Sentarö Ishii and his wife Kahele, whom he met on a hillside in Kïpahulu, where the couple made their home. (Photos courtesy Oleanda Ku‘uipo Kanaka‘ole)
Sentarö Ishii and his wife Kahele, whom he met on a hillside in Kïpahulu, where the couple made their home. (Photos courtesy Oleanda Ku‘uipo Kanaka‘ole)

Maui Became Home for Several Gannenmono

Melissa Tanji
Special to the Hawai‘i Herald

Editor’s note: The following story is a re-edited version of Maui News reporter Melissa Tanji’s story on Maui’s Gannenmono commemoration, which was published in the newspaper’s April 29, 2018, edition. Special mahalo to Melissa and Maui News managing editor Lee Imada for allowing us to share this story on Maui’s connection to the Gannenmono with our Hawai‘i Herald readers.

One hundred fifty years ago, Oleanda Ku‘uipo “Ipo” Kanaka‘ole’s great-grandfather was one of the first immigrants to come to Hawai‘i from Japan. The 76-year-old Häna woman’s great-grandfather was Sentarö Ishii, a samurai who became widely known as a Gannenmono, one of the “First-year People” who arrived in Hawai‘i in June of 1868.

Sentaro Ishii, the samurai who became a Gannenmono, is buried in a simple grave in the East Maui community of Kïpahulu.
Sentaro Ishii, the samurai who became a Gannenmono, is buried in a simple grave in the East Maui community of Kïpahulu.

The Gannnenmono were referred to as the “First-year People” because they arrived in Honolulu during the first year of the reign of Emperor Meiji (1868-1912). And, they were the first group of people from Japan to boldly board ships and sail to Hawai‘i to labor in Hawai‘i’s flourishing sugar industry.

As a samurai warrior, Ishii faced a changing Japan had he remained in the land of his birth. Its former rulers, the shogunate — essentially his bosses — had relinquished their power and rule of the country had been returned to the imperial court under the new Meiji Emperor.

The other Gannenmono, including merchants and artisans — all from Yokohama and Edo (Meiji-era name for Tökyö) — were attracted by the $4-a-month wages and the free passage that had been promised to them.

Little did they know then how much their voyage to this strange new land would change the history of Hawai‘i. It paved the way for more Japanese to come to Hawai‘i to work, to put down family roots on sugar plantations across the territory and lead, eventually, to a community that would make its mark on Hawai‘i and America in war and peace.

“If it wasn’t for the Gannenmono, there wouldn’t be any 1885,” said Dr. Dennis Ogawa, professor of American Studies at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa. That year, 1885, marked the arrival of the first Kanyaku Imin, or contract immigrants, the first Japanese immigrants to come to work on Hawai‘i’s plantations since the Gannenmono in 1868.

Ogawa recently published a new book, “Who You? Hawai‘i Issei,” which features stories of the Hawai‘i Issei generation.

But before the Kanyaku Imin came the Gannenmono, about 50 of whom made Hawai‘i their final home.

Those immigrants “became living testimony for [King] Kaläkaua” that the Ja-
panese could come to Hawai‘i to live and work, Ogawa said. “He went to Japan and asked the emperor to send Japanese to Hawai‘i.”

Kaläkaua’s voyage to Japan in 1881 set the stage for the migration of 180,000 Ja-
panese to Hawai‘i as Kanyaku Imin between 1885 and 1924.

Groundwork for the Gannenmono’s Departure

The origins of the Gannenmono migration to Hawai‘i date back to 1860, when King Kamehameha IV proposed a friendship treaty between Japan and the Kingdom of Hawai‘i.

In 1865, the Kingdom of Hawai‘i appointed Eugene Van Reed, an American businessman working in Japan as consul general of Hawai‘i in Japan. At about that time, however, the shogun government, a warrior government, was coming to an end in Japan, with rule of the country being returned to the emperor. In 1868, that ruler was the new Emperor Meiji.

