The Gannenmono’s Legacy is Considered 150 Years After Their Arrival
Jodie Chiemi Ching
Insight into the history of one of Hawai‘i’s most visible ethnic groups — the Japanese — took a giant step forward last week with the events commemorating 150 years since the first group of immigrants arrived in Hawai‘i from Japan. The approximately 150 men and women were known as the Gannenmono, or “First-year People,” as they arrived in the first year of Japan’s Meiji era.
The commemoration events were organized by Kizuna Hawaii, a consortium of about 20
Japanese community organizations, in cooperation with the Consulate-General of Japan in Honolulu.
One of the main attractions was a daylong symposium on the Gannenmono’s history and impact on Hawai‘i’s history at the Sheraton Waikiki Hotel. The speakers at the June 7 symposium included scholars, descendants of the Gannenmono, community leaders and students. They provided insight into what life might have been like for the first immigrants who arrived in a strange new land called Hawai‘i on June 19, 1868, and for the roughly 50 that made the Islands their permanent home.
“Their story is an interesting and compelling one, full of surprises, hardships and also joys, but above all, it illustrates their courage and determination, and should serve to inspire us even today,” wrote Dr. Mark McNally, professor of Japanese history at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa, in the symposium’s printed program.
Lily Kahele-lani Lyons, a descendant of Gannenmono Tokujiro Sato, opened the program with an oli (chant) and a hula.
Gov. David Ige welcomed the symposium participants, recognizing especially those Nikkei — people of Japanese ancestry born outside of Japan — who had traveled from faraway places like the Philippines, Indonesia, Australia, and North and South America with the Association of Nikkei and Japanese Abroad.
Japan’s imperial couple — Prince Akishino and Princess Kiko —who attended the symposium for a short time, expressed their country’s feelings of deep friendship with Hawai‘i. They also expressed sorrow for those currently being impacted by the eruption of Kïlauea volcano on the Big Island. The couple was kept busy throughout the week, participating in a variety of events.
Additionally, Japan’s minister of foreign affairs Masahisa Sato, delivered a congratulatory message for the Gannenmono celebration on behalf of the Japanese government.
In her keynote address, U.S.-Japan Council president Irene Hirano Inouye spoke of the importance of strengthening the Nikkei community in Hawai‘i and abroad as it moves into the future. Hirano Inouye, also the founding president and CEO of the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, emphasized the importance of providing opportunities for Nikkei to learn about Japan and their ancestry while also finding ways for people in Japan to understand the Nikkei experience, the importance of being inclusive and collaborative as the community becomes more diverse and to invest in the next generation of Nikkei leaders.
“Like the Gannenmono who took a risk to venture to an unknown part of the world, we can be bold and adventurous as we chart new pathways forward. Let us use today to get to know each other, to learn from each other, to commit to work together and to create new opportunities for those that will follow us in the future,” she said.
One of the major highlights of the day was a “Talk Story” discussion with descendants of five Gannenmono who decided to remain in Hawai‘i — Tokujiro Sato, Sentarö Ishii, Matsugorö Kuwata, Bunkichi Murata and Yonekichi Sakuma.
Haunani Jo-quin, a fifth-generation descendant of Sentarö Ishii, shared her family’s Gannenmono “love story.”
“Sentarö Ishii would see this woman working in the sweet potato field. My ‘Tütü Lady’ as we call her, Kahele, owned farmland. She was a pretty rich lady. So he would see her working, tilling and putting the sweet potato in bags and loading them on top of the donkeys. I think he thought, ‘I should get in that situation.’ It’s a good set up for him, you know?” Jo-quin laughed.
“He would help her with the bags and put them on the donkey. He helped her daily and they ended up together. He got a hardworking lady with a lot of land. That was my favorite story.”
As the descendants continue to process their connection to the first immigrants, they clearly understood that the character values that were passed down through the generations strengthen their connection to their ancestors and to future generations.
“Now our children won’t have the gaps that I had,” said Lily Kahele-lani Lyons, a fifth-generation descendant of Tokujiro Sato. “The legacy that will continue now is even stronger and the connections are deeper. I am very grateful for that after this [Gannenmono commemoration] experience,” she said.
Keoni Cook, a fourth-generation descendant of Matsugorö “Umiumi-matsu” Kuwata, added, “We’re all one people of aloha, and we all have red blood.”
Blood descendants weren’t the only ones impacted by the Gannenmono. Two high school juniors shared their prize-winning speeches in impeccable Japanese.
In her speech titled, “My Japanese American Ancestors,” Krista Mamiko Shoda from Leeward Japanese School expressed her appreciation for the hardships that the Japanese immigrants endured and their inspiring contributions to the community.
Kamehameha Schools student Sage Tadashi Maxwell’s speech, “More Than Tradition,” celebrated the bond between two cultures by saying, “. . . because both cultures (Hawaiian and Japanese) are centered on similar values, it is very easy to embrace each other’s culture. Our connections with Japan aren’t with the fact that we always have chopsticks at parties or don’t wear shoes in the house. It’s deeper than that,” Maxwell said.
