Four Monuments that Honor the First Japanese in Hawai‘i
Jodie Chiemi Ching
Fifty years ago, the centennial anniversary of the arrival of the first immigrants from Japan was marked with the unveiling of several monuments around the state. The monuments were meant to honor the Gannenmono, the “First-year People” from Japan, and to remind their descendants and future generations of their connection to Japan and of their immigrant roots.
In 1927, the last two surviving Gannenmono in Hawaii — Sentarö Ishii, 94 at the time, and Hanzo Tanagawa, then 89 — participated in the unveiling of what was probably the first monument honoring the “First-Year People” at Makiki Cemetery. A group known as Japanese Friends of Hawaii led the effort to erect the organic rock monument. The inscription on the monument reads:
“Since the arrival of these pioneers, an intimate relationship has grown between Hawaii and Japan, with the increase of the Japanese population in the islands which number 130,000 today. We who are interested in the work of the Japanese pioneers, therefore erect this monument as a lasting tribute to our Japanese pioneers, to keep awakened in citizens of Japanese ancestry an appreciation of the pioneering spirit of their forefathers and a sense of obligation towards Hawaii Nei.”
Tanagawa died a year later. In announcing his passing, the Japanese-language newspaper Nippu Jiji noted that Sentarö Ishii was now the sole survivor of the Gannenmono who remained in Hawai‘i.
The newspaper also stated: “During his long residence in Hawaii, Tanagawa saw much change take place in local affairs. He saw the fall of the Hawaiian monarchy, the establishment of a republic and finally annexation of the Islands to the United States.”
Today, Hawai‘i’s Buddhist and Shinto communities gather annually at Makiki Cemetery during the obon season for an interfaith ceremony that pays tribute to the Meiji-era pioneers — the Gannenmono, the Kanyaku Imin (the first large group of Japanese immigrants who arrived in 1885) and the 16 sailors from Japan’s imperial navy who fell ill and died while in Hawaii. Each group is honored with its own distinct monument.
For the first time in July 2013, the ceremony included a hula performance by Mika Asai. It was a fitting way to honor those memorialized there in the diverse culture of the Islands that became their final home.
Just minutes away, in the peaceful surroundings of the 14-acre Foster Botanical Garden in Nu‘uanu, a Daibutsu, or Great Buddha, sits in quiet meditation. In 1968, then-Kanagawa Prefecture Gov. Bungo Tsuda gifted the Daibutsu to the City and County of Honolulu to commemorate the centennial of the first Japanese immigrants’ arrival in Hawai‘i.
What is Kanagawa Prefecture’s connection to the Gannenmono?
The capital of Kanagawa is Yokohama, and most of the Gannenmono were recruited from Yokohama. The Scioto, the ship that brought the Gannenmono to Hawai‘i, sailed out of Yokohama Harbor and was one of the first ports in Japan that opened to foreign trade in 1859. The port of Yokohama was also the point of departure of most of the immigrants who followed the Gannenmono to the sugar plantations of Hawai‘i.
Yokohama retains its international flavor, even today. It is home to Japan’s largest Chinatown, which was established just as the Gannenmono were sailing out of Japan 150 years ago.
In his book, “Hawaii’s Religions,” author John F. Mulholland noted that German physician Dr. Wilhelm Hillebrand, who also became a noted botanist, purchased a parcel of land at Nu‘uanu and School streets in 1855 and began planting tropical plants from all over the world. Hillebrand became King Kamehameha V’s personal physician and the monarch sent him to China and India on a multipronged mission: to recruit laborers, find various treatments for leprosy, and to obtain seeds and plants.
“Dr. Hillebrand became interested in Buddhism and shared his interest with his friends Capt. and Mrs. Thomas Foster,” wrote Mulholland. “The Fosters purchased the Hillebrand home and gardens when Dr. Hillebrand returned to Germany. Mrs. Foster also kept an interest in Buddhism . . . . She gave her home and gardens to the City of Honolulu as a botanical park.”