Van Reed recruited the first emigrants to work as laborers in Hawai‘i’s sugar cane fields. Most of them were merchants, artisans or samurai with no farming experience. Van Reed had secured permission and even passports for the travelers from the shogunate regime prior to the takeover of Emperor Meiji. That all changed with the installation of the Meiji government, which refused to recognize the documents, saying there was no existing treaty between Japan and the Kingdom of Hawai‘i.

Under pressure from the Kingdom of Hawai‘i, now under the rule of Kamehameha V, and because of the mounting costs of housing the Gannenmono aboard the Scioto, Van Reed decided to make a dash for the open ocean without the permission of the Meiji government.

In the wee hours of May 16, 1868, the Scioto sailed out of the port of Yokohama in total darkness with the first group of Japanese emigrants aboard. Most of the passengers were men, with five or six women, one teenager and an infant.

Thirty-five days later, on June 20, the Scioto docked at Honolulu Harbor.

According to information from the Japanese American National Museum, many of the immigrants were attracted by the $4 a month wages, plus food, lodging, medical expenses, and passage to Hawai‘i and back to Japan after fulfilling their three-year contract.

The immigrants became indentured to plantation owners. Besides the harsh working conditions, they faced other hardships related to living in an unfamiliar land with a totally foreign language and culture.

In his book, “Cane Fires: The Anti-Japanese Movement in Hawai‘i, 1865-1945,” Dr. Gary Okihiro noted that labor migration between Japan and Hawai‘i was suspended as a result of the harsh conditions the Gannenmono experienced.

King Kaläkaua’s voyage to Japan in 1881 reopened the door to Japanese migration, thanks to the improved experiences of some Gannenmono, like Sentarö Ishii, historians say.

Sentarö Ishii’s Story

Sentarö Ishii was Ipo Kanaka‘ole’s great-grandfather. He married a Hawaiian woman named Kahele. Their legacy lives on in the generations that resulted from their union.

Ishii and Kahele met on a hillside in Kïpahulu, Kanaka‘ole said, recalling stories that her grandmother (and hänai mother), Marie Komatsu Silva, shared with her. Kahele, she was told, was working on a sweet potato farm and was struggling to load a donkey when Ishii happened by.

“She was having hard time, so he wen’ help her,” Kanaka‘ole said. “It went from there.”

Ishii had decided to make Maui his home, working as a cook and a sugar plantation laborer. The former samurai was 103 years old when he died on Sept. 18, 1936 — he was the last surviving Gannenmono. Ishii was buried in the East Maui community of Kïpahulu, where he had lived and worked.

A Dec. 3, 1915, Maui News story reported that Ishii was the only Hawai‘i Japanese to qualify for an Emperor’s Cup for having reached the age of 80. The cup was presented to Ishii in commemoration of Emperor Taishö’s coronation in Japan, the story said.

Gannenmono Married Native Hawaiians

Sentarö Ishii wasn’t the only Gannenmono to marry a Hawaiian woman and raise a Japanese-Hawaiian family, however. At least a handful of Gannenmono married Hawaiian women.

Until the arrival of the Kanyaku Imin in 1885, there were no Japanese women in Hawai‘i, except for the five or six who had left Yokohama with their Gannenmono husbands.

Another Gannenmono with Maui ties, Matsugorö Kuwada, married a Hawaiian woman by the name of Meleana Auweko‘olani.

U‘i Uweko‘olani-Aarona, a Hawaiian immersion teacher at Kalama Intermediate School in Makawao, said Auweko‘olani was her great-great- aunt. Over the years, the “A” in Auweko‘olani was dropped, she said, resulting in the Uweko‘olani name.

Unlike Ipo Kanaka‘ole, Uweko‘olani-Aarona is not of Japanese ancestry, as she is not a direct descendant of Matsugorö Kuwada.

Thanks to family genealogy research done by her late father, Edward Moanliha Uweko‘olani Sr., and his siblings, the family was able to trace their ties to Kuwada.

