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Issei Pioneers - Hawaii and the Mainland 1885-1924 - Part 18

Read Part 17 >>


The birth of their American-born-children, the Nisei, marked a turning point in the lives of many Issei families. For the sake of the children, families decided to settle down in one locale.  “Even if w have to work harder, we will do so to save money and settle down in some place so that can send our kids to the same school  all year around,” commented one Issei who farmed in Cortez, California.1

America – where
My three sons grow lustily—
More than a wayside stop.2

As the children grew older, they went to work in the fields or family business and took on household chores or child care.  Osame Manago’s four children picked coffee after school at Goto-san’s and at home they had to “dry the dishes and sweep and mop” in addition to bathing the young ones and readying them for school the next day.  In the Manago family the sons did not escape doing “girls work,”  “We let them do everything even wash and iron,” remarked Osame.3  But in many other households, male and female tasks and expectations were sharply differentiated.  Preferential treatment was generally given to the males of the family, particularly the elder son.

Though the eldest son (chonan) was accorded many privileges, he was also primarily responsible for the physical and financial needs of his aging parents.4  In Milton Murayama’s novel All I Asking for is My Body,5 the Oyama family’s eldest son, Tosh, reluctantly quit high school to work in the cane fields and help pay a $6,000 debt which his father had inherited from his own father.  “Every child must repay his parents,” Mrs. Oyama preaches.  “How long?  How much?” thunders Tosh who felt trapped, destined to die on the plantation.

In the Japanese family, children were taught the virtues of ko (duty to parents), on ( filial obligation and indebtedness), and giri (duty and responsibility).  They were reminded that the on that the one owed to one’s parents was “deeper that the oceans and higher than the mountains” and could never be repaid.  Children were expected to demonstrate a lifelong obedience to the wishes of their parents, particularly in the matter if the matter of marriage and life goals.  The parents, in turn, were responsible for the education and welfare of their children.

Proper etiquette was extremely important to Issei Parents.  A Nisei child quickly learned the importance of silence, modesty, indirection, and humility and was punished for boastful, aggressive, loud, and self-centered behavior.  Respect, obedience, and filial piety to parents was highly emphasized along with observance of rank order within the family structure:  from young member to older member, from children to parents, from wife to husband.  Within that framework came the learning of proper greetings, forms of address, and the formalities observed at New Years, funerals, and various occasions.

“Is it not wrong to put undue emphasis on such things as the manner of speaking the Japanese language and Japanese etiquette and mannerisms with regards to teaching our children who are citizens of the United States?” asked writer Nasoki Oka in his special feature article for the Shin Sekai on “Educating the Second Generation Jaapanese.”6

In defenae of the Nisei, Oka printed out that “Most of us do not speak English well, nor are we schooled in mannerisms that are considered proper in America,” yet the Issei were “quick to criticize the Nisei for the poor use if the Japanese language and for what they believe to be  crude behavior” which created friction between the two generations.7

Scolded by his mother
A Nisei goes out
With a parting shot in English.8


With hope for the future heavily invested in the children. “Nisei Education” became an issue that was seriously discussed in the privacy of homes and hotly debated in the public forums of community halls, language schools, and the press.  At the heart of the debate lay the issues of assimilation and settlement.  The Shin Sekai, a leading Japanese newspaper, advised the Issei to decide whether or not they were going to settle down in America.  If they were, then they should raise their children as Americans with American customs and manners.9

In the early years of immigration when the majority of Issei intended to return to Japan, the Issei felt the necessity of a formal Japanese education.  In order to prepare for Japanese public schools, children needed to study such subjects as Japanese language, history, folklore, culture, and ethics.

In Hawaii, the Japanese language schools formed quickly as the population of school-aged children increased.  The first one was established in Maui in 1895; the second school was founded by the Christian Reverend Takie Okamura in April, 1896 in Honolulu.  As Reverend Okumura received repeated requests from Issei parents “for the systematic instruction of Japanese children in their native tongue,” the school was finally opened in a borrowed room, with one licensed Japanese teacher, and thirty students.

Reverend Okumura told about the incident that had called his attention to the need for Japanese language instruction:  “During my first month in Hawaii I saw a little girl standing at the door of my church.  Thinking that she might be lonely, I tapped her on the shoulder and inquired if she had come with her mother.  Her reply was ‘Me mama hanahana yokonai.’ Failing to understand her, I called to a friend who had been longer in the islands and learned that, ‘Me mama’ was a corrupted English phrase for ‘my mother’ that ‘hanahana’ was the Hawaiian for ‘work’; and the ‘yokonai’ was a Japanese expression equivalent to ‘can not come.”10

Whether the Issei  planned to stay or return, a grave concern within the Japanese immigrant community was the language barrier between parents and their children.  According to an old-timer who lived in the small farming community of Lake Lavish, Washington, “Issei parents used to feel so moved that they actually shed tears when they heard their children speaking Japanese in the school talent shows.”11  Others were grateful

When their children could read Japanese.  “Bring some water to the field,” the parents  would write.  When the children managed to read the note and brought the water they elated parents would say, “Even for this much I am happy.”12

According to an Issei woman graduate of Mills College, who worked in Los Angeles as a social Worker in the 1920’s, the most serious problem in the Japanese immigrant community was language.  “Issei parents spoke only Japanese, but Nisei children  preferred to  speak English...So I advised the parents to learn more about American society” and “told Nisei children to try to understand their parents,” who were “raised in traditional Jaaapan.”13    

Children in English,
Parents in Japanese,
It’s all Greek to both of us!14

On the Mainland, the first Japanese language school was established in Seattle in 1902, soon followed by others in San Francisco, Sacramento, and Los Angeles.  A series of debates evolved within the Japanese communities concerning the direction and goals of the Japanese language schools.  At one end of the spectrum was Consul Matsuzo Nagai of San Francisco, an advocate of settlement, who felt that Japanese  schools were not necessary at all.  At the other end were those who believed that a Japanese education was of primary importance.  Those in the middle put greater emphasis on American education or placed equal value on both.  

