In 1865 a Scottish sugar planter in Hawaii wrote to an American businessman in Yokohama: “Could any good agricultural laborers be obtained from Japan … to serve like the Chinese under a contract for six or eight years?” The American said he’d see.

The gravestone of Myles Fukunaga stands in Mo'ili'ili Japanese Cemetery in Honolulu. | JOEL ABROAD / VIA FLICKR
The gravestone of Myles Fukunaga stands in Mo’ili’ili Japanese Cemetery in Honolulu. | JOEL ABROAD / VIA FLICKR

The ragtag band he assembled — “mere laborers,” he said, “picked out of the streets of Yokohama, sick, exhausted and filthy” — became modern Japan’s first emigrants. They arrived in Honolulu on June 19, 1868. They were known as gannenmono — “first-year people.” It was year one of the watershed Meiji Era (1868-1912); year one of modern Japan; 15 years after the famous “opening” of Japan by an American squadron of menacing steam-powered Black Ships.

Japan emerged, blinking, into modern times. For 250 years it had shut itself up within its own shores, emigration and immigration alike banned on pain of death. Progress itself was forbidden.

The country was in wretched shape, overpopulated and underfed. Its population, small by today’s standards (roughly 33 million) was unsustainable in a pre-industrial economy. Poverty was chronic, famine frequent.

Negotiations with the American interlopers fixed the fishing village of Yokohama as the site of Japan’s first port open to foreign commerce. Within a decade, the village was a city, its new streets thronged with foreign merchants sniffing out opportunities. Among them was the American contacted by the Scotsman.

The gannenmono numbered 148 — “all-nonfarmers,” writes Jonathan Y. Okamura in “From Race to Ethnicity: Interpreting Japanese American Experiences in Hawai’i.” Whatever their trade — cook, tailor, woodworker, samurai — poverty had stripped them bare. They had nothing to lose — or so they thought. They had much to learn.

Hawaii’s planters as Okamura describes them — a privileged caste of “haole” (non-native Hawaiians, usually white) — were slave drivers. They too had much to learn. The Japanese were not slaves. Those who survived — some died on the job — protested, rebelled, organized. They sowed the seeds of an organized labor movement. Over the years it grew strong — but slowly. The time was not ripe. The first experiment in emigration as a solution to mass poverty was aborted.

But poverty persisted. It got worse. In Meiji Japan, the rich got richer, the poor poorer, the government taxing the peasantry beyond endurance to finance urbanization and industrialization. Colonization was a recurring theme in government and intellectual circles. Expanded markets and a vent for “excess population” were the anticipated rewards. Other advanced nations had overseas colonies. Why not Japan?

A quasi-governmental Colonization Society, formed in 1893, oversaw settlements in Mexico, Peru, Brazil, Guam, Fiji, Australia, the Philippines, Korea, Taiwan. Also, as we’ll see next month, in Hokkaido, a land scarcely less remote in the popular imagination, whose virgin wilderness beckoned the hardy, the dreamers, the outlaws, the idealists.

Early colonists saw themselves less as permanent settlers than as dekasegi (workers temporarily away from home). They’d toil, scrimp, save and endure for a few years, then return home, flush with cash, their future and their children’s secure. So they thought — not always wrongly.

A vast expansion of Hawaii’s sugar industry sped fresh Japanese emigration there. In 1885, after a hiatus of 20 years, a recruitment drive calling for 600 workers drew 28,000 aspirants. By 1900, Japanese in Hawaii outnumbered all other foreign laborers. Conditions were brutal. Other foreigners submitted or succumbed; the Japanese organized and resisted. They led mass strikes — one major one in 1909, another in 1920 — that paralyzed the industry. Planters hired strike-breakers and called in the military. The strikes collapsed. The war went on.

On Sept. 18, 1928, a 10-year-old haole boy was murdered. His name was Gill Jamieson. He lived in a wealthy suburb of Honolulu and attended an exclusive private school. His father, Frederick Jamieson, was vice-president of the Hawaiian Trust Company bank.

Four days later, a 19-year-old Japanese American man named Myles Fukunaga was arrested. He admitted his guilt. The trial was speedy. Within two weeks, Fukunaga was found guilty of first-degree murder. His lawyer’s motion for retrial on grounds of multiple judicial errors was dismissed. Fukunaga was hanged on Nov. 19. Case closed.

Reopening it nearly a century later, Okamura charges miscarriage of justice. There is no question of Fukunaga’s guilt — only of his sanity. The rush to convict and execute, Okamura says, was driven by ingrained racism. A letter he cites dated 1890 conveys the atmosphere. A supplier acknowledges a planter’s order for “bone meal, canvas, Japanese laborers, macaroni and a Chinaman.” Towards Japanese, animosity was particularly inflamed. Japanese labor activism threatened to gut the plantation economy.

Fukunaga was born in 1909 in “Camp 2” of a sugar plantation. His parents, emigrants from Yamaguchi Prefecture, toiled on the plantation for wages that barely kept the family of nine alive. Myles was a gifted child. He graduated at the top of his eighth-grade class. He dreamed of higher education. Impossible. He quit school and took odd jobs — storeroom boy, elevator boy, office boy, hospital orderly. His one solace was books. But when could he read? He said he wanted to die.

One day in May 1928 he came home to find a rent collector from the Hawaiian Trust Company dunning his mother. The rent had not been paid. His mother was in tears. “From that day,” he told investigators, “I had a hatred for the Hawaiian Trust Company.”

His plan took shape. On Sept. 18 he phoned Gill Jamieson’s school. He identified himself as a hospital orderly. Gill’s mother had been in an accident, he said; he would arrive shortly to bring the boy to the hospital. He took him instead to a thicket and clubbed him to death. Then he sent the father a ransom note.

The boy’s father and his murderer met. The note had demanded $10,000; $4,000 changed hands, the father thinking the boy was still alive. Two days later, the body was found; two days after that, Fukunaga was arrested. He promptly confessed. He cooperated eagerly. He seemed pleased. His death wish would come true.

Among the judicial errors Okamura cites is the “extremely flawed” — scarcely even professional — psychiatric exam that found the defendant sane. Did it even consider the possibility that a death wish motivating murder might itself constitute evidence of insanity? It appears not. All involved seemed to grasp that pronouncing Fukunaga insane would have been tantamount to declaring the society that had warped him insane. Justice took a back seat. Alive and a victim himself, Fukunaga was a threat. Dead, he could be forgotten — dead however disposed of. “If ever a lynching were justified,” reads a contemporary editorial in the Honolulu Advertiser newspaper, “it would have been the lynching of Fukunaga.”

First of two parts on migrant Japan. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History.” For an interview with Jonathan Y. Okamura on this topic, visit Hawaii Public Radio.

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