The “People of the First Year” Were Hawai‘i’s First Japanese Immigrants

Kei Suzuki
Re-edited from “Hawai‘i’s AJA Pioneers”

Editor’s note: The year 2018 marks 150 years since the Gannenmono, or “First-Year People,” arrived in Hawai‘i in June 1868. This first group of immigrants planted the seeds of today’s Japanese community in Hawai‘i.

This milestone anniversary will be celebrated statewide throughout the year, with the Kizuna Group and Gannenmono Committee taking the lead in organizing events and activities, a few of which are listed at the end of this piece. The committee is led by tri-chairs Tyler Tokioka, Christine Kubota and Sal Miwa. The Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i’s New Year’s ‘Ohana Festival on Jan. 14 will kick off the celebration year.

The following historical profile of the Gannenmono by researcher Kei Suzuki was published in “Hawai‘i’s AJA Pioneers: One Hundred Profiles Commemorating the Centennial of Hawaii Hochi.” The book was published in 2012 by Hawaii Hochi, Ltd. to commemorate the newspaper’s 100th anniversary.

The first organized and documented group of immigrants from Japan was referred to as the “Gannenmono” — “People of the First Year” — who arrived in Hawai‘i on June 19, 1868. These immigrants were also referred to as “Meiji Gannen” people, meaning they arrived in Hawai‘i in the first year of Emperor Meiji’s reign in Japan.

The person most responsible for the immigration of the Gannenmono was Eugene Van Reed, an American of Finnish descent who, in 1865, had been appointed consul general of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i. Van Reed knew of the sugar planters’ need for laborers to work the Islands’ sugar plantations and decided to ask the Japanese government to send contract laborers to Hawai‘i and worked with the government in recruiting the laborers. In their book, “A Pictorial History of the Japanese in Hawai‘i, 1885-1924,” Dr. Franklin Odo and Kazuko Sinoto note that the Gannenmono were a mixed group that consisted of a few samurai, artists, a hairdresser, cooks and even a 13-year-old who was a heavy drinker — people “hardly prepared to cope with the rigors of sugar plantation work.”

There is a discrepancy in the number of emigrants who came ashore in Hawai‘i in May 1868. According to Odo and Sinoto, there were 148 passengers on the ship. Jane Komeiji and Dorothy Hazama, on the other hand, cite 153 emigrants in their book, “The Japanese in Hawai‘i: Okage Sama De.”

When the emigrants sailed out of Yokohama Harbor aboard the Scioto on May 17, 1868, they did so knowing that the new Meiji government had not authorized their departure. And although they knew nothing about their destination prior to departing, many believed they could earn money quickly and easily in Hawai‘i after learning about a Hawaiian government effort to eradicate snakes in the Islands for which the government would pay 1 ryo (a gold coin) for each snake caught.

The leader of the Gannenmono was an armor-maker from the Sendai Clan named Tomisaburo Makino, who reportedly could speak a few words of English. Another in the group, Yonekichi Sakuma, kept a trip journal, documenting their lives at sea. Among his entries were reports of a death en route to Hawai‘i and a near-knife fight with a Chinese sailor. Sakuma also wrote about most of the emigrants cutting off their topknots prior to docking in Honolulu.

After the immigrants’ arrival, the Hawaiian Gazette, an English-language newspaper, reported in its June 24, 1868, edition:

“At first glance, these Japanese looked like good people. They were brimming with vigor and zest. These people from the Empire of Japan did not appear to have visited foreign countries before and strolled through the streets as if they were enjoying the novelty of it all very much.

“They are of a very polite race. They quickly took to our greeting, ‘Aloha!’ and repeatedly returned the courtesy with ‘Aloha, Aloha.’

“In spite of their shabby clothing, they did not appear to be timid in the least. On the whole, they created a favorable impression and were greeted warmly by white residents and natives alike. It is hoped that they will turn out to be amiable and useful workers.”

About two weeks later, the newly arrived immigrants were given their work orders: Roughly 70 workers were assigned to plantations on O‘ahu, about 50 were sent to Maui plantations and eight workers were sent to Kaua‘i. Another 20 remained in Honolulu and were assigned domestic jobs. Their contracts with the Kingdom of Hawai‘i called for them to be paid $4 per month for a period of three years. (The contract was later amended to $10 a month for the same three-year term.)

The new sugar workers found the work hard and the treatment by the luna (field supervisors) unbearable. Many described their working conditions as a “living hell.” The hard labor and mistreatment quickly dashed the dreams of those Gannenmono who had dreamed of redeeming their 1 ryo if they turned in a snake.

The high cost of living and the lack of Japanese products led many of the Gannenmono to become disorderly and discouraged. A few committed suicide. By December 1868, just six months after arriving in the Islands, Tomisaburo Makino, the group’s leader, was writing letters of complaint to the Meiji government, requesting that it intervene on the laborers’ behalf. However, because the Gannenmono had left Japan without the blessings of the Meiji government, the Meiji officials refused to acknowledge the original contract. The government did, however, dispatch a special envoy, Kagenori Ueno, to Hawai‘i to check on the allegations.

Upon his arrival, Ueno found that conditions were not as bad as he had been led to believe. Many of the incidences of disorderly conduct and fighting were the result of language barriers, cultural differences, simple misunderstandings and difficulties adjusting to plantation life.

The Kingdom agreed to improve conditions for the laborers and also to increase their wages. Those Gannenmono who wished to return to Japan were allowed to do so and about 40 took advantage of the opportunity.

When their three-year contract ended in 1871, 13 more Gannenmono returned to Japan, according to Komeiji and Hazama. Ninety petitioned the Japanese government for passports to remain in Hawai‘i. Several of the Gannenmono who remained in the Islands married Hawaiian women and lived out their lives in Hawai‘i.

