History of the Gannenmono: “Should Server to Inspire Us Even Today”

Dr. Mark McNally
Published with Permission

On June 19, 1868, the first group of Japanese immigrants arrived in Honolulu. Their group consisted of about 150 people, all of whom were adult men with the exception of five (or six) women who had accompanied their husbands on the voyage from Japan, and two children — a teenager and a baby who was born aboard ship. Today we usually refer to these immigrants as the Gannenmono, meaning “the people of the founding/first year,” which was a reference to the fact that they had arrived during the first year of the new Meiji era in Japan. They had been recruited to work in the Kingdom of Hawai‘i from the Yokohama/Edo (Edo is now known as Tökyö) area, signing three-year contracts for a wage of $4 a month. 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. So, it is only fitting that their story be remembered on the 150th anniversary of their arrival in Hawai‘i.

Japan in the 1850s and 1860s

In order to appreciate more fully the importance of the Gannenmono, a basic understanding of what Japan was like in the immediate decades prior to their arrival in Hawai‘i is vital. While the year 1868 was the first year of the new Meiji era, we refer to the previous era as the Tokugawa, or Edo Period (1603-1868). So, as the Gannenmono made preparations to leave Japan in late 1867 and early 1868, one long era was literally coming to an end, as a new one was just beginning.

The Edo Period was a time when Japan was ruled by warrior government, or shogunate (or bakufu), that was based in Edo. The head of this government was the shögun, of which there were 15 during the Edo Period, whose family name was Tokugawa. While the shögun was the de facto ruler of Japan at this time, he was appointed to this position by the imperial court in Kyöto. The head of the imperial court was the emperor, whose family had held this position for more than 1,000 years by the time the Gannenmono departed from Japan. The imperial court, of course, predated the Edo bakufu by many centuries, predating even the warrior governments before the Tokugawa — those of the Muromachi (1338-1575) and the Kamakura (1192-1338).

So, the first year of the Meiji era, when the Gannenmono arrived in Hawai‘i, not only marked the end of the Edo bakufu; it also marked the end of warrior rule in Japan and the return to direct rule by the emperor, which is why we refer to the end of the Edo bakufu as the Meiji Restoration. The Japanese imperial institution, with the emperor at its head, endures to this day.

The Meiji era is one we normally associate with Japan’s modernization, so much of what we see in Japan today was the product of changes during that time, such as the use of the yen for money, which was not in use during the Edo Period, and the prefectural system (Japan was divided into domains and provinces during the Edo Period). So, in the same ways that Meiji Japan might seem familiar to those of us who have been to the Japan of today, the Japan of the Edo Period likely strikes us as quite strange.

Of relevance to the Gannenmono was the fact that Japan was mostly isolated from the rest of the world during the Edo Period, an isolation we refer to today as sakoku. From the 1630s until 1866, Japanese people were not allowed to leave Japan for the purpose of visiting some other country. At the same time, foreigners were not allowed into Japan, with the exceptions of the Dutch and the Chinese, who were confined to Nagasaki in Kyüshü; the Koreans, who were allowed to visit Edo on special occasions (this was later changed to visiting the Japanese island of Tsushima); and the Ryükyüans (Okinawans), who were allowed to make special trips to Kagoshima in Kyüshü and also to Edo.

Beginning around 1790, Western nations, like Russia, Britain and France, tried to establish trade relations with the Japanese, but their efforts came up empty. The Japanese knew that their military technology was not as advanced as that of the Western powers, but they hoped, nonetheless, to forestall what was probably going to happen anyway, namely, the forcible ending of their national isolation. This is exactly what happened in 1853 with the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry (1794-1858) and the American Navy. Perry and the Americans made it clear to the shögun and his Edo bakufu that they would not take “no” for an answer to their “offer” of a treaty between the United States and Japan, and so the Japanese signed its first treaty of “peace and amity” with the Americans that following year. Once the Americans secured this treaty, the Edo bakufu was forced to conclude similar treaties with the other major Western powers, and Japan’s national isolation formally came to an end.

