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Dream of a ‘heavenly place’ turns to a nightmare of labor and abuse


    On June 19, when the Scioto sailed into Honolulu, the Japanese again crowded the deck and marvelled at the tropical green mountains and valleys taking shape before them.


    The 1868 list of employers who purchased Gannenmono laborers includes well-known missionary and business names.

Editor’s note: In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Gannenmono’s arrival, Hawaii activist, journalist and historian Koji Ariyoshi wrote an in-depth account of their experiences in an article headlined “A Historic Voyage to Hawaii,” that ran June 16, 1968, in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. On the 150th anniversary, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser is offering excerpts from Ariyoshi’s detailed report.

One hundred and forty-eight sea-weary Japanese crowded the deck of the British sailing ship Scioto at twilight on June 18, 1868, when the land they called the “country of Hawaii” appeared on the horizon.

This was their Tenjiku, or heavenly place, for which they had set out 32 days before from Yokohama.

A tribute to the early plantation workers who began the story of the Japanese in Hawaii.

>> Where the story of the Japanese in Hawaii begins

A motley group comprised the vanguard for future waves.

>> The early plantation workers began a journey in 1868 that changed the islands forever

Local families connect with their Japanese roots.

>> Hawaii families discover connections to ancestors who toiled on plantations long ago

For a few days these provincial people — unschooled in geography — feared they would never make it to Tenjiku. On the first day out of Yokohama the Scioto ran into a violent storm. The three-masted ship was tossed and battered mercilessly by high waves and was lashed by howling winds.

For three days not one Japanese, called “coolies” by their recruiter, touched food. When the storm subsided, all but two of the 142 men in the party cut their treasured topknots and tossed them into the ocean — an expression of gratitude to the gods back home.

On June 19, when the Scioto sailed into Honolulu, the Japanese again crowded the deck and marvelled at the tropical green mountains and valleys taking shape before them.

Pioneers’ mission

There now were 141 men: Wakichi, leader of labor group No. 4, had died on the 21st day out of Yokohama and had been buried at sea. There also were six women and one child — a boy Shintaro, about 3 years old.

They had been eager to leave Japan, and now they could not wait to set foot on Tenjiku. They had been told their pay would be twice what they earned in Japan and that they would be fed, clothed and given medical attention.

The ship’s doctor said some had been so eager to go to Tenjiku that they sneaked on board the Scioto after they failed the physical examination. Others bribed their way aboard.

They had been worried when on May 9, eight days before they sailed from Yokohama, the Meiji government took over the administration of the harbor city from the Tokugawa shogunate and rumors spread among the shabbily clad, motley crowd of a few hundred hopeful immigrants that the new officials would block their departure.

Known as the ‘First’

The group that finally sailed on the Scioto are known as the Gannenmono (First Year People) because they left Japan in the first year of the reign of Emperor Meiji.

Yonekichi, who kept a diary, wrote that the Scioto sailed at 2 p.m. April 25 of the fourth year of Keio — or May 17, 1868, by the Gregorian, or Western, calendar.

This being a leap year in Japan, there were two Aprils. Thus Yonekichi’s diary entries are from April 25 to 29, then from April 1 to 29 for the second month of April. On May 1 (June 19 in Hawaii) he wrote that he arrived in Honolulu and that King Kamehameha V welcomed the laborers with a barrel of salt salmon.

The king could not have chosen a better gift, for during the 33-day voyage the immigrants had not eaten a sliver of dried or raw fish. So essential was fish in their diet that on the day the Scioto sailed, one of Yonekichi’s first diary notations lamented that among them there was not a single fisherman.

Yonekichi’s May 2 entry says that in thanksgiving for safe deliverance to “Hawaii country,” he and Tetsukichi, who had not cut off their topknots, now did so.

Gannenmono Journey: Key Dates by Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Scribd


Commemoration events are scheduled throughout 2018, but here’s what’s coming up. The Consulate General of Japan has announced that Prince Fumihito and Princess Kiko will visit Hawaii for the first time, June 4 to 8, to attend some of the festivities.

