Today, Japanese Americans at 1,300,000 are the America’s sixth largest Asian ethnic community. Yet, in 1868, the gannen mono, Japan’s first immigrants, recruited to work Hawaii’s sugar cane fields, ended in such a disaster that a third returned to Japan with stories so horrid, the emperor forbade future immigration to Hawaii.
What led up to that early fiasco and why did it fail?
For sure, Hawaii needed the labor. Between 1835, when commercial sugar cultivation began and 1868, Hawaii’s population halved.
Sugar was an exclusively slave produced product in 1835 when New England import William Hooper cleared land for Hawaii’s first sugar plantation. He introduced paid freeman labor to this industry. His consortium leased 980 Kauai Island acres from King Kamehameha III for $300 a year. Workers were recruited from an ample population of 130,000. (Although far less than the estimated 400,000 when Captain Cook “discovered” the then named Sandwich Islands) The Hawaiian labor force were paid in coupons redeemed at the company store.
Until 1848, the King owned all the land. That year, Kamehameha III promulgated the Great Mahele allowing private land ownership without restricting non-Hawaiians. The sons of missionaries took quick advantage. Their newly acquired land and organization ability laid the foundation for the “Big Five” oligarchy that begin to compete with and then supplant royal power.
The same year, the Gold Rush boosted exports of Hawaii’s white gold to California. Tragically, as demand for Hawaii’s sugar and thus demand for labor increased, epidemics continued to kill native Hawaiians, none worse than the 1853 small pox outbreak that cut Hawaii’s population to 73,000.
Following the passage of the kingdom’s labor contract law in 1850, desperately poor Guangdong and Fujian laborers quickly formed the majority of Hawaii’s sugar cane workers. The Taiping rebellion, that would kill 20,000,000 Chinese in a civil war from 1850 to 1864, stimulated migration.
When the American civil war broke out, the Northern States needed a replacement source for it lost access to Louisiana sugar. Hawaiian sugar production soared while its population dwindled to barely 60,000 even with the influx of Chinese workers. When their labor contracts were fulfilled, half the Chinese abandoned plantation life to start local businesses or leave Hawaii to build the continental railroad.
In 1868, Hawaii’s Board of Immigration, wrote American Eugene Van Reed, the Hawaiian Kingdom’s consul and businessman in Japan, asking for laborers. That year, the Meiji restoration and its brief civil war disrupted agriculture and eliminated the samurai class. The dispossessed flocked to the cities for jobs that didn’t always exists.
As the Japanese economy imploded, Van Reed offered three year employment contracts without obtaining official permission. Offering free transportation to sunny Hawaii, Van Reed illegally recruited defrocked samurai, gamblers, restaurant workers, sake factory laborers, artisans, and even a hairdresser from the streets of Yokohama.
On June 20, 1868 this motely group of one hundred and forty-one men and six women, with no knowledge of farming or the back breaking labor required for the job, arrived in Honolulu on the British ship, Scioto.
Pay was $4 a month plus room and board. The working conditions were slave-like. A quarter of the work force broke their contract to return to Japan. On return, they issued a statement charging the planters “with cruelty and breach of contract.” The new Meiji emperor, citing a “distasteful impression” of his countrymen’s treatment, barred future immigration fearing “Japanese laborers were being degraded like the Chinese.”
Reed’s 1868 worker “selection process,” his bypassing of Japanese immigration authorities, and the planation owners’ cruel treatment of their desperately needed laborers makes one shake his head in wonder. What were these people thinking? And, who would have thought, that despite this start-up fiasco, a hundred years later, a son of Japan would serve in the United States senate eventually becoming third in line to the presidency. From such auspicious beginnings, an industry would eventually find its labor force and a kingdom its new population to replenish its nation’s dwindling numbers. Next week, a king’s visit to Tokyo.
The garden pictured is located inside Honolulu’s International Airport. It is surrounded by the VIP airport lounges. The plaque placed in 1968 noted the 100th anniversary of Hawaii’s first Japanese immigrants.