Japanese immigrant women are seen here in Hawai‘i's cane fields in this undated photo.

Japanese immigrant women are seen here in Hawai‘i’s cane fields in this undated photo.

From 1885-1924, about 200,000 Japanese came to Hawai‘i to work on the sugar plantations. Many of those issei women, first generation of Japanese immigrants, came as picture brides and found themselves working long hours in the canefields.

Their work was to strip hole hole, or dry leaves, from sugar cane stalks so that it produces more juice while providing fertilizer for the growing plant. It was a job assigned mostly to women.

These women sang songs about work and the dilemmas of plantation life. The songs, called hole hole bushi, used old Japanese folk tunes, and mixed Hawaiian and Japanese words for dramatic lyrics.

The hole hole bushi were documented and recorded, serving as a tribute to these pioneering women. It is Hawaii’s own version of the blues.

On June 18, Hanapepe Public Library will host “Songs from the Canefields: Verses that Tell a Story,” a presentation by library manager Karen Ikemoto and Kaua‘i Soto Zen Temple President Gerald Hirata, focusing on the original verses those issei women sang.

The presentation will include period photos from the State of Hawai‘i Archives and Kaua‘i Museum; a video sampler from the Center for Labor, Education and Research at West O‘ahu College previewing a recently completed video to be aired on PBS-Hawai‘i in September; and musical recordings from Harry Urata, a musicologist, illustrating renditions of the songs in two distinctive styles: plantation and teahouse.

The event will be at Hanapepe Public Library Conference Room at 6:30 p.m. on June 18.

Here’s a sample of a hole hole bushi song:


When I left Japan                                Nihon deru tok’ya yo –

I left all alone                                      Hitori de deta ga

But now I have children                      Ima ja ko mo aru

And grandchildren too                        Mago mo aru


A real look at the                                Are ga tsureso

Man I am to marry                             Hito to ka mireba

The picture bride system is                Shashin kekkon

Despicable                                          Urameshii


Hawai‘i, Hawai‘i                                 Hawai‘i, Hawai‘i, to yo –

I came, chasing a dream                   Yume mite kita ga

Now my tears flow                             Nagasu namida wa

In the canefield                                   Kibi no naka


Why settle for 35 cents a day             Sanjugosen de yo –

Doing holehole work                           Horehore suru yori

When I can sleep with a Chinaman    Pake-san to moi-moi sur’ya

And make a dollar!                              Akahi kara


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