The History of Japanese Immigration to Hawai'i

For a comprehensive understanding of the Japanese groups under study, it is essential to be aware of their immigration background. In 1868, the first 148 Japanese men came to work on Hawai’i’s sugar plantations. After their contract ended most of the Japanese returned to Japan. Due to poor working conditions, some workers went home even before their three-year contracts had expired and only 90 individuals settled down in Hawai’i.[1] This number is still quite high given that all migrant workers had originally intended to return home after earning sufficient money.[2] However, after the contracts had been improved, Japanese immigration increased and more and more migrant workers stayed in Hawai’i for good: by 1898, more than

16,000 Japanese had settled.[3] When Hawai’i became a territory of the USA in the same year, immigration processes became much less complicated. Over the following 10 years 68,000 more Japanese migrants came to Hawai’i, many of whom left for the West coast of the USA where they expected to earn higher wages. As one consequence of this increase in immigration, the Gentlemen’s Agreement was signed in 1908: passports were issued only to close kin and ‘picture brides’[4] of those Japanese nationals already living in the USA. In 1924, when 125,368 Japanese nationals were living in Hawai’i, Japanese immigration was completely prohibited.[5] Up to today, the Japanese-American population remains one of the largest ethnic groups in Hawai’i. One-fourth of the entire population is of Japanese origin.[6]

While the notion of a ‘Japanese Diaspora’ can be found in literature, especially in the case of Hawai’i, this term is not appropriate. From a very broad perspective, the various Japanese groups of Hawai’i could be summed up under that term, but in fact many of them do not have much in common, except for being defined as an homogenous diaspora of people outside this so-called diaspora. Brubaker, who criticizes the inflationary use of the term ‘diaspora’ for any migrants, has identified three criteria to identify a ‘“diaspora” diaspora’: dispersion, homeland orientation, and boundary-maintenance.[7] Most of these criteria do not apply to the (local) Japanese people of Hawai’i. Analysing the food habits of the Japanese groups of Hawai’i will underline this evaluation. Indeed, the different Japanese and local Japanese groups use Japanese foods in diverse ways to construct various Japanese national identities, which in some cases even contradict each other.

  • [1] See Kimura, Issei, 3.
  • [2] See Befu, ‘Japanese Transnational Migration’, 34.
  • [3] See Kimura, Issei, 13.
  • [4] Picture brides were Japanese women sent from Japan to Hawai’i in order to enter into anarranged marriage. The practice started when the immigrants realized that they could notaccumulate enough money through their work to go back to Japan any time soon. (SeeKimura, Issei, 143) The future husbands had nothing but a picture, waiting for the brides toarrive at the harbour.
  • [5] See ibid., 13—15.
  • [6] See U.S. Census Bureau (2010).
  • [7] See Brubaker, ‘The “Diaspora” Diaspora’, 5—6.
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