Exhibit: “Gannenmono: A Legacy of Eight Generations in Hawai‘i”
>> When: June 5 to Feb. 24
>> Where: Bishop Museum, Picture Gallery, Hawaiian Hall
>> Click here for more info.

Among the first-hand accounts, historic illustrations, documents, cultural objects and other items on display will be a list of the original Gannenmono written by Tomisaburo Makino, leader of the group, a daily shipboard diary with an English translation, a genealogy of one of the original Japanese workers that spans eight generations and contains more than 800 names, and two abacuses, the only Gannenmono artifacts known to exist today.

59th Convention of Nikkei & Japanese Abroad
>> When: June 6
>> Where: Sheraton Waikiki Hawaii Ballroom
>> Click here for more info.

Keynote speech, “Modernization of Japan and Immigration: Building People Network” panel discussion and exhibition by the Hawai‘i Nikkei Society, followed by an evening welcome party. (Event is sold out.)

Gannenmono 150th Anniverary Commemoration/Symposium
>> When: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. June 7
>> Where: Sheraton Waikiki Hawaii Ballroom
>> Click here for more info.

Featuring noted historians and other guest speakers, a talk-story with descendants and special performances, presented by Kizuna Hawai‘i, Consul General of Japan, State of Hawaii, City & County of Honolulu. (Event is sold out.)

Sharing the Spirit of Aloha Annual Gala
>> When: 6 p.m. June 16 (cocktail reception and silent auction at 5 p.m.)
>> Where: Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort Coral Ballroom
>> Click here for more info.

A fundraiser for the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i, this year’s honorees include Jake Shimabukuro, George Takei and Donna Tanoue. Tickets: $200, tables $3,000 to $25,000.

Exhibit: “The Gannenmono: Their Journey to Hawai‘i”
>> When: 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. June 19
>> Where: Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i, Manoa Grand Ballroom
>> Click here for more info.

Featuring historical documents from the Hawai‘i State Archives and other items. Free.

First days in isles

The headman of the labor group — an ex-samurai wearing two swords — called Honolulu “the castle city of the Hawaiian Islands.” There were three Japanese already in Honolulu. Two soon departed for San Francisco. The third was Sentara, who spoke fair English. He remained in Honolulu and assisted the immigrants for some six months.

As the newcomers walked the streets of Honolulu, a small town compared to Yokohama, curious Hawaiian children followed them. Islanders were friendly, and it was not long before the immigrants were saying “aloha.”

The six women wore kimonos and the men coolie jackets and skin-tight pants with sashes around their waists. The jackets were imprinted on the back with a big “KI,” evidently the advertisement of the Japanese recruiter Kimura Hanbei. The coolie uniforms had been charged against them and were deducted from the $10 advance Hanbei was supposed to have paid them in merchandise or money.

The headman, the former samurai, was Makino Tomisaburo, a husky armor expert of the Sendai clan. This tall, erect, balding man commanded the respect of all his people and, in time, of the sugar planters and government officials who judged the worth of a man like Tomisaburo by his ability to handle the English language.

Tomisaburo was about 40. He loved good times and in his younger days had drifted, finally becoming a ronin, or a masterless samurai. At one time he made part of his living by writing love letters for courtesans. For his Hawaii assignment he was paid $150 a year and his board.

Record remains

Copies of letters he wrote in Hawaii to his people on the plantations are preserved in the State Archives, but today even those well-schooled in Japanese generally are unable to read his sosho writing. It is of the samurai era, and difficult to decipher.

During the voyage, Tomisaburo had prevented a murderous clash between a Chinese galley crew and the Japanese. The playful young Japanese had thrown rubbish into food being prepared by the Chinese cooks. The Chinese threw hot water on them, then grabbed kitchen knives and went after the rascals. Tomisaburo singlehandedly stopped the Chinese. Later, when the Japanese stormed the Chinese living quarters, Tomisaburo again quieted them.