Hawaii Baptist Academy students Lindsey Sasaki, Victoria Nago and Keiran Dela Cruz shared a video they produced for the Japan Wizards Competition about the journey and life of the Gannenmono.
The after-lunch portion of the symposium had a more scholarly tone, addressing immigration, the early life of the immigrants in a new land and the lives they built in the Islands. Setting the stage for the presentations was a performance of “Hole Hole Bushi” by 2014 KZOO Radio Karaoke Contest grand champion Aolani Yukie Silva, who dressed in plantation clothing for her performance. “Hole Hole Bushi” were the work songs — some of lament, others risqué — that the Japanese immigrant women sang as they labored in the cane fields.
Dr. Dennis Ogawa, a professor of American Studies at the University of Hawai’i at Mänoa, spoke of King David Kaläkaua’s close friendship with Emperor Meiji of Japan. Ogawa said Kaläkaua felt close to the Gannenmono, describing them as “individuals who chose to work in Hawai‘i, chose to cast their lot together.”
UH-Mänoa Japanese history professor Dr. Mark McNally titled his talk, “The Case of Sentarö Ishii.” He said historical sources from both Japan and Hawai‘i raise the possibility that there was more than one immigrant man named Sentarö in Hawai‘i through 1868.
“While not impossible, it is not likely that there were, in fact, six different men named Sentarö who had arrived in Hawai‘i during that time. Then as now, whether here or in Japan, people had the same or similar names, and the Gannenmono were no different in that regard,” noted McNally.
He said there are “three conclusions we can draw from all of this. First: Japanese history is hard. Second: Sentarö used to be a popular name in Japan. Third: Rather than having to distinguish among a group of men named Sentarö in Hawai‘i up to 1868, whether there were four or five or even six of them, there were really only three, and just two of those were connected to the Gannenmono,” he said. “Rather than assume that the historical sources refer merely to one man named Sentarö, who served as a kind of interpreter for the Gannenmono, it is possible that both of the men named Sentarö performed this function, since the sources indicate that one was very young, which fits Ishii Sentarö, and one was in his 30s, which fits Sentarö the cook from Aki.”
McNally’s talk, undoubtedly, left many in the audience wondering about the various Ishii Sentarö.
Masako Iino, professor emeritus of Tsuda University, one of the oldest and most prestigious women’s universities in Japan, offered an international perspective on the Gannenmono legacy. Iino talked about the value of the kenjin kai (prefectural clubs) in Hawai‘i and Japan’s gratitude for the relief efforts that Nikkei in the United States provided in post-World War II through the Licensed Agencies for Relief in Asia, or LARA.
“For prefectures which sent out a large number of immigrants to Hawai‘i, starting with the Gannenmono, being connected to kenjin kai in Hawai’i has been of great importance,” she said. “Kenjin kai has been considered as a hub which connects people in Japan with Nikkei in Hawai‘i and, consequently, people in Hawai‘i as a whole.” Iino said that relationship created an “impactful bridge” between Japan and America.
Iino detailed some of the relief items Japan received through LARA after the war.
“Relief activities continued from November 1946 until 1952 . . . . the supplies sent consisted of 16,704 tons of food, clothing, medicine and other goods. Livestock was shipped as well: 2,016 goats and 45 milk cows,” she said.
Iino’s final comment gave everyone a reason to reflect on the bigger impact of the Gannenmono’s settling in Hawai‘i. “These close ties and communications based on the ‘Gannenmono spirit,’ which the Nikkei in Hawai’i have kept and cultivated, are treasures for us and offer good implications for amicable international relations in the world and world peace.”
Dr. Akemi Kikumura Yano, former president and CEO of the Japanese American National Museum, pointed to a major difference in Hawaii’s immigrant experience as opposed to that of immigrants who settled on the U.S. mainland.
“Starting with the Gannenmono in 1868, the early Japanese who immigrated to Hawai‘i and its people were welcomed and perceived as assimilable by the Kingdom of Hawai’i and its people, while on the mainland of the United States, they were viewed as unassimilable from the moment they stepped ashore on American soil,” said Kikumura Yano.
“However, a common theme that prevailed throughout the centuries, from the Gannenmono to the present, whether in Hawai’i or on the Mainland, was the commitment to democratize our nation in order to create a more perfect union for ourselves, our children and our nation. Never were the sacrifices greater than during World War II when the Nisei soldiers gave their lives fighting for democracy,” Kikumura Yano said of the greater legacy left by the Gannenmono.
The comments of retired president and headmaster of The Kamehameha Schools Dr. Michael Chun best summed up the Gannenmono legacy that has become a way of life in Hawai‘i. In his talk, “Two Cultures: One People,” he shared stories of the people whose stories are tied to the Kamehameha Schools and Bishop Estate, where he worked for many years.
“Many of the descendants of those who immigrated to Hawai‘i have been, and continue to be leaders in communities throughout the island, helping to transform our island home to what it is today,” Chun said. “Two cultures, one people. And it all began with the Gannenmono.”