So, after 1854, Westerners began to arrive in Japan to take up residence within the treaty ports, like Yokohama, from which the Gannenmono eventually left Japan. However, it was still not permitted for ordinary Japanese people to go abroad. That changed in 1866 when this restriction was finally lifted. It is important to keep in mind that the hurdles (financial, logistical or otherwise) were still, generally, too high for people to leave Japan on some kind of foreign trip, and so only a handful of people were actually able to go abroad. But the lifting of this restriction made it possible for the recruitment of the Gannenmono.

Who Were the Gannenmono?

Of the 150 or so Gannenmono, very few of them (if any) were farmers by trade, even though the majority of them were to be sent to sugarcane plantations in Hawai‘i. Not only is the fact that they were not farmers relevant to the work that was waiting for them in Hawai‘i, but the same is also true of the fact that sugarcane itself was not grown in Japan at that time. Farming during the Edo Period was mostly related to rice cultivation. However, sugarcane was cultivated in the Ryükyü Kingdom (now known as Okinawa Prefecture), which was an independent nation during the Edo Period under the domination of Japan. Thus, even though sugar was not technically produced in Japan, the Japanese had exclusive access to the sugar produced in Ryükyü.

About half of the Gannenmono had been urban residents in the Yokohama/Edo area, engaging in work either as merchants or as artisans. During the Edo Period, the Japanese people were officially divided into four main social classes: The samurai were at the top, followed by the farmers, the artisans and the merchants. While the samurai comprised Japan’s ruling class during the Edo Period, they made up only 5 to 10 percent of the population as a whole (which was about 30 million people by the end of the Edo Period), while farmers made up about 85 percent of the population. This meant that the artisans and merchants, along with other important groups both above the samurai and below the merchants, together comprised another 5 to 10 percent of the population. So, in this way, the Gannenmono were not exactly representative of the Japanese people of the Edo Period as a whole.

Since most of the Japanese people at this time were living on rural farms, the majority of them did not really know much about the people living in towns and cities. For this reason, people often conflated the artisan and merchant classes together into one category of “townspeople,” or chönin, since the separation between the two was sometimes more theoretical than real. Of the merchant occupations among the Gannenmono were fishmongers, sake dealers and grocers. The men who had worked in these occupations back in Japan were almost always the second or third sons in their families; the eldest sons likely stayed behind in order to take over their family businesses back in Japan. The artisans among the Gannenmono had previously worked as potters, tile makers, tailors, artists, cloth dyers, plasterers, coopers and landscapers. There were also those whose occupations were somewhat ambiguous as far as whether they were merchants or artisans, such as hairdressers (for men), konnyaku makers and even cooks.

Roughly a dozen or so of the Gannenmono were of the samurai, or bushi, class. Interestingly, the official rosters of the Gannenmono only recorded their first or given names; no family names or surnames were included. During the Edo Period, only the samurai (with some exceptions) were allowed to use their family names on legal documents. This did not necessarily mean that everyone else in Japan did not have a family name. Instead, it meant that people who had family names could only use them on legal documents if they were of the samurai class. However, in Japanese sources written decades after the Gannenmono, the family names are included for a select group of people and we can deduce that these were likely people from the samurai class, including the leader of the Gannenmono, Makino Tomisaburö.

Leaving Japan

The American businessman, Eugene Van Reed (1835-1873), recruited the Gannenmono in the fall of 1867. He was tapped for this assignment by King Kamehameha V (1830-1872), who had made Van Reed the resident consul in Japan for the Kingdom of Hawai‘i the previous year, in 1866. The Hawaiian royal court and the sugarcane plantation owners had been in discussions about the recruitment of foreign workers to Hawai‘i for more than a decade by this time. The combination of an alarmingly shrinking population and the sudden rise of the lucrative sugar industry fueled this need for foreign laborers.

Their first attempt to bring foreign workers to Hawai‘i was in 1852, when about 180 Chinese laborers from Hong Kong arrived to work on the sugarcane plantations. However, for various reasons, the plantation owners were disappointed in their Chinese recruits, and so they approached the Hawaiian government with a request to find different foreign workers to recruit. Van Reed, as an American who had been living in Yokohama since 1859, was selected to help the Kingdom find them in Japan.