Tomisaburo was the only one of the 141 male immigrants who used a surname, although there are historical references indicating that two or three others were entitled to. But records in the State Archives merely list them by their given names. Japan then permitted only samurai and the nobility to use surnames.

What kind of men were these new plantation laborers? Eugene Van Reed, Hawaii consul general in Japan and recruiter of the immigrants, had written ecstatically that they were “superior picked men” and “superior workmen in every style of art, and farmers of experience.”

Variety of trades

He was correct in describing them as superior artisans, but wrong when he said they were farmers. A list of about 40 of the immigrants, prepared by Tomisaburo, includes no farmers — but there are tailors, potters, printers, florists, cooks, a goldsmith, vegetable merchants, barbers, a priest, a blacksmith, a plasterer and the son of a doctor.

Yonekichi later recorded in his diary, in friendly candor, that many of them were vagrants and riffraff. On board ship they gambled and fought and violated regulations, compelling Capt. William Reagan to put several of them in chains.

According to Yonekichi, those from the Sendai clan had been mostly transport coolies. He himself was recruited at Imado, a place of Asakusa well known for pottery works.

Yonekichi wrote that he signed up because the proposition of working three years in Hawaii under contract struck him as “interesting.” He was among 25 who had signed up at Imado, taking trails and back streets to avoid the warring imperial forces at highway roadblocks.

The Gannenmono had no idea that their departure from Yokohama, without the sanction of the new Meiji government, had created an international incident.

Meiji officials castigated Consul Van Reed, accusing him of piracy and kidnapping. They even appealed to foreign diplomats in Japan, asking the best way to have Van Reed punished and to retrieve the kidnapped Japanese subjects from Hawaii.

Van Reed blamed Captain Reagan for the fiasco, claiming that if Reagan had been prepared to sail on the scheduled day, May 10, the Meiji government would not yet have been in power. He even wrote Kamehameha V’s government not to pay the captain the balance of about $7,000 owing the ship for the immigrants’ passage.

Busy recruiters

Van Reed wrote prolifically, but apparently he did not keep copies of his letters, for he frequently contradicted himself — particularly about the capabilities of the laborers he had recruited for the sugar plantations.

At first he wrote that they were “superior picked men” and that if good reports reached Japan about their well-being, hundreds more would be available.

In another letter he wrote that in carefully selecting immigrants he gave preference to men 20 to 35, saying: “These people are accustomed to labor and are extremely versed in the culture of silk, sugar, cotton, rice and their fields are the admiration of Foreigners from the tidy and thoro manner of cultivating.”

But nearly a year later, when complaints from the Gannenmono began reaching Japan, he wrote the Hawaiian government: “So far you have had to put up with such men as Laborers as presented themselves during a period of Civil War.”

He now made no mention of their supposed agricultural ability and in a letter written April 20, 1869, he described the immigrants as “mere laborers who had been picked out of the streets of Yokohama, sick, exhausted, and filthy, and without clothing to cover decency.”

In Yokohama, public opinion still condemned Van Reed. The Meiji government had not prevented the Scioto from sailing, apparently not wanting to take on both the Hawaiian Kingdom and Great Britain by blocking the departure. But the Japanese carried on a war of nerves against Van Reed, with the American minister to Japan, Gen. Robert B. Van Valkenburgh, on their side.

The American minister whipped up anti-slavery sentiment in Japan by censuring the coolie trade. And he presented a popular image of the United States, which had just fought a Civil War over slavery and had made Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation meaningful.

The newspaper Chugai Shimbun of Yokohama hit Van Reed’s recruiting of contract laborers as the “same as selling Negroes.” Van Valkenburgh placed newspaper advertisements informing Americans in Japan that the coolie trade was illegal and that American ships were prohibited from transporting coolies.

