Aloha gozaimasu: Japan’s influence on Hawaiian culture

With thousands of people poised to head overseas during Golden Week, we examine the rich historical and cultural ties that have formed between Hawaii and Japan.

by Hillel Wright

Special To The Japan Times

In 1868, the first year of the Meiji Era, 148 Japanese men, mainly from the Kanto area, set sail from Yokohama on the British ship Scrito, bound for Honolulu in the Kingdom of Hawaii.

These men believed they were headed for Tenjiku (“Heavenly Place”), or “Hawaii Paradise,” which was what the recruiters had called their destination. They believed they would live in a lush tropical wonderland, with no cold winters or steaming hot summers to endure. They also believed they would earn lots of money so that in due course they would return to their hometowns as wealthy men.

At the very least, they would lawfully leave Japan, among the very first people to do so since 1603, when the Tokugawa clan shoguns closed their island empire off from the rest of the world for the next 265 years. They would also escape the chaos of the civil war that saw the shogun displaced and the Emperor restored to power.

Of course, nothing worked out as imagined. They toiled for long hours in the sugar-cane fields of Oahu, cutting the plants by hand with machetes and hauling heavy, sticky bundles of cut cane to mule-drawn wagons under the hot tropical sun. Their living conditions were, to say the least, very Spartan, and on some plantations the lunas — plantation overseers, nearly always of European origin or descent — brandished rawhide bullwhips and treated workers cruelly.

Another challenge to the original contingent was language, and they found themselves speaking no Japanese, but rather Hawaiian and/or English instead. The Hawaii Japanese Center museum in Hilo owns a copy of an early Japanese-Hawaiian-English dictionary. So these were literate, civilized, perhaps even sophisticated citizens of Japan, suddenly trapped in prisonlike conditions, far from home, with barely subsistence wages and, again, no contact with the outside world.

But make the best of it they did, and most of them married Hawaiian women. Their children came to think of themselves as Hawaiian rather than Japanese, and they eventually blended into the Hawaiian population.

In 1885, with the Emperor Meiji firmly ensconced on the throne and King Kalakaua having been elected king in 1874, global conditions began to change. Both Japan and Hawaii, only recently isolated from the world, were forcibly dragged into the global economy by armed steamships from the colonizing nations of Europe and the United States.

The Emperor sought to alleviate poverty in western Japan (partly caused by the shift of Imperial business from Kansai to Kanto) through emigration, while the king wanted to diversify Hawaii’s population and strengthen its gene pool by inviting laborers from abroad, not only from Japan but from China, Portugal and the Philippines as well. Ironically, although many Portuguese and Filipino workers did marry Hawaiian women, the Japanese men were more likely to marry a “picture bride,” selected from photos sent by a matchmaker back in Japan, and more or less imported to Hawaii. This generation, about 100,000 people, mostly from Yamaguchi and Hiroshima prefectures in western Japan, became known as issei and their children, the first generation born in Hawaii, nisei — a name that has come to be deeply embedded in the culture of modern Hawaii.

On Jan. 8, 1900, 30 young men from the Japanese Empire’s recently acquired Okinawa Prefecture, formerly the Ryukyu Kingdom, arrived in Honolulu from Naha by way of Osaka and Yokohama. Despite working under severe conditions for three months at the Ewa Sugar Plantation on Oahu, their labor contracts were voided due to Hawaii’s recent annexation by the United States. The men immediately fled the plantation and 24 of the 26 who had passed the physical and had been admitted to Hawaii returned to Okinawa. The other two went to California but even one of them eventually returned home.

In 1903, with new labor contracts signed between Japan and the United States, 40 more Okinawan men signed on to work for six months on sugar plantations and they were sent to Honokaa Plantation on the island of Hawaii.

Today, the communities that have developed as a result of the earliest Japanese, Okinawan and Hawaiian exchanges play active and energetic roles in the life of Hawaii. The Hawaii Japanese Center in Hilo, the island’s biggest city with 45,000 people, is in the final stages of creating a new museum facility that is dedicated to Japanese culture on Hawaii Island.

