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Presentation Immigration and Relocation in U.S. History

Hawaii: Life in a Plantation Society

Cutting sugar cane in Hawaii, 1901

Hawaii was the first U.S. possession to become a major destination for immigrants from Japan, and it was profoundly transformed by the Japanese presence.

In the 1880s, Hawaii was still decades away from becoming a state, and would not officially become a U.S. territory until 1900. However, much of its economy and the daily life of its residents were controlled by powerful U.S.-based businesses, many of them large fruit and sugar plantations. Unlike in the mainland U.S., in Hawaii business owners actively recruited Japanese immigrants, often sending agents to Japan to sign long-term contracts with young men who'd never before laid eyes on a stalk of sugar cane. The influx of Japanese workers, along with the Chinese, Filipino, Korean, Portuguese, and African American laborers that the plantation owners recruited, permanently changed the face of Hawaii. In 1853, indigenous Hawaiians made up 97% of the islands' population. By 1923, their numbers had dwindled to 16%, and the largest percentage of Hawaii's population was Japanese.

Japanese residences, Honolulu
Japanese residences, Honolulu

Plantation-era Hawaii was a society unlike any that could be found in the United States, and the Japanese immigrant experience there was unique. The islands were governed as an oligarchy, not a democracy, and the Japanese immigrants struggled to make lives for themselves in a land controlled almost exclusively by large commercial interests. Most Japanese immigrants were put to work chopping and weeding sugar cane on vast plantations, many of which were far larger than any single village in Japan. The workday was long, the labor exhausting, and, both on the job and off, the workers' lives were strictly controlled by the plantation owners. Each planter had a private army of European American overseers to enforce company rules, and they imposed harsh fines, or even whippings, for such offenses as talking, smoking, or pausing to stretch in the fields. Workers shopped at company stores and lived in company housing, much of which was meager and unsanitary. Until 1900, plantation workers were legally bound by 3- to 5-year contracts, and "deserters" could be jailed. For many Japanese immigrants, most of whom had worked their own family farms back home, the relentless toil and impersonal scale of industrial agriculture was unbearable, and thousands fled to the mainland before their contracts were up.

Plantation life was also rigidly stratified by national origin, with Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino laborers paid at different rates for the same work, while all positions of authority were reserved for European Americans. Plantation owners often pitted one nationality against the other in labor disputes, and riots broke out between Japanese and Chinese workers. As Japanese sugar workers became more established in the plantation system, however, they responded to management abuse by taking concerted action, and organized major strikes in 1900, 1906, and 1909, as well as many smaller actions. In 1920, Japanese organizers joined with Filipino, Chinese, Spanish, and Portuguese laborers, and afterwards formed the Hawaii Laborers' Association, the islands' first multiethnic labor union, and a harbinger of interethnic solidarity to come.

Japanese Hawaiians celebrate
emperor's birthday, 1916

Although Hawaii's plantation system provided a hard life for immigrant workers, at the same time the islands were the site of unprecedented cultural autonomy for Japanese immigrants. In Hawaii, Japanese immigrants were members of a majority ethnic group, and held a substantial, if often subordinate, position in the workforce. Though they had to struggle against European American owners for wages and a decent way of life, Japanese Hawaiians did not have to face the sense of isolation and fear of racial attacks that many Japanese immigrants to the West Coast did. They confidently transplanted their traditions to their new home. Buddhist temples sprung up on every plantation, many of which also had their own resident Buddhist priest. The midsummer holiday of obon, the festival of the souls, was celebrated throughout the plantation system, and, starting in the 1880s, all work stopped on November 3 as Japanese workers cheered the birthday of Japan's emperor.

Japanese store, Honolulu

By the 1930s, Japanese immigrants, their children, and grandchildren had set down deep roots in Hawaii, and inhabited communities that were much older and more firmly established than those of their compatriots on the mainland. Despite the privations of plantation life and the injustices of a stratified social hierarchy, since the 1880s Japanese Hawaiians had lived in a multiethnic society in which they played a majority role. The newspapers, schools, stores, temples, churches, and baseball teams that they founded were the legacy of a community secure of its place in Hawaii, and they became a birthright that was handed down to the generations that followed.