Karleen Chinen

What a week it was! Otsukaresama to the Gannenmono Committee volunteers, Kizuna Hawaii, and to Consul General of Japan Koichi Ito and his team. Thank you for all your hard work!

As we worked on this edition, I found myself wondering what, in their afterlife, the Gannenmono might be thinking about how their arrival in Hawai‘i 150 years earlier was being hailed and celebrated today. So much so that even Prince Akishino and Princess Kiko of Japan journeyed to Hawai‘i to be a part of the commemoration. After all, the Gannenmono essentially snuck out of Japan in 1868.

In their afterlife, perhaps sitting around, enjoying American biru and Hawaiian poke, would these former samurai, artisans and merchants be rolling with laughter? Or would they have an epiphany and realize that their hardscrabble lives had indeed mattered? That they had been
real-life pioneers whose lives had impacted generations of people of Japanese ancestry — people who, today, may look nothing like them, but still carry in their bodies the DNA of those men.

Through every day gambare, they forged their lives in Hawai‘i and cleared the path for the immigrants who would follow them to Hawai‘i 17 years later, the Kanyaku Imin, and another 15 years after that, in 1900, immigrants from Okinawa.

Every so often, I click on a photo that I keep on the desktop of my computer. I stare at it for a few minutes and think of my own grandparents and wonder: What the heck were they thinking when they climbed aboard their ship and braved that blue ocean to settle in these isolated islands?

I’m sure there was fear in their bellies, but I think they also took some comfort in knowing that others had made the treacherous crossing and were making a new life in these islands.

But the Gannenmono were adventurers of a different breed — perhaps even more open-minded than the immigrants that followed them. Most of those that remained in the Islands married Hawaiian women and learned to speak Hawaiian fluently, making them totally bilingual. They also spoke broken English. Their children would bridge two island nations and bring them closer to each other, despite the vast Pacific Ocean that separated them physically. Do we really wonder why the Japanese so love hula and local food and why Hawaiian musicians and hula dancers return to Japan year after year after year?

Today, as America wages war with immigrants who want to make our country their home, maybe we need to look to the Gannenmono experience. I don’t know anyone who would say that the Gannenmono took more than they gave to their families and communities. They labored hard under harsh conditions and set the foundation upon which ensuing groups of Japanese immigrants built today’s now-diverse Japanese American community that lives side-by-side in relative harmony with all of Hawai‘i’s other racial and ethnic groups.

If I have one regret about the Gannenmono commemoration, it is that former Consul General of Japan Yasushi Misawa could not be a part of it because of his current assignment in Europe. For at least a year before his departure last fall to become deputy chief of mission with the Embassy of Japan in Germany, and probably even longer, Misawa-san reminded us at every event he attended that 2018 marks the 150th anniversary of the Gannenmono’s arrival in Hawai‘i.

After hearing him remind his audiences about the milestone anniversary, I began searching for O.A. Bushnell’s historical novel about the Gannenmono, “The Stone of Kannon,” which I had read in college. (Contributing writer Richard Borreca profiles the book and its sequel, “The Water of Kane,” in this issue.) Both books are now out of print, but I managed to find a used copy of “The Stone of Kannon” and gave it to him. A short time later, our paths crossed again at an event. He told me that he had finished reading the book and had ordered “The Water of Kane” through Amazon.

It’s been decades since I read the two books and although I’ve forgotten the stories’ details, what I did not forget was how Bushnell brought the Gannenmono’s story to life and how it fueled my interest in the story of the Japanese in Hawai‘i.


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