In 1912, thirty-four Issei educators from throughout the state of California assembled to define the fundamental purpose of the Japanese language schools.  The educators unequivocally agreed that an American education was primary and that Japanese schools would provide supplementary education on Japan and the Japanese language.  The main objective of the language schools was to educate Nisei as American citizens.  A secondary aim was to reduce the communication gap within the family and to instill pride in the Nisei youth.  

The educators believed that while American public schools could provide the intellectual and physical education, the moral education of the Nisei had to be based on the Imperial Rescript on Education   promulgated by the Meiji Emperor in 1890.  It read:

Our Imperial ancestors have founded Our Empire on a base broad and everlasting and have deeply and firmly implanted virtue;  Our Subjects ever united in loyalty and filial piety have from generation to generation illustrated the beauty thereof.  This is the glory of the fundamental character of Our Empire, and herein also lies the source of Our education.

Ye, Our subjects, be filial to your parents, affectionate to your brothers and sisters, as husbands and wives be harmonious; as friends true; bear ourselves in modesty and moderation; extend your benevolence to all;  pursue learning and cultivate arts, and thereby develop intellectual faculties and perfect moral powers; furthermore advance public good and promote common interest; always respect the Constitution and observe the laws; should emergence arise, offer yourselves courageously to the State; and thus guard and maintain the prosperity of Our Imperial Throne coeval with heaven and earth. So shall ye not only be Our good and faithful subjects, but render illustrious the best tradition of your forefathers.15

All the young schoolchildren growing up in Meiji Japan knew the edict by heart.  “I even thought that Kyoiku Chokugo (The Imperial Rescript on Education) must come from the Bible which was the word of God,” said Yoshisada Kawai, an Issei Christian who was struck by the similarity of social ethics he read in passages of Colossian and the “traditional Japanese moral teachings” he had learned.  “These moral principles, like loyalty to Emperor, love of country, respect of ancestors, taking care of parents, harmonious relationship between husband and wife, friendship and trust, love of mankind, etc., were put in our head, and these had become the character of the Issei people.”16

In both Hawaii and on the Mainland, the Japanese language schools were attacked by the white majority and accused of fostering Emperor worship and anti-American sentiment.  After Word War I, restrictions and regulations aimed at abolishing Japanese language schools were imposed in Hawaii and on the Mainland.  After more than six years of legal battles, a United States Supreme Court decision in 1927 invalidated the restrictive statues regulating foreign schools.

Continued agitation from anti-Japanese forces convinced the Issei that an American education was the only hope for their children’s future.  Families made great sacrifices to put their children through school.  Setsuji Miyoshi of Portland remembered the long hours he and his wife spent, making beds, cleaning toilets, answering telephones, while managing their sixty-room hotel.  He recalled how “from time to time white guests came in, looked at our faces, said ‘Jap!’ and left.  But even though we were insulted, we kept on working silently.  Our earnest desire was to send our children to college by all means.”17

Alien hardships
Made bearable for the hope
I hold for my children. 18

Part 19 >>

1. Anonymous Issei woman, Issei Christians, p. 225.
2. Katsuko, Ito, Issei, p. 497.
3. Osame Manago interview, Hanahana, p. 165.
4. See Sylvia Yanagisako, Transforming the Past: Tradition and Kinship Among Japanese Americans, pp. 170-183, for discussion of changes in filial relationships.
5. Milton Murayama, All I Asking for is My Body (Hawaii, 1988).
6. Naoki Oka, “Educating the Second Generation Japanese,” Shin Sekai, August 5, 1928.
7. Naoki Oka, :Educating the Second Generation Japanese,” Shin Sekai, August 5, 1928.
8. Kaho Honda. Hokkubei Jiji, May 15, 1934, as translated by Sachiko Honda, “Issei Senryu,” jin Gail M.Nomura, Russell Endo, Stephen H.Sumida, and Russell Cl Leong (Eds.), Frontiers of Asian American Studies (Washington, 1989), p. 172.
9. See Yuji Ichioka. The Issei, p. 197-198.
10. A Survey of Education in Hawaii, Department of the Interior, Bureau of Education, Bulletin, 1920, No. 16, pp. 108-109, as quoted in Ernest K Kakukawa, A History of the Japanese People in Hawaii, pp. 265-266.
11. Ito, Issei, p. 514.
12. Harsue Fukuda interview, Ito, Issei, p. 604.
13. Makimi Kambayashi, Issei Women: Life Histories of Six Issei Women who Participated in Social and Other Activities in Los Angeles, 1984, Ph.D. Dissertation, University of California (Los Angeles, 1985), pp. 194-195.
14. Shizan Matsumoto, Fausuto, 1976, p.5, as translated by Saachiko Honda, “Issei Senryu,” in Gail M.Nomura, (Eds.), Frontiers of Asian American Studies, p.172.
15. Official Meiji government translation of the Rescript on Education.
16. Yoshisada Kawai interview, Issei Christians, p. 22.
17. Setsuji Miyoshi, Ito, Issei, pp. 526-527.
18. Katsuko, Ito, Issei, p. 497.

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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