The Scioto, which brought the Gannenmono to Hawaii from Yokohama (Courtesy Bishop Museum)
The Scioto, which brought the Gannenmono to Hawaii from Yokohama (Courtesy Bishop Museum)

Van Reed placed ads in a local Japanese newspaper, promising not only good work but also fun and adventure to anyone who was curious about the distant islands of Hawai‘i. He managed to find about 350 people and secured travel papers (passports) from the Edo bakufu to send them to Hawai‘i. Unfortunately for Van Reed, he was only able to charter the rather small (800-ton) Scioto, a ship that could accommodate but a mere 180 people. By this time, namely the  spring of 1868, the Gannenmono had already assembled at an inn in Yokohama, and Van Reed had to pay for their lodging and food while they waited for him to make the necessary arrangements. Once passage on the Scioto became official, Van Reed chose the 180 people who were to board it and had them move from their inn to the ship, as their departure was imminent. Just three days before their scheduled departure, the forces of the Meiji Restoration arrived in the city of Yokohama, pushing out the shögun’s people and replacing them with their own.

In a show of good faith toward the new government authorities, Van Reed met with them and turned over all of his passports, asking that they issue new ones in their place. To his surprise and frustration, though, the new government authorities refused to issue new passports to Van Reed’s recruits, the Gannenmono. Over the course of the next week or so, Van Reed filed repeated appeals with the law court in Yokohama to no avail. The official position of the Ja-panese court was that the passports were issued by the old government and that the new government was not bound by the old government’s commitments. At the same time, the court pointed out that no passports could be issued anyway, since there was no treaty of “amity and commerce” that existed between Japan and the Kingdom of Hawai‘i.

Aside from these legal reasons, there were rumors circulating in Yokohama and Edo (renamed Tökyö in 1869) that the “real” reasons had to do with Van Reed himself. Specifically, Van Reed seemed like some ordinary merchant to the Japanese and not someone of the standing of Commodore Perry (who was a warrior in their eyes). So, for the Kingdom of Hawai‘i to choose someone like Van Reed was insulting to many Japanese leaders, who refused to recognize Van Reed’s status as the resident consul in Japan for the Kingdom of Hawai‘i. Moreover, there were rumors among Japan’s leaders that Van Reed was somehow connected to the slave trade, so that the workers he had recruited, the Gannenmono, were, in fact, going to be sold into slavery in Hawai‘i. The American Civil War, had, of course, ended only a mere three years earlier and, unbeknownst to the Japanese, there were plantation owners in Hawai‘i who were either from the American South or had employees from there, and so these worries were not entirely without some merit. In the end, the Yokohama court refused to grant Van Reed’s request for new passports.

In at least one of his appeals to the Yokohama court, Van Reed cited the fact that he was paying for the expenses of the Gannenmono and that every day their journey was delayed was costing him and the Kingdom of Hawai‘i considerable money. If the court persisted in its refusal to grant Van Reed new passports, he insisted that all of the money he had spent up to that point, which had grown to thousands of dollars, be repaid to him by the new Japanese government. He even hinted that he might just order the ship to leave without new passports, a position endorsed by the Kingdom and the plantation owners, as desperate for workers as they were. With his final appeal rejected, Van Reed did just that, ordering the ship to extinguish its lights and depart in the predawn hours of May 16, 1868. The Gannenmono themselves, who had heard rumors about the delays, were generally unaware of the illegal nature of their departure from Japan.

Four Gannenmono who remained in Hawaii: (from left) Katsusaburo Yoshida, Yonekichi Sakuma, Sentaro Ishii and Hanzo Tanagawa (Courtesy Bishop Museum)
Four Gannenmono who remained in Hawaii: (from left) Katsusaburo Yoshida, Yonekichi Sakuma, Sentaro Ishii and Hanzo Tanagawa (Courtesy Bishop Museum)

Crossing the Pacific and Arriving in Hawai‘i

After a 34-day journey in which the Gannenmono experienced the death of one of their own and also the birth of a baby, as well as rough seas and high winds that prompted all but two of the men to cut off their top-knots (chonmage), giving them a kind of wild, somewhat disheveled look, they all arrived safely in Honolulu on June 19, 1868. Understandably, they were rather tired and disoriented after their long and, at times, harrowing journey, so the captain of their ship allowed them to spend these early days in Honolulu seeing the sights and meeting their Hawaiian hosts, who were very happy and relieved that they had made it. In fact, King Kamehameha V was so pleased to hear that they had arrived that he sent a barrel of salted fish to them as a welcome gift; the Gannenmono were eager to sample this royal gift. They disembarked from the Scioto on June 20, excited, finally, to be in Hawai‘i, an exotic place that immediately looked very different from Japan.