Uweko‘olani-Aarona said she wondered how a Hawaiian woman and a Japanese man could meet in the mid-1800s and communicate with each other. She also found it interesting that the two married “outside the race,” which was unusual or maybe even taboo “for people back then,” she said.

Okihiro’s “Cane Fires” notes that another Maui County Gannenmono, Toyokichi Fukumura, married Lukia Kaha, a Hawaiian woman from Moloka‘i.

Sentarö Ishii’s Legacy

Kanaka‘ole said her grandfather, Sentarö Ishii, originally landed in Lahaina in West Maui before making his way upcountry to ‘Ulupalakua, where he worked as a cook.

Ogawa said Ishii was sent to the McKee ‘Ulupala-
kua Plantation.

In an excerpt from his new book, Sentarö Ishii described the work as being “not bad . . . they treated the laborers kindly.”

Ishii became fluent in Hawaiian language, Ogawa said. A 1915 Maui News story reported that Ishii attended Haleakalä School, where he learned English.

He eventually became a boiler tender at the Kïpahulu sugar mill, Kanaka‘ole said.

She said her grandmother, Marie Komatsu Ishii — the youngest of Ishii’s and Kahele’s four children — was Ishii’s favorite child. As a youngster, she tagged along with him to work. He made a bed for the child so she could nap while he worked, kept warm by the plantation equipment.

Besides her grandmother, who later took the name, Marie Ishii Silva when she got married, Ishii and Kahele had another daughter, Abigail Umeyo Ishii, and two sons, Peter Umemaru Ishii and William Kobai Ishii.

For a reason never shared with her, Kanaka‘ole said some in the Ishii family changed their last name to “Starkey.”

She believes her grandmother loved her father so much that she took back her Ishii surname when she got married, dropping the name Starkey and assuming the name, Marie Ishii Silva.

Kanaka‘ole is today a retired teacher who makes jams and jellies. She said she is grateful that her grandmother shared family stories with her while she was growing up. Besides her Japanese ancestry, she is also Hawaiian, Irish, Swedish and Native American (Cherokee).

“Only one-eighth [Japanese], but that’s OK,” she said.

Over the years, Kanaka‘ole and her late husband, Parley, a former Häna High and Elementary School vice principal, attempted to learn more about Sentarö Ishii. (Parley Kanaka‘ole himself had an impressive lineage: He was the son of the late kumu hula and Hawaiian cultural expert Edith Kanaka‘ole. In Hilo, the Merrie Monarch hula festival is held at the stadium named in honor of Edith Kanaka‘ole.)

One year while visiting the Family History Library at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, Ipo and Parley ventured into the Pacific Section. As they looked around, “this book fell off the shelf onto the floor,” Kanaka‘ole recalled.

“The book wen’ open. There was my great-grandfather Sentarö Ishii,” she said.

On another occasion when Kanaka‘ole lived in Hilo, she and her husband were at a restaurant when their oldest child, then a baby, spilled a glass of milk. Waitresses rushed over to their table with newspapers to help sop up the spilt milk.

Kanaka‘ole then noticed a photograph of Sentarö Ishii in the newspaper, although today she doesn’t remember why his photo was in the newspaper.

Today, she thinks it was a sign. It “seems Sentarö, he wanted to be found. Wanted me to know about him.”

Melissa Tanji has been a reporter for The Maui News since 2000. The Maui native earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa.

The last two surviving Gannenmono in Hawai‘i — Hanzo Tanagawa (seated left of the monument) and a full-bearded Sentaro Ishii (seated right of the monument) — attended the unveiling of the Makiki Cemetery monument playing homage to the Gannenmono in 1927. (From the book, “A History of the Japanese Immigrants of Hawaii" by United Japanese Society of Hawaii.”)
The last two surviving Gannenmono in Hawai‘i — Hanzo Tanagawa (seated left of the monument) and a full-bearded Sentaro Ishii (seated right of the monument) — attended the unveiling of the Makiki Cemetery monument playing homage to the Gannenmono in 1927. (From the book, “A History of the Japanese Immigrants of Hawaii” by United Japanese Society of Hawaii.”)


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