By Léo Azambuja
Of all ethnic groups comprising Hawai‘i’s melting pot, no other had more impact in the state’s modern socio-politico-economic landscape than early Japanese immigrants.
When large sugar plantations began to lead the Hawaiian Kingdom’s economy in the second half of the 19th century, immigrants from all over the world started pouring into the islands.
“At that time in Hawai‘i, the sugar industry was taking place, and there was a need for cheap labor for the sugar plantations,” said Gerald Hirata, president of the Kaua‘i Soto Zen Temple in Hanapepe.
It was mainly the sugar plantations, and later pineapple, that provided the fuel for the fire under Hawai‘i’s melting pot. Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, Puerto Ricans, Koreans, Filipinos, Spanish, Germans, Russians, North Americans and others, all came to Hawai‘i to take part in the then-boiling agricultural businesses.
But those from the Land of Rising Sun would outnumber everyone by large digits.
Between 1868, when the first Japanese arrived to work in the plantations, and 1924, when the Federal Immigration Act limited the annual number of immigrants to the United States, 200,000 Japanese came to Hawai‘i. About 40 percent of them returned home, and the rest merged into local society.
By comparison, 120,000 Filipinos came here between 1906 and 1946. About 50,000 Chinese came between 1852 and 1887, when their immigration fizzled following the 1882 U.S. Chinese Exclusion Act. Other groups came in much smaller numbers.
“Because the Japanese came in great numbers and represented a large percentage of the island population, many of the native Japanese culture and traditions could flourish in the islands,” said Hirata, who is a third- and fourth-generation Japanese in Hawai‘i.
By the time Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, prompting the U.S. to enter World War II, there were 160,000 Japanese living in the Territory of Hawai‘i. They represented roughly 40 percent of the islands’ population. About three-quarters of them were Americans by birth.
On the Mainland, 120,000 Japanese — three-quarters of them American citizens — were sent to 10 internment centers from February 1942 to 1945.
In Hawai‘i, probably because of the large percentage of the Japanese community, only 1,500 Japanese was sent to interment centers, and they were mostly community leaders such as Buddhist ministers, Japanese language teachers and other prominent members, according to Hirata.
Despite widespread discrimination during the war, the Japanese-Americans volunteered to fight for the U.S. and were banded together in the 100th Battallion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team. To this day, the “Go for Broke” regiment, as they became known, remain the most highly decorated unit in the U.S. military history.
When the war was over, many from the “Go for Broke” regiment utilized the G.I. Bill to attend university. Among those was the late Sen. Daniel Inouye, who became the first Japanese-American elected to the U.S. House in 1959 and to the U.S. Senate in 1962.
“We were convinced we deserved something better than the plantation and second-class citizenship. We wanted to exert ourselves and participate in developing Hawai‘i and in making policy,” Inouye once said.
Inouye remained in the U.S. Senate until his death on Dec. 17, 2012. Because he was the longest-serving U.S. senator at the time of his death – and the second longest-serving senator ever – he was also the President Pro Tempore of the United States, third in the presidential line of succession. He was largely responsible for much of the federal funding for education, military and infrastructure projects in Hawai‘i.
Hirata, who grew up in a plantation camp, said the only choice for his generation was to leave the island to pursue higher education or better employment.
“A lot of us had to leave, I wasn’t going to work for the sugar plantation or the pineapple fields,” he said.
Though O‘ahu had more choices in furthering education, many of his contemporaries left to Mainland colleges. Today, Hirata said, there are more work and educational opportunities on Kaua‘i and across the state.
Hirata said he had a rich cultural upbringing because there was a Buddhist temple in the plantation village he grew up on Kaua‘i’s Westside. But just like most ethnic groups here, the local Hawaiian culture super-impose all that.
“Growing up, although I always had a very strong sense of identity, I always perceived myself as local, because when I go to Japan, I feel like a stranger there,” he said. “So I think of myself as local boy who is multi-cultural but with a strong Japanese identity. And I think there are a lot of other ethnic groups that think the same way.”
Giving koden is a Japanese tradition that has been incorporated by the broader local community. It is about offering money at a funeral to the surviving family, Hirata said.
“In Hawai‘i now, whether you go to a Filipino funeral, a Hawaiian funeral or Portuguese funeral, people will give koden to the family,” he said.
Another folk Japanese tradition that found a home in the islands is the bon dance during the summer. From June 6 through Aug. 8, all nine Buddhist temples on Kaua‘i will take turns hosting a bon dance each Friday and Saturday, with the exception of July 4 weekend.
It’s a time when the spirits of the Japanese ancestors come back to visit and dance with their living relatives. It’s a family affair, a happy time, Hirata said, with lots of dancing, music, singing and respect for the deceased.
And because it’s a festival in Hawai‘i, it inevitably involves food. Hirata said every island has a different kind of bon dance. Kaua‘i is the only one where we can find the famous Flying Saucer, an oval-shaped sandwich stuffed with sloppy Joe.
“My mom told me that we were the first temple to do (the flying saucer),” Hirata said. “I have enough sources to confirm that.”
He said the Kaua‘i Soto Zen has the largest bon dance on Kaua‘i, and some even say it’s the largest in the state.
“Our temple’s goal is to really continue this folk tradition,” said Hirata, adding they make sure people learn the dances, the drumming, the singing, and then “carry on with the food, making it a nice festival so people can enjoy it.”
So this summer, keep calm and bon dance.