HONOLULU – The impeached U.S. president was acquitted and the speaker of the House tore up her copy of the State of the Union address. The new coronavirus breakout forced Tokyo to put a cruise ship under strict quarantine. But despite all the things that have happened in the world over the past week, my thoughts have gone to the history of Hawaii and its relations with Japan.
Before arriving here on a vacation, I had imagined that many of the millions of tourists to Hawaii each year must be Asians from the Far East. In fact, the street conversation on Kalakaua Avenue, a popular shopping area in Honolulu, is either in Japanese, Korean or Chinese.
Contrary to conventional wisdom in Japan, however, the great majority of people who visited Hawaii in 2018 were Americans, who accounted for 6.4 millions out of 10 million visitors.
There were only 1.5 million Japanese visitors that year. More surprising was that South Korean and Chinese visitors numbered only 228,350 and 123,246, respectively. I am almost certain the great majority of Asian visitors do not know that there was an independent kingdom in Hawaii at the end of the 18th century, and that the kingdom was overthrown with the participation of U.S. agents and citizens in a coup that began in January 1893.
A quick study of the history of Hawaii, prompted by performances on Waikiki Beach, clarified the geopolitical reality and strategic importance of this beautiful island state.
1. The Kingdom of Hawaii sought a confederation with the Empire of Japan.
In 1881 King Kalakaua of Hawaii undertook a world tour. He had tried to protect the Hawaiian culture, identity and population from extinction at the hands of foreign powers by importing Asian or Pacific labor forces. When he visited Japan, he met with Emperor Meiji and signed a bilateral agreement on immigration.
King Kalakaua also offered the emperor a plan to put Hawaii under the protection of the Empire of Japan. He wanted to arrange a marriage between his niece Ka’iulani and Japan’s Prince Yamashina. The offer was declined because Tokyo feared such a confederation would infuriate Washington.
2. The U.S. waged a coup and took over Hawaii by force.
In 1887, King Kalakaua was forced to sign a new constitution that was drafted by white businessmen and lawyers. The new provisions reduced the authorities of the king and the rights of native Hawaiians and immigrant non-white workers. The king passed away in 1891 and his sister, Queen Lili’uokalani, succeeded him.
The Kingdom of Hawaii was overthrown in a coup that began on Jan. 17, 1893. U.S. citizens and other foreign residents residing in Honolulu waged the coup against the queen, with 160 U.S. Marines called in to “protect U.S. interests.” The revolutionaries eventually established the Republic of Hawaii in 1894.
The rebels’ ultimate goal was the annexation of Hawaii to the U.S. After repeated bloodshed in Hawaii, the islands were finally annexed by the U.S. in 1898.
3. Native Hawaiians must be remembered and honored.
Hawaii’s State Legislature is now working on a draft resolution to request the governor “to convene a blue-ribbon commission to examine and formulate a reconciliation process relating to issues of past, present, and future importance to the Native Hawaiian people, the State of Hawaii, and the United States.” That is part of the efforts by the Hawaiian Sovereignty Movements for self-determination and self-governance of the Native Hawaiians. Some even request redress from the U.S. for the 1893 overthrow of the queen and for a “prolonged military occupation” beginning with the 1898 annexation.
It is fair to note that in 1993 the U.S. Congress adopted a joint resolution that acknowledges the overthrow of the kingdom “with the active participation of agents and citizens” of the U.S. and that “the Native Hawaiian people never directly relinquished their claims to their inherent sovereignty.”
4. What if Hawaii and Japan had formed a confederation?
There are no “accidents” in history as Edward Hallett Carr, a University of Cambridge historian, wrote in “What Is History?” Nonetheless, if Japan had annexed Hawaii, a war between Japan and the United States over the Pacific Ocean might have broken out much earlier, ending with a U.S. victory over Japan.
In 1898 the Spanish-American War was fought and won by the U.S., which resulted in American acquisition of Spain’s Pacific possessions including the Philippines. It was a wise decision on the part of Tokyo to not form a confederation with Hawaii. Otherwise, Japan might have been colonized by the U.S.
If the Japanese prince had married a Hawaiian princess, the roads and streets of Hawaii would have been much narrower and more winding. Hawaii’s official languages may have been Hawaiian and the Japanese. But any confederation or federal system may not have lasted long.
Hawaii is a peaceful aloha state with a tragic history for the native Hawaiians. Young visitors from Japan may have no knowledge of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Waikiki Beach has long been taken over by Japanese tourist-consumers. The pen and money seems to be mightier than the sword.
Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.