Thus Van Reed chartered a ship flying the British flag and in the years to follow, Japanese contract laborers never were transported to Hawaii on American vessels.

Van Reed, an American businessman, became so concerned about possible prosecution for his part in recruiting coolies that he removed his name from the roster of Americans at the American consulate and applied for Hawaiian citizenship.

In Hawaii, the American consul also carried on a campaign against the coolie trade. Had Hawaii then been an American possession there would have been no influx of contract laborers. Although the system had its faults, and had much in common with slavery, it contributed much to Hawaii’s rich history and to its present interracial image.

And so the Gannen Mono were sold for three-year periods to sugar planters and a few well-to-do families who wanted domestic servants. The Hawaiian government charged $70 a man for three years. The terms were $4 a month, half in cash and the balance in script to be redeemed later, and a $6 monthly food allowance, with employers also paying for housing, clothing, passage to and from Hawaii and medical care.

Control needed

The immigrant dream of a “heavenly place” soon disappeared. Hawaii’s sugar industry was growing, and the hard work of the plantations absorbed most of the Gannenmono.

About 20 years before the arrival of the Japanese, Hawaii’s employers had decided that laborers best could be managed under the Masters and Servants Act, fashioned after the old Seamen’s Act that gave a ship’s captain almost absolute control over sailors.

Shortly before the Gannen Mono arrived, a Honolulu court established a precedent upholding a major provision of the Masters and Servants Act.

It ruled that a plantation was like a ship at sea; that a plantation engaged in harvesting or planting was like a vessel fighting through a storm and that all hands must turn to save it.

From this sort of ruling, a contract laborer who claimed to be sick but who was considered by the plantation to be able to work was fined — and, if unable to pay, was jailed.

The owner of the plantation who won that case posted house rules which said that for taking one stalk of sugar cane, a worker would be fined 25 cents — two days’ pay.

The same fine applied for curfew violations — smoking, making noise or entertaining visitors after 9 p.m. For each 10 minutes that he was late to work, a laborer was fined one-fourth of a day’s pay. If he lost, stole or carelessly broke a tool, his wages were deducted to cover the loss.

General health good

How did the Gannenmono fare? Within 18 months seven of the 141 adult males had died. A few were sick upon arrival, as nearly all immigrants were in those days, and one tubercular case began bleeding from the nose before he had done a day’s work. But these were exceptions. Generally the Gannen Mono were good physical specimens.

Tomisaburo prepared a list of 36 adults, including three women, who wanted to return to Japan because of ill health or dissatisfaction.

One had become an invalid, and Tomisaburo wrote that one was “maimed for life” and four were seriously ill. One had been in jail nine months for refusing to work. Some, because of fines, owed the plantations as much as three months’ pay.

Tomisaburo realized that plantation labor under the contract system was too harsh for his people. So did the Board of Immigration. In debates, a majority of the members of the board decided no white man could stand the work. At one board meeting it was estimated that if Polynesian laborers were brought in from the South Pacific, 30 to 40 percent of them would die unless broken in gradually to plantation labor.

But the Gannenmono worked hard. Even the plantation owner who had arrested his men for leaving the job to file complaints about their treatment fought when one of them wanted to go back to Japan.

He claimed “property rights” in his man, Torzo, and threatened to go to court to prove he was Torzo’s “master” under the contract law. But the Hawaiian government permitted Torzo to leave, refunding the plantation owner half of what he had paid, since the contract still had 18 months remaining.

He tries to collect

Later this same owner sent the government a bill. He said he had hired a Caucasian for $16 a month and he got less work out of him than from Torzo. He asked the government pay $12 for each month the white man was employed — the difference between the $4 a month paid to Torzo and the $16 paid to the Caucasian.

C.H. Judd, another employer, put up a battle to keep his man, also named Torzo. He refused the $70 the Japanese ambassador offered for Torzo’s release, saying that for double that amount he wouldn’t let Torzo go.

