End of life surrounds us, all of us. There are many beliefs as to what lies beyond. And although many purport to have communicated with the “other side”, no one really knows what is in store for us. But it is a reality we all come to know.
Near the historic whaling town of Lahaina, on the island of Maui, quietly lies this cemetery on a spit of sand between the Lahaina Jodo Mission and the Mala boat ramp. Baked by the sun and swirling sand, the headstones commemorate the lives of Japanese laborers. They came to Hawaii to work the pineapple and sugar cane fields in the 1800’s, and they died in a foreign country.
The story of Japanese immigration to Hawai’i began in a time cloaked within the myths and folklore of the ancient Hawaiian people. The legends of these ancient people, in chant and song, may have begun at a time when Japanese fishermen were washed ashore in these islands after having been driven from their homeland by typhoons.
The Gannen Mono, or the “first year men”, arrived in Hawaii from Yokohama in 1868. They numbered approximately one hundred fifty men and women of diverse background, largely urban dwellers, displaced samurai and an assortment of rogues.
Between 1869 and 1885 Japan barred emigration to Hawaii in fears that Japanese laborers would be degrading to the reputation of the Japanese race. In 1881 King David Kalākaua visited Japan to strengthen relations between the two nations. Kalākaua and Emperor Meiji Mutsuhito could identify with each other; both countries were island nations, both were nations of the Pacific, both were monarchies, and both were under pressure of Western powers. Kalākaua offered not to request extraterritoriality of Japan, an act that departed from the norm of western nations. On March 10 Kalakaua met Meiji to propose a marriage between Princess Victoria Kaiulani and Prince Higashifushimi Yorihito, a few days later the proposal was denied, but the ban on immigration was eventually lifted in 1885.The first 153 Japanese immigrants arrived in Hawaii on February 8, 1885 as contract laborers for the sugarcane and pineapple plantations.
Their lives were contained within the boundaries of their plantation camps. Yet even in the midst of poverty, a sense of community, a sense of pride and permanency began to be articulated. Picture bride marriages were arranged so as to perpetuate the traditional Japanese family. Nesei women, crossing an ocean to meet husbands they had never known, began not only to serve the home and give birth to the Nisei, the second generation, but to work alongside their husbands in the fields.
It was in February of 1885 that the steamer City of Tokyo brought nearly nine hundred Japanese immigrants to Hawai’i. Most were young, single males working under three-year indentured contracts. They came with the intention of making their fortunes in “Golden Hawai’i” ,and then returning to Japan, glorified with status and wealth.
These immigrants were the first of what would become wave after wave of Issei, the first generation. Each Issei group was as anxious as the next to find new wealth in Hawai’i. By 1924 so many Japanese had come to the islands that they constituted over 40% of the population. Working for low wages in the sugar and pineapple fields, day-after-day, year-after-year, hauling, cutting, slashing and burning cane, the Issei gave their muscles, blood and sweat to buttress the great plantation fortunes.