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Issei Pioneers - Hawaii and the Mainland 1885-1924 - Part 2

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While the migrants undoubtedly cursed the loneliness and hard word, payday reminded them why they left their homeland. “Four hundred yen in three years,” they assured themselves. To save the same amount in Japan, a day worker would have had to work for seven years and a silk mill worker ten years. In 1884, a Hiroshima farmer’s annual earnings was 14.48 yen and 9.98 yen in 1885, while a plantation worker earned the equivalent of 17.65 yen a month in Hawaii.1

In 1884, the Japan Weekly Mail reported that the distress among the agricultural class had reached a point never before attained. Most of the farmers have been unable to pay their taxes, and hundreds of families in one village alone have been compelled to sell their property in order to liquidate their debts.”2 The economic depression hit the small businesses as well as the farmers and “although crops were good the years before, the poor of the nation did not have enough to eat…Some starved to death…Some existed on tree barks and roots as prices and wages dropped.3

Before the new leaders of the Meiji Restoration came to power in 1968, travel to foreign countries was prohibited. For more than two centuries during the Tokugawa Era (1600-1867), Japan had virtually sealed itself off from the outside world. Only a limited number of Dutch, Chinese, and Koreans were permitted to enter the port of Nagasaki while Japanese citizens were prohibited from traveling abroad under penalty of death.

Japan’s “closed door” policy persisted until 1853 when Commodore Matthew C. Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay with four heavily armed warships, carrying a letter from President Fillmore of the United States, demanding the opening of Japan to Western trade. As European countries were rapidly claiming their worldwide colonies. America was establishing its own commercial and strategic interest in Japan followed by the United States’ annexation of Hawaii and the Philippines in 1898.

Commodore Perry’s intrusion hastened the overthrow of the decaying feudal system and ushered in the Meiji Restoration. The new leaders embarked on a path of modernization, adapting Western technology, military organization, legal concepts, and political theory. They were determined to “catch up with the West.”

By the turn of the century, Japan had transformed itself from an isolated country of warrior-bureaucrats to a major military power. The heavy cost of change was paid primarily by the small farmers who were burdened with a new land tax system. Political upheaval, high unemployment, and a prolonged depression combined with conditions of drought, crop failure, overpopulation and famine to compound the plight of the masses. Faced with these internal problems and the request from various countries for laborers, Japan finally allowed her citizens to emigrate.

Kikuji Ujiie, whose parents were farmers in Fukushima Prefecture, remembered that “Lands everywhere were being put on collateral, unemployment was increasing; everyone had only survival on their minds.” To repay the debt that the family had inherited after his father’s death, Kikuji immigrated to Hawaii in 1913 to work on the Paia Plantation. Always “haunted by the debt back in Japan” he worked 363 days of the year, only resting on New Year’s Day and the Emperor’s birthday.4

Most of the migrants who came to Hawaii during the government sponsored emigration period (1885-1894) were heads of family or eldest sons.5 Japan’s conscription law of 1873 may have played a part by exempting emigrants as well as heirs from military service. By sending their first-born abroad and making their younger son the heir a family could potentially protect two sons. Toden Higa was the eldest son in his family. “My parents were afraid that I would be drafted if I stayed in Okinawa,” he recalled. “That’s why my parents asked me to go to Hawaii.”6

Advertisement leaflets appealed to “Workers for Hawaii!” describing Hawaii as a paradise. Actual amount sent back to families and villages fueled the tales of “money trees.” Only a few months after their arrival, the emigrants aboard the City of Tokio sent $4,000 to their families in Japan. The exchange rate was approximately 85 cents to a yen. When Kansuke Iwase sent back almost 130 yen in less than ten months, rumors spread quickly throughout the island of Oshima and everyone was consumed with the thought of going to Hawaii.7

Before the turn of the century, Issei were sending back about $1.5 million annually. From 1900 to 1907 the annual remittance climbed to $2 million. Remittances sent by the Issei had become a leading source of overseas revenue, especially for rural areas of Japan.8 Historian Alan Moriyama noted, “at times emigrants’ remittances made up almost 2 percent of the total yearly value of the nation’s exports.” In addition to “large amounts of money carried back” by the immigrants and “overseas markets being created for Japanese products,” Japanese emigrants abroad had clearly contributed to the modernization of Mejii Japan.9 While families and whole villages depended upon the remittances, communities in Hawaii felt the financial drain.

Labor recruiters continued to play a large role in the migration process, feeding on the curiosity of anxious youths. In 1906, seventeen-year-old Seichin Nagayama of Okinawa remembered, “Everybody else was saying, ‘I’ll go! I’ll go!’ and it made me want to go, too. It never occurred to me to think about what I’d do once I got there.”10 What awaited Seichin Nagayama and the other Japanese emigrants didn’t quite meet their expectations.

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1. See Alan Moriyama, Imingaisha, pp. 18-19.
2. Japan Weekly Mail, December 20, 1884, in Ronald Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore (Boston, 1989), p 43.
3. Tsuchiya Takao, No-Sho-Ko-Gaiyo, in James Okahata, A History of Japanese in Hawaii, p. 93.
4. Kikuji Ujiie, Ethnic Studies Oral History Project, Tape Mo, 7-7-79 TR and 7-2-1-79 TR, Haruo Yamamoto and Warren Nishimoto.
5. The government-sponsored emigration, between1885 and 1894, referred to a period when the governments of Hawaii and Japan were responsible for the Japanese who arrived in Hawaii. Provisions of the responsibilities were outlined in the labor convention signed in Tokyo on January 28, 1886.
6. Toden Higa, Uchinanchu; A History of Okinawans in Hawaii, Ethnic Studies Oral History Project (Honolulu, 1981), p.512.
7. Kawazoe, Imin hyakunen, p. 93, in Alan Morimoto, Imingaisha, p.26.
8. Alan Moriyama, Imingaisha, pp. 24-25.
9. Ibid, pp. 166-167.
10. Seichin Nagayama, Unhi Nagayama, Uchinanchu. Pp. 467-68.

* Issei Pioneers: Hawai‘i and the Mainland, 1885-1924 is the catalogue accompanying the National Museum’s inaugural exhibition. Using artifacts from the National Museum’s collection to tell the story of the courageous “Issei Pioneers,” the catalogue focuses on the early immigration and settlement years. To order the catalogue >>

© 1992 Japanese American National Museum

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