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150 years of Japanese-American contact: Hawaii's heritage

by Hironori Ishimaru, staff writer


Last summer, an exhibit at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i (JCCH) described the life of Japanese Americans interned in camps during World War II. Called “Dark Clouds Over Paradise: The Hawai‘i Internees story,” it included hand-written descriptions by the internees of their experiences and small objects from their daily lives—photographs, dairies, letters, and hand made jewelry.


This year is the 150th anniversary of U.S. contact with Japan, and the exhibit was just one of a number of special programs commemorating the various interactions of the two nations. While the experiences of many West Coast Japanese during World War II is widely documented, little was known about Hawai‘i internees and their experience.

Surprised at the lack of such information on these unfairly incarcerated Hawai‘i residents, the Resource Center at the JCCH set out to document their lives in this exhibition, which, with JCCH’s permanent exhibitions about the Japanese in Hawai‘i, helped history come alive for today’s community.

Part of the JCCH’s effort is the Center’s permanent historical, cultural and educational gallery, called “Okage Sama De: I am what I am because of you,” focuses on the values that influenced the Japanese in Hawai‘i from their arrival more than a century ago to their place in the Hawaiian community today (

The Japanese who possessed the courage to leave the comfort of their homeland to make a better life for themselves and their families shared much in common with thousands of other immigrants who came to Hawai‘i. The JCCH permanent historical gallery chronicles their travels from Japan, starting in 1868, through their lives on the plantations of Hawai‘i, through World War II, to their economic and political triumph in the last decades of the 20th century and the freedom they experience today (

The first emigrants from Japan arrived in Hawai‘i in 1868. Most of them were not farmers and were not prepared for hard work in the field. They had diverse backgrounds, were largely urban dwellers, and included displaced samurai and an assortment of rogues (JCCH exhibit notes). Their response to plantation life caused a “very unpleasant impression” in Japan, and the Japanese government halted migration until the Hawaiian government agreed to protect the laborers.

“ A sugar plantation was owned by people: Americans, British or Germans. They hired managers, usually Americans or Portuguese. The Japanese worked under the managers,” said JCCH docent Sumi Oda. “The owners were a variety. Some of them were quite strict, but others had a lot of heart.” While maltreatments was not common, the feelings of Japan’s government were strong enough that migration did not resume until 1881, when Hawaiian King David Kalakaua traveled to Japan to visit with the Japanese Emperor Meiji and to invite Japan to again send settlers to work on Hawai‘i’s agricultural plantations ( Along with providing labor for the sugar plantations, Kalakaua was also concerned about the diminishing Polynesian population. He considered the Japanese a related race and hoped they would help to increase the island’s population and reduce intermarriage with Caucasians.

In 1885, after extended negotiations, resumed Japanese immigration proved successful, according to Dennis Ogawa, professor of American Studies at the University of Hawai‘i (

Both Japan and Hawai’i learned from the mistakes of the first emigrant experience. This time a careful arrangement was worked out. Hawai‘i’s sugar planters requested country people who were ready for very tiring, hard work, and the Japanese government set standards for recruiting workers.

In 1894, the Japanese government gave private emigration companies the right to control emigration. These companies very often treated the immigrants unfairly, so their first three years was spent using all their salary to repay their debts to the company.

In the same year, a treaty was negotiated between the Japanese and U.S. governments permitting citizens of both countries mutual free entry, although both governments were empowered to protect domestic interests by legislating against excessive immigration of laborers (

Hawai‘i’s plantation communities always had a disproportionate number of single male workers, and in the early years, a bachelor lifestyle was common. However, by 1920 women and children made up half of the plantation community, as the single men who had at first dominated the Japanese immigrations sent home for picture brides, and families became more common.