Using this first experiment in immigration as a lesson for the future, the Meiji government and the Kingdom of Hawai‘i established guidelines for the further immigration of contract workers from Japan. This agreement, called the Nippon Hawaii Kentsüshö Joyaku, paved the way for future immigration to Hawai‘i from Japan.

There are no records of Japanese arriving in Hawai‘i for many years after the arrival of the Gannenmono, although a few Japanese came to Hawai‘i. Most of them were related to whaling vessels that passed through the Islands with Japanese sailors aboard who disembarked and never returned to their ship.

A conference was held in 1884 to discuss whether the Kingdom of Hawai‘i should recruit large numbers of Japanese to work in Hawai‘i’s growing sugar industry. Two Gannenmono — Katsusaburo Yoshida and Katsukichi Miura — were invited to speak about their experiences and offer their views on the mass immigration being planned. Yoshida and Miura helped clear the path for mass immigration in the future.

Of the roughly 150 Gannenmono who had arrived in Hawai‘i in 1868, only 30 were still in the Islands when the first group of 945 Kanyaku Imin (contract immigrants) came ashore in Hawai‘i in 1885 aboard the SS City of Tokio. A Hawaii Hochi article dated Feb. 16, 1935, cited Japanese Consulate documents in reporting that 28 Gannenmono were still living in Hawai‘i between 1892 and 1897. The documents included their names and original place of birth.

On Jan. 1, 1915, the Nippu Jiji published an entry from the diary of Umekichi Asahina, who had arrived in Hawai‘i in 1885 with the first Kanyaku Imin group.

“We were visited by 14 or 15 Gannenmono, led by Mr. Chokichi Nakamura, Mr. Kenzaburo Ozawa and a Mrs. Imanishi. An older gentleman named Kintaro, who I assumed was an uncle, also accompanied them during their visit. Although they were all Gannenmono, they already owned their own homes and even had their own mailboxes and were respected in the community.”

Kintaro Ozawa was one of the few Gannenmono to immigrate here with his family — his wife, two sons and a daughter. Ozawa’s eldest son, Youtaro, became a police officer, and his second son, Kenzaburo, became a lawyer; both lived out their lives in Hawai‘i. His daughter, Itoko, married Kenji Imanishi, the Honolulu branch manager of the Yokohama Seikin Ginkou. They moved to New York when Imanishi was transferred to the branch office there. During the Sino-Russo War, the couple served as translators for then-Prime Minister Korekiyo Takahashi during his visit to the United States.

Another of the Gannenmono who remained in Hawai‘i, Ichigoro Ishimura, opened a culinary school in 1896 and taught many of the Kanyaku Imin how to cook Western-style meals. Prior to that, most of the cooks employed by white households were Chinese. After the establishment of Ishimura’s school, more Japanese started to be employed as cooks. In his later years, Ishimura published his memoirs in a book titled, “Arriving Forty-one Years Ago, the Secret to My Success in Hawaii.” This publication became a valuable document, as it captured many accounts of the Gannenmono’s story.

By the 1920s, Hawai‘i’s Japanese population exceeded 100,000. The community was becoming economically secure, so an effort was launched to recognize the Gannenmono as the pioneers of Japanese immigration. The effort proceeded in earnest following the passing of Katsusaburo Yoshida, a Gannenmono. Many Nisei realized the importance of preserving the legacy of the Gannenmono and began planning to erect a memorial stone to honor the first immigrants. The movement gained the support of many in the community, and on May 8, 1927, a memorial honoring the Gannenmono was unveiled in a ceremony at Makiki Cemetery. The memorial stone had been transported from Hale‘iwa on the north shore of O‘ahu. Two Gannenmono — Sentaro Ishii, then 94 years old, and Hanzo Tanigawa, 89 — attended the ceremony. The memorial still stands at Makiki Cemetery, but its significance is fading with the passing of each generation.

Sentaro Ishii is believed to have been the last surviving of the Gannenmono. He died Sept. 16, 1936, at the age of 102 in the remote community of Kipahulu in East Maui, surrounded by his children and grandchildren. The headline in the Sept. 18, 1936, Nippu Jiji announcing his passing read, “Sentaro Ishii dead at the grand old age of 102, a piece of immigration history!”

In 1968, Prince Hitachi and his wife, Princess Hanako, visited Hawai‘i to participate in the 100th anniversary celebration marking the arrival of the Gannenmono. Many of the descendants of the Gannenmono became the subject of stories by Japanese newspapers.

One of the highlights of the 150th anniversary celebration will be the annual convention of the Association of Nikkei and Japanese Abroad, set for June 6 and 7 in Honolulu. A commemoration ceremony and symposium will be held June 7 at the Sheraton Waikiki Hotel. Speakers will include Dr. Dennis Ogawa, professor of American Studies at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa; Dr. Akemi Kikumura-Yano, former president of the Japanese American National Museum, who has done extensive research on immigration to the Americas; and Dr. Masako Iino, former president of Tsuda College and head of Fulbright Japan.

Other Gannenmono 150th anniversary celebration events include:

• Jan. 5: Honolulu Japanese Chamber of Commerce shinnenkai

• Jan. 6: United Japanese Society of Hawaii shinnenkai

• Jan. 14: JCCH ‘Ohana Festival

• Feb. 3: Waimea Cherry Blossom Heritage Festival on Hawai‘i Island

• Feb. 11: Ukulele Picnic at Kaka‘ako Gateway Park

• March 9-11: JTB Honolulu Festival

• March 11: Honolulu Rainbow Ekiden

• March 17: Cherry Blossom Festival Ball

• May 7: Maui Matsuri at Queen Ka‘ahumanu
Shopping Center

For more information on the Gannenmono 150th anniversary, visit, or email



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