Tokyo-based Okinawan izakaya Naru, used book store Book-Off, and fast food chain Yoshinoya. A Shirokiya located in Ala Moana Shopping Center near Waikiki is the last remaining location of a large department store chain which traced its origins to the early Edo period and once boasted numerous locations in Japan.

  1. A list/timeline of community organizations established by Japanese in Hawaii can be found in Odo and Sinoto, 164-165.