And so, fittingly, the Great Buddha was placed in Foster Botanical Garden in 1968 to commemorate the centennial of the arrival of the Gannenmono.
Inscribed below the Daibutsu are the following words:
The Great Buddha of Kamakura
In Commemoration of the Centennial Celebration of Japanese Immigration to Hawaii
Presented by Bungo Tsuda, Governor, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan June 16, 1968
The most colorful of the Gannenmono monuments is situated at the Valley of the Temples Memorial Park, a cemetery in Windward O‘ahu. Byodo-In Temple was established June 7, 1968, to commemorate 100 years since the Gannenmono arrived in Hawai‘i. The temple is a smaller replica of the 950-plus-year-old Byodoin Temple in Kyöto’s Uji City. The Japan temple has been designated a United Nations World Heritage Site.
Although a non-practicing Buddhist temple, the Hawai‘i Byodo-In is open to people wishing to meditate or who just want to inhale the breathtaking surroundings.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Postal Service issued a new Priority Mail postage stamp with a photograph of the Hawai‘i Byodo-In temple in celebration of its 50th anniversary. An obon festival will be held at the Byodo-In on Saturday, Aug. 4, from 4 to 8 p.m. The festival is open to the public.
On Sunday, July 15, the Moiliili Japanese Cemetery will be the setting for another obon ceremony from 3 to 6 p.m. It, too, will honor the Gannenmono. The remains of many Issei are interred in the cemetery, which opened in the early 1900s. Although surrounded by high-rise condominium buildings, the cemetery stands as a historical reminder of the hardships endured by the Issei and how they persevered to make life better for their families.
Standing just left of the cemetery entrance is an impressive granite monument that was erected 50 years ago, in 1968, in honor of the Gannenmono. Individuals and businesses in the community contributed hundreds of dollars — big money at the time — for the monument, which was built by the late Samuel K. Sasano, who founded Stonecraft Hawaii (then known as Stonecraft Memorial).
The company’s current general manager, Christine Morinaka, said her late husband Bert worked alongside Sasano for many years and eventually took over the business when Sasano passed away. After Bert Morinaka died, his wife Christine began managing the business.
She spoke highly of Sam Sasano and his generosity, recalling that he donated the shishi (lion dogs) that guard the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i office structure in Mö‘ili‘ili. She said Sasano also sponsored the Honolulu Japanese Amateur Baseball League Moiliili Niseis and provided their uniforms.
Morinaka shared the original monument drawings with the Herald. The monument stands about 16 feet high and is 20 feet wide. An unveiling ceremony was held June 16, 1968, where the Gannenmono were honored collectively with a prayer and a floral offering.
Sasano, a Mö‘ili‘ili resident, learned the stone-carving craft from a fellow Mö‘ili‘ili resident, Sentarö Otsubo, who was a professional stone carver.
“He was a skilled stone carver and had a monument business in Mö‘ili‘ili Town,” said Otsubo’s granddaughter, Dr. Harriet Natsuyama, of her grandfather. She said Otsubo “considered each gravestone a sacred monument to the memory of an individual, no matter how rich or humble that person.”
Likewise, said Natsuyama, “I regard the Moiliili Cemetery in the same light — a memorial to all those who are interred here and remembered by their loved ones.”
The inscription on the Gannenmono monument reads:
In commemoration of the one hundredth anniversary of Japanese immigration to Hawaii this monument is erected and dedicated to the memory of our forebears who through industry and perseverance left indelible marks on the history of their adopted land. June 1, 1968
Whether the Gannenmono’s pioneering life stories will be remembered 100 years from now — or even 50 years from now — we will never know. But as long as these monuments remain standing, there remains, at least, some hope.
From the seeds planted 150 years ago by the Gannenmono grew the multiethnic community that is today Hawai‘i’s diverse Japanese American community. The “First-year People” did, indeed, leave an indelible mark on our history and our lives.