Insights & Stories

Gannenmono: The 150-Year Love Affair Between The Aloha State and The Land of the Rising Sun

Reading time: 10 Minutes

June 20th, 2018

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Japanese voyagers first arrived in Hawaii 150 years ago. On June 20, 1868 a group of 147 men and 6 women landed on this rich soil to work the land. They planned to labor as sugarcane workers and then return to Japan with their newly built fortunes.

From that first voyage, a rich rapport and ongoing cultural exchange developed between the two island nations that continues to thrive. While some of those first Japanese returned home, others remained in Hawaii and many sailed over in the following years, spreading their roots here and helping shape many aspects of the Hawaii we know today.

That first wave of immigrants or Issei arrived as hard laborers in sugar and pineapple plantations. Their Hawaii-born children, known as Nisei, began forming labor unions and left crop production, becoming merchants, tradesmen and landowners. Their descendants flourished, eventually moving into positions of influence. They have become some of the most celebrated figures in Hawaii's history in every field, from military and politics to arts and athletics.

At the time of the first voyage in 1868, Japan was experiencing a seismic shift. It was the first year of transition from shogunate to imperial reign, a time known as the Meiji Restoration. The shogunate had strictly controlled who could enter or leave Japan. Emperor Meiji, however, recognized that the world was in flux, with western ships arriving that boasted superior technological prowess. In an effort to catch up to their western counterparts, Japan adopted open policies, allowing its citizens to work on foreign lands, learn new trades and send money home, hugely boosting the economy. It was a time of enormous industrial and military growth for Japan.

Hawaii meanwhile was experiencing its own era of transition that was turning the kingdom into a vital post for global trade and gradually leading to the overthrow of the nation's monarchy. American ships had been arriving in port, who saw Hawaii's potential as a key region for agriculture and trade. These settlers established sugarcane production in 1835 and needed a vast pool of manual labor to harvest the fields. First came Chinese workers. Then in 1868, the initial shipload of Japanese workers arrived, known as gannenmono or “people of the first year (of the Meiji era).”

A June 24 Hawaiian Gazette article describes that when these gannenmono prepared to leave Japan 33 days earlier on the vessel Scioto, the group was “shouting and laughing as gladly at the prospect before them as children setting forth upon a holiday trip.”

This was not a group of seasoned farmers, but an assortment of craftspeople, peasants and at least one samurai eager to escape poverty and Japan's civil unrest. They arrived for a three-year term of service, with the promise of a golden future to be reaped from Hawaii's rice and sugar fields. The June 24 Hawaiian Gazette describes these newcomers as a “healthy, vigorous-looking men," adding:

“These Japanese must be looked on in the light of an experiment, and a few weeks or months at most, will determine whether it will be advisable to seek for more of them.”

This initial “experiment,” however, quickly began to fail. The lifestyle and money promised were not being delivered. Their 10-hour workdays weeding, cutting and carrying were earning them a meager monthly wage of $4. The sun in the fields was harsh, plantation owners cruel and wages withheld. Within six months, a third of the workers had returned home and Japan decided not to send any further of its citizens to Hawaii.

However, Hawaii's plantations were giving rise to a booming trade and the need for large quantities of physical laborers continued. With a desire to regain access to Japanese laborers, King Kalakaua traveled to Japan to meet with Emperor Meiji in 1881. Not as commonly known is that to strengthen diplomatic ties between the two nations, Kalakaua also proposed a marriage between his niece Princess Kaiulani and Meiji Prince Yorihito.

The marriage did not take place, but Meiji did respond by again opening Japan's doors for emigration to Hawaii. This time, those who came were predominantly skilled farmers and were males of stout age and strength. These populations began resisting unfair treatment, establishing labor unions and engaging in several massive strikes. Many of the various cultural groups who worked the land kept to themselves, but the Japanese made a point of bringing the groups together for a system-wide strike. Over time, these initiatives spearheaded by the Japanese led to increased pay, manageable work hours and better living conditions.

A prosperous economy created the need for monetary establishments, and in 1897 Bank of Hawaii was founded. However, robust economies are powered by a thriving middle class. Though Japanese immigrants and waves of Filipino, Korean, Portuguese and other groups of workers that followed had swelled to make up a majority of the Territory's population, power was still concentrated in the hands of the plantation owners. The various ethnic groups were essentially indentured servants. They were tied to the land and not allowed citizenship, so they could not own shops or engage in business transactions that are necessary for a thriving financial climate. The health of the bank and the health of the community would go hand in hand. It was a few years before both would truly prosper.

These plantation years were a time of ongoing change as the various groups adapted to life in the islands. The first two decades of the 1900s ushered in the era of picture brides. Single Japanese men preferred seeking women from home who shared their cultural background. Once the Japanese had established families in Hawaii, their population soared. They gave up plans to return to Japan and began investing in life on the islands, opening schools and giving their children a dual education in both English and Japanese. By the 1920s the Japanese population had grown to constitute over 40% of Hawaii's population. The most robust time of influx, from 1885 to 1924, found the Japanese emigrating at the rate of 10,000 to 25,000 people a year, with a total of 200,000 arrivals.