As the largest immigrant group, the Japanese influenced the entire plantation community, and soon picture brides photographs were exchanged across the Pacific Ocean and Okinawan, and Filipino, and Korean women came to labor in Hawai‘i (

Immigration regulations and family growth didn’t stop management and labor from clashing. In 1909, Japanese plantation workers at Aiea Plantation engaged in the first organized strike in Hawai‘i ( From June until August, about 7,000 workers and their families were on strike on O‘ahu in what was to be the first of many strikes against island sugar planters.

Post World War I inflation caused plantation workers to agitate for an increase in wages, and in early 1917, the Hawaiian Sugar Producers Association issued a warning to its managers that wage demands of Japanese organizations could lead to trouble, according to Edward D. Beechert, UH emeritus professor of labor history ( In 1920, 10,000 Japanese and Filipino sugarcane workers went on strike. The 6,000 strikers camped out in Honolulu and more than 1,200 died in a flu epidemic (

The planters broke the strike by bringing in Korean and other ethnic workers from other plantations, and the strikers eventually capitulated. The Hawaiian territorial government brought the strike leaders to trial for conspiracy, and the U.S. Bureau of Investigation, the predecessor of today’s FBI, produced a report in 1921 describing the strike as “a weapon in Japan’s strategy to take over Hawai‘i.” The Bureau cited the Japanese Federation of Labor as an example of the frightening unity and teamwork of the Japanese (

Racism took a particularly ugly and authoritarian form when President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, on February 19, 1942, two and a half months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It directed the U.S. Army to “evacuate” people of Japanese, many of whom were Americans by birth, according to Shigeru Miyagawa, professor of linguistics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (

On February 1, 1943, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a segregated all-Nisei unit, was activated. A call for volunteers yielded vastly different results in Hawai‘i than on the mainland: some 10,000 Hawai‘i Nisei (second-generation Japanese) volunteered within days.

On September 2, 1943, after nearly a year and a half of training, the 100th Infantry Battalion, an all-Nisei unit from Hawai‘i, finally landed in Oran, North Africa. They were joined by the 442nd in June 1944. Together, the two units compiled a sterling war record, suffering high casualty and low desertion rates, and winning numerous unit and individual citations (
The Japanese internees were officially released on January 2, 1945; they were never at any time, found to be a threat to national security. Furthermore no person of German or Italian descent was subjected to a similar form of racism (

Playing the different races off against each other, the planters continued to break local strikes until the mid-1950s when union organizer were able to cut across racial and ethnic lines to usher in the modern era.

When Hawai‘i became a state on August 21, 1959, Daniel K. Inouye became the first Japanese American elected to the House of Representatives ( Inouye had served in the U.S. Army 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and his right arm had been blown apart by a German rifle grenade at close range. He returned home with the rank of Captain and a Distinguished Service Cross (the second highest award for military valor;, and, with other returning Japanese American veterans, took advantage of the G.I. Bill to get a degree from the University of Hawai‘i.

On November 6, 1962 Inouye became the first Japanese American to be elected to the U.S. Senate with a resounding victory over Republican Ben Dillingham. In 1968, he delivered the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, appealing for racial understanding and progressive change through democratic institutions. He is currently serving his seventh consecutive term in the Senate (

In recognition of the crime perpetrated on Japanese Americans by their internment, Gerald Ford signed Presidential Proclamation 4417 in 1976, in which he, and the U.S. government, officially apologized for E.O. 9066. In 1988, the U.S. government paid $20,000 to each of the existing survivors of the interment camps (

Today, in Hawai‘i, Japanese and Filipinos make up 41.6 percent of the state’s population, the largest proportion in any state ( Among many plans to celebrate the history of the Japanese in Hawai‘i, is one for a voyaging canoe to sail, in 2006, from Hawai‘i through Micronesia to Japan, as King Kalakaua did in 1881.

For more information visit the JCCH at 2454 S. Beretania St. in Mo’ili’ili. Gallery hours are Tuesday to Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $3 for kama‘ainas and children under 12, and $5 for other adults and high school students.


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