Pat Okamura, curator of the new museum, says the permanent collection includes photos, recordings, artifacts, documents, publications and memorabilia that “document the struggles and successes of Japanese immigrants in Hawaii.”

Historical documents at the museum show the issei struggled the most, with many of them having little choice but to work on sugar plantations for many years. The nisei, in contrast, managed to break new ground in the fields of business, labor relations and politics, with U.S. Sens. Daniel K. Inouye and Spark Masayuki Matsunaga and Hawaii Gov. George Ariyoshi carving out distinguished careers. What’s more, the proliferation of Japanese stores and businesses is still very much in evidence across Hawaii Island.

Perhaps the light that eventually shone after the darkness of World War II, which saw Hawaii being attacked at Pearl Harbor and the subsequent internment of many Japanese in relocation camps on the mainland, came in the form of two U.S. Army units — the Military Intelligence Service unit of interpreters and the 442nd Infantry Regiment, the most decorated American unit of World War II. Ariyoshi was an MIS interpreter in Japan, while Inouye and Matsunaga were both wounded in action in Europe as members of the 442nd Infantry Regiment. Inouye lost an arm in combat and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, America’s highest military decoration.

There are a number of visible Japanese references dotted around the island of Hawaii today, most prominent among them the Daniel K. Inouye Highway. Travelers may also regularly come across such roadside signs as Shige’s Garage, Takata Store, Nakahara Store, Nambu Courtyard and many more.

Another success, although ultimately an ironic one, was that of Japanese-Hawaiian labor leaders who by the 1960s had turned Hawaii’s sugar-cane workers into the highest paid agricultural workers in the world, only to see the collapse of the industry in Hawaii and its flight to the Philippines in the ’70s.

One of Hawaii Island’s most successful Japanese businesses is Suisan Fish Co., which was founded by Torazu Hayashi, Hitaro Egawa and Kamezo Matsuno in Hilo in 1907. According to Kyle Sumner, wholesale fish manager at Suisan’s dock at the mouth of the Wailoa River, Suisan is now the largest of seven fish companies on the island, buying about 50 percent of all fish offloaded from 350 boats islandwide. In fact, this reporter began his 20-plus-year commercial fishing career out of Wailoa Suisan Port in 1969, fishing for ahi (kihada maguro in Japanese, or yellowfin tuna) on a 60-foot (18-meter), diesel-powered sampan called Alika.

The Alika’s sampan hull, seen in fishing ports throughout the Japanese archipelago, was of a type adapted to diesel power and increased in size by Hawaiian tuna fishermen in order to include wells for live bait — usually opelu (aji in Japanese, or jack mackerel) — and large fish holds capable of carrying 20 tons of ice and 40 tons of fish. The ahi boats fished from Monday to Friday and returned to the Suisan docks to sell their fish to local restaurants, hotel chefs and fishmongers at the weekly Friday auction. Fishing crews were then given the weekend off, returning to the dock early Monday morning to take on ice and begin another week of fishing.

Other commonly seen Japanese influences on the island of Hawaii include maneki neko (a waving cat ornament that is traditionally thought to bring good luck) in many shops, whether Japanese-owned or not; salted plum seed snacks, a Hawaiian reinvention of umeboshi; and other Japanese foods such as mochi rice cakes, traditional manjū sweets and saimin, a Japanese-Hawaiian variation on ramen or Okinawan soba. Much of Liliuokalani Park on Banyan Drive in Hilo now consists of a large Edo-style Japanese garden, including a traditional Japanese teahouse.

On the more spiritual side, the island of Hawaii hosts several Japanese Buddhist temples served by the Jodo Mission. Besides regular ceremonies, the mission sponsors dances during Bon season in August at various temples on the island. In addition, the Hongwanji Buddhist Temple in Hilo offers educational, cultural and recreational programs for teenagers and young adults.

