HONOLULU – Gwendellyn Sanchez hoped 100 people would attend the gathering she organized in Honolulu for descendants of gannenmono — the first group of Japanese immigrants to arrive in Hawaii.
In the end, more than twice as many came as Hawaii kicked off its yearlong celebration of the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants, helping to give the commemorations a deeply personal significance for Sanchez, whose great-grandfather Tokujiro Sato was a gannenmono.
After spending more than five months compiling the Sato family tree, she emotionally greeted around 220 family members gathered at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum and arranged for families to pose for photos based on their relation to each of Sato’s children.
Descendants of the gannenmono, who ranged in age from adolescents to octogenarians, traveled from as far as Chicago and Guam to meet each other, most for the first time, and pore over a Sato family tree that stretched several meters long.
“The people in there are all my cousins, but I don’t know 90 percent of them,” said 33-year-old Kawai Davis, a great-great-grandson of Sato. Davis’ wife, Natsumi, is from Tokyo.
Sato was one of nearly 150 gannenmono — meaning “first-year people” in Japanese — who emigrated from Japan at the start of the Meiji Era in 1868 to fill an increased demand in Hawaii for contract laborers at sugar and pineapple plantations.
Mistreated by plantation overseers, some returned to Japan while 30 to 40 others, such as Sato — who is also said to have gone by the surname Sasaki — remained in what was then the Kingdom of Hawaii and started families with Hawaiian women.
Sato and his Hawaiian wife, Kalala Kelihananui Kamekona, had nine children at the end of the 19th century. Now, 150 years after Sato’s arrival, his descendants span eight generations.
“I am grateful that he had the courage to come to Hawaii to make a new life,” said Sanchez, whose interest in gannenmono history began in high school. “What amazes me the most is he chose to remain here.”
One couple in attendance represented two gannenmono, Sato and Yonekichi Sakuma, respectively. After marrying in 2013, Raymond and Ekela Ka’anapu were shocked to find they both shared connections with those early Japanese immigrants.
The gannenmono celebration preceded a preview of the Bishop museum’s latest exhibit, “Gannenmono: A Legacy of Eight Generations in Hawaii,” which was attended by Prince Akishino and his wife, Princess Kiko.
“It was an unbelievable honor,” said Sanchez of the royal couple’s appearance. “For them to recognize these gannenmono, that’s a lifetime dream.”
The 150th anniversary celebration of the relationship between Japan and Hawaii was shown in a display depicting the lives of the gannenmono through illustrations, firsthand accounts and two remaining 19th century artifacts.
Though the Sato family tree that started in Hawaii has not yet been finished, Sanchez hopes to soon trace her great-grandfather’s lineage in Japan.
“We don’t know anything about (his) life in Japan,” Sanchez said. “Our goal is to be able to link ourselves to (his family) in Japan.”