Some years after the arrival of the Gannen Mono the government conducted a survey, asking planters which nationality they preferred as plantation workers. There were only a few Japanese in Hawaii then, but they were the overwhelming choice for plantation labor.

Col. Z.S. Spaulding, manager of Kealia Plantation of Kauai, wrote the Board of Immigration in 1872 that the Japanese were the most profitable laborers on that island.

The Gannen Mono were involved in only one act of violence. At Ulupalakua Plantation of Maui, a head luna (foreman) mistreated all his workers, regardless of race — Chinese, Portuguese, Hawaiian and Japanese.

He used his whip on them from horseback, and one day Katsusaburo Yoshida attacked him. The luna got off his horse and whipped Yoshida. As the luna rode away, Kenji Ono picked up a stalk of sugar cane and knocked him off the horse. About 20 Japanese pounced on the luna and almost killed him.

Charged with assault, the 20 Gannenmono asked for a change of venue, claiming they couldn’t get a fair trial on Maui. The manager of the plantation was the judge, the whip-wielding head luna was the prosecuting attorney and the plantation treasurer was the court clerk.

The case first went to Lahaina, Maui, but finally was tried in Honolulu. The Japanese were found guilty and all were fined. Some were jailed.

But because laborers were in such demand, Paul Isenberg came from Lihue, Kauai, to Honolulu, paid the fines and returned to the Garden Island with the leaders of the Ulupalakua uprising.

By 1878, 10 years after the arrival of the Gannenmono, most of those who remained in the islands had married Hawaiians, and had been assimilated into the Hawaiian community. The Gannenmono were different from subsequent groups of Japanese immigrant laborers. They came from a feudal past. They were not farm oriented, but were attuned to trade and business.

They came from a Japan that was warlord-dominated and they had no great national or cultural pride or loyalty. They left Japan before such attributes became a part of the Japanese way of life.

When they arrived, they possessed no family names. The next group of immigrants, 17 years later, had begun to construct family trees and had newly acquired surnames. But the Gannenmono had no name ties with their ancestors.

Names for pioneers

When the Gannenmono in Hawaii learned that commoners in Japan now were permitted to acquire surnames, they picked family names familiar to them. Yonekichi, the keeper of the diary, became Yonekichi Sakuma.

Sakuma married a Hawaiian, as did many of his fellows, and his descendants carried his name until World War II. Then the Hawaiian-looking descendants of Sakuma found their Japanese surnames uncomfortable. Many of them adopted their Hawaiian grandmother’s name.

About 1878 Sakuma opened a small restaurant at Kekaha, Kauai. The venture failed, and he became a cook for the G.N. Wilcox family, working for them 26 years. His employer built a cottage for him, helped educate his children and retired him with a lifetime pension and generous benefits. He died in 1928, at the age of 86.

Of the six women who arrived in 1868, only one, Mrs. Tome Ozawa, remained in Hawaii. She and her husband, Kentaro, saw their son, Arthur Kinzaburo Ozawa, become the first Nisei attorney in Hawaii.

Their daughter became a leader in the fight for rights for her people. One report says she lacked the traditional reserve of a Japanese woman and was “as outspoken as a haole.”

Several of the Gannen Mono, including Koonosuke Iwamoto and Katsusaburu Yoshida, became plantation lunas.

Others, like Hiyashi Saburo and Danzo “Denbo” Takeuchi, became engineers.

Those Gannenmono who returned to Japan criticized the contract labor system and the treatment they had received in Hawaii. They wrote letters to newspapers and spoke out about “slave labor condition.” These criticisms discouraged Japanese immigration to Hawaii for more than 15 years.

But the Gannenmono who remained in Hawaii persevered. Census figures showed 116 Japanese in the islands in 1884.

Tomisaburo, the pillar of his people, left Hawaii for San Francisco when the original three-year contract expired. By then he had become Japan’s representative in Hawaii, and had helped to bring about the first treaty of amity and commerce between the two countries.

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