Following their well-deserved break, the Gannenmono were given their work assignments. Of the 150 or so members of their group, about 90 were assigned to plantations on O‘ahu, about 45 to Maui and about 10 to Kaua‘i. The remaining workers, about 10, were assigned to work as domestic servants in wealthy Westerner households in Honolulu. Thus, the majority of the Gannenmono were sent to work on sugarcane plantations. Many of them found it difficult to adjust to a kind of work they had never done before. They were required to work from sunrise to sunset and were given few breaks, if any. On days when one of them was stricken with illness or injury, they were not allowed to take the day off and still had to work a full day regardless. Since none of them could speak English, with the exception of their designated interpreter, they usually didn’t understand the orders they were given by the lunas, who beat them whenever they made a mistake or otherwise did something that was perceived as wrong. Moreover, laboring under the hot, tropical sun was a new experience that proved to be a hardship for many.

Makino Tomisaburö, their leader, collected the various stories about their harsh treatment and working conditions and wrote a report to the government authorities back in Yokohama. In a rather cruel irony, Makino reported that the Gannenmono were enduring slave-like conditions in Hawai‘i, since it was that kind of anxiety that had prompted the Yokohama court to deny Van Reed’s requests for new passports prior to their departure from Japan.

Japanese authorities received Makino’s report with some measure of alarm, but they weren’t exactly shocked to read about the bad news from Hawai‘i. They were frustrated that their people had been smuggled out illegally over their stated objections, as well as angry, since the removal of the Gannenmono had constituted an affront to Japan’s sovereignty and also to its national pride. The decision was made to send a delegation to the Kingdom of Hawai‘i to investigate the situation of the Gannenmono and to seek some kind of understanding between the Kingdom and the Japanese government. This diplomatic mission was headed by Ueno Keisuke (later Kagenori) (1845-1888) and Miwa Hoichi. They left Japan in the autumn of 1869, reaching Honolulu on Dec. 27.

Ueno and Miwa interviewed people about their experiences on the plantations and found out, to their surprise, that things weren’t quite as bad as they had imagined. Many of the Gannenmono, in fact, voiced their determination to persevere and finish their contracts, which were due to end in the summer of 1871. Ueno wrote his final report, concluding that most of the hardships experienced by the Gannenmono were related to Hawai‘i’s tropical climate, its cultural and linguistic differences, and its rather high cost of living. The investigation was but half of Ueno’s mission; the other half was related to the illegal circumstances of their departure.

Since the official reason for the denial of Van Reed’s request for new passports by the court in Yokohama was the lack of any treaty between Japan and the Kingdom of Hawai‘i, Ueno was determined to rectify this situation before returning to Japan. However, it was not possible for him to undertake negotiations for any formal treaty, so Ueno requested that an “agreement” (torikime) be reached with the Kingdom. Following a few tough days of negotiating, Ueno persuaded the representatives of the Kingdom to agree to three terms: 1) those among the Gannenmono who wished to return to Japan immediately had to be allowed to do so; for those who remained to finish their contracts, they should be granted their freedom at that time and be allowed to return to Japan with their own money; 2) the Kingdom had to pledge to improve their working conditions, which included placing severe restrictions on the use of corporal punishment (beatings); and 3) the Kingdom had to agree to cover the expenses for the repatriation of the Gannenmono back to Japan for those who wished to leave immediately. Ueno also secured paid sick leave for the Gannenmono, requiring that their employers also cover the cost of their medications. This “agreement” was signed on Jan. 11, 1870, and was witnessed by representatives of the United States and the United Kingdom.

Of the original 150 or so Gannenmono, 40 informed Ueno of their desire to return to Japan with him. In addition, three others joined them for the return to Japan; these were Japanese castaways who had been living in Hawai‘i even before the Gannenmono arrived. The group of now-43 were split into two smaller groups before departing Hawai‘i at the end of January. The first group arrived in Yokohama on March 19, 1