As Okinawan immigration to Hawaii began several years after Japanese began arriving, Okinawans were often looked down upon by the issei Japanese. Due to their diligence and unity, however, many Okinawans were also able to escape plantation life and open stores and businesses. One example is Arakaki Store in the village of Hala’ula, which is located in the North Kohala district of Hawaii Island. Opened in 1917, Arakaki is a remarkable storehouse of camping, beach and fishing supplies, household goods, pharmaceutical products, toys, tools and basic food items. One is reminded of John Steinbeck’s description of Lee Chong’s Heavenly Flower Grocery store in 1930s Monterrey in his novel “Cannery Row” — “a miracle of supply.”

Many Uchinanchu — the term Okinawan immigrants and their descendants in Hawaii used to identify themselves as an ethnic group distinct from the descendants of Japan’s four main islands — live on Oahu, and the Hawaii Okinawa Center in Waipahu is the largest Okinawan organization in the state. In Hilo, about 600 Uchinanchu are members of Hui Okinawa, which began in late 1945 when Uchinanchu on Hawaii Island donated clothing and canned food to ship to their war-devastated ancestral homeland. Today, Hui Okinawa is best known for organizing the Hilo Haari races on Okinawan sabani fishing canoes in August of even numbered years on the Wailoa River. The first Haari was held in 1990, with Hilo’s sister city in Okinawa, Nago, donating three sabani to the event. The 2014 edition is scheduled to take place on Aug. 16, featuring 32 teams from Hawaii as well as international entries. The mayors of Kumejima Island and Nago are expected to be among the guests.

From June 1-6, Hui Okinawa will sponsor a kids’ cultural summer day camp at the Hongwanji Buddhist Temple grounds in Hilo. Campers will learn sanshin (a three-stringed Okinawan instrument), eisa drum dancing, the Ryukyu language, and Okinawan crafts and cuisine. Besides Hilo, Hui Okinawa has clubs in Kona, Honokaa and Kohala on the island of Hawaii. June is also the time when Hui Okinawa brings 20 or more students from Okinawa to Hilo for a weeklong student exchange program, which also sees Hawaiian Uchinanchu spending a month with home-stay families in Okinawa. The organization also offers two scholarships each year — one to a graduating high school student and another for a student already in college.

Other Okinawan-influenced features in Hawaii include the Koburo Taiko drum group, Honolulu’s awamori distillery, imports of Orion beer, kids making kankara (sanshin made from tin cans) at the summer camp and popular Okinawan restaurants in Hilo such as Restaurant Kenichi and Nori’s Saimin & Snacks, where customers can enjoy beni imo (purple sweet potato), goya chanpurū (bitter melon stir fry) and ashi tebichi (pig’s feet soup), alongside saimin and other Hawaiian adaptations.

Today, people of Japanese or Okinawan descent make up 17 percent of Hawaii’s total population. Despite the codification of racist policies in legislation such as the U.S. Immigration Act of 1924, which ended Japanese immigration to the islands, and the relocation of Japanese people during World War II, the nisei who returned from the internment camps in California or the battlefields of Europe were generally in support of the pro-statehood movement. Thus, the 1950s saw a cultural revival of Japanese customs and traditions, as well as the creation of the state of Hawaii in 1959.

Kay Fukumoto, leader of the Maui Taiko drum group, believes the Japanese and Okinawan descendants played an important role in creating Hawaii’s mixed cultural heritage. “The more you learn about your own culture,” Fukumoto says, “the more you understand others’.”

Tourist information: Hawaii Japanese Center: 751 Kanoelehua Ave., Hilo, Hawaii; tel: +1-808-934-9611. Hawaii United Okinawa Association (Oahu): 4-587 Uke’e St., Waipahu, Hawaii; tel: +1-808-676-5400; email: info@huoa.org; web: www.huoa.org

  • Brian Nagami

    Enjoyed the article – thank you Mr. Wright. Just a slight correction – the leader of Maui Taiko is Kay Fukumoto. In the last paragraph of the article, it is spelled incorrectly twice. :) Mahalo!