In 1941, the giant leaps of advancement Japanese families had made in Hawaii suddenly came to a startling halt with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Though fully dedicated to their Hawaii home, they looked like the enemy and many Japanese immigrants, both Issei and Nisei, were sequestered in internment camps. Some of Hawaii's most able-bodied Nisei responded by forming the 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team to legendary distinction.

The period after the war saw a resurgence of Japanese advancement in Hawaii. One major result of the war was that Hawaii's Japanese were considered to have proven their loyalty and Issei were finally granted the right to vote in 1950. Meanwhile, large quantities of Nisei who were citizens from birth had come of age. In 1959 the Territory of Hawaii became a state and Hawaii's large community of Japanese citizens began to have some clout. Through attention to education, investment in land and involvement in government relations, their population thoroughly wove itself into the social and economic fabric of the island.

Population growth and the granting of citizenship, particularly among the Japanese but also among other plantation groups, laid the seeds for Bank of Hawaii's successful growth. As these populations prospered, so did Bank of Hawaii. The shape of the economy was changing by leaps and bounds from a farming industry that enriched the pockets of only a few to a thriving network of businesses that allowed the entire population to benefit. A boom in tourism also began, including an influx of visitors from Japan.

Post-World War II political and social strides created a ripe time for Japanese-Americans to step boldly into the limelight and make their mark in history. In government affairs, Daniel Inouye, who received a Medal of Honor for his term with the 442nd regiment, was the first Nisei elected to Congress, achieving the highest rank of any Asian American politician in U.S. history. Other notable people of Japanese ancestry born in Hawaii also sought and achieved government positions. Patsy Mink became the first Asian American woman elected to Congress, and George Ariyoshi, the first Asian American governor in U.S. history. These politicians helped usher in a modern Hawaii, inspiring the ambitions of people of all ethnicities.

Historical strides by Japanese descendants have also been made in science. Ellison Onizuka became the first Asian American astronaut to fly into space (and was aboard the fated mission of the space shuttle Challenger). In the arts, Japanese descendants Lois-Ann Yamanaka, Jake Shimabukuro and Isami Doi have excelled respectively as a celebrated author, ukulele virtuoso and painter. Additionally, playwright Milton Murayama, achieved acclaim for his 1975 novel All I Asking for Is My Body, depicting the plight of a Japanese American family working on a sugarcane plantation circa World War II.

Among the many sports standouts who hail from a Japanese line are Harold Sakata, an Olympic weightlifter and silver medalist, as well as a pro-wrestler and actor who appeared in James Bond film Goldfinger. Yoshi Oyakawa and Ford Hiroshi Konno also are noted Olympic champs, both setting world records and winning gold medals as swimmers. There's also famous running back for the San Francisco 49ers, Wally Yonamine. These are a sturdy sample of the forerunners who cleared the path for other Americans with a variety of ethnic backgrounds to step up to the helm of leadership and achievement on a global level.

Hawaii's sizeable demographic who claim Japanese ancestry today and the Japanese cultural legacy present throughout the islands is a tribute to the perseverance of those original 153 gannenmono. Untraveled and fluent only in Japanese, they left their familiar home environment to seek out the unknown. Along with later waves of Issei, and their many Nisei descendants, they toiled under harsh conditions, yet they managed to not only adapt to their new surroundings but even blossom.

Time and again they faced hardship, but they moved steadily forward. In the face of racial discrimination—earning the lowest pay of any of the plantation groups—they successfully initiated multi-ethnic collaborations to diplomatically protest unfair labor practices. Seeking to prove loyalty to their chosen homeland, they made great sacrifices during the war. After the war they took advantage of the growing movement toward social equality and the new climate of political and economic prosperity by filling top government seats and entering professional occupations as doctors, lawyers, dentists, teachers, attorneys, architects, engineers and business owners.

Japanese culture colors all aspects of daily life in Hawaii. The influence is evident and abundant, from the wide presence of foods like saimin, crack seed, sushi and mochi to activities, festivals and institutions including the many Hongwanji Missions, the Cherry Blossom Festival, karaoke, sumo, judo, taiko, obon festivals, the floating lantern ceremony on Memorial Day and the annual Japanese film festival at Doris Duke Theatre. Civic bodies like the Japanese Chamber of Commerce, Japanese Community Association and Japanese Cultural Center help promote and preserve this vibrant heritage in the islands.

Today, the relationship between Hawaii and Japan that was born 150 years ago continues to remain dynamic and productive. A robust two-way flow of tourism continues to encourage a cultural sharing between the two island chains. Japanese have famously adopted the tradition of hula while Hawaii continues to relish the rich traditions that flow our way. With contemporary excitement over all things anime, like Kawaii Kon, and enjoyment of gourmet culinary establishments like Nobu, we can look with anticipation to what will come next from this prosperous and enduring exchange between the Aloha State and the Land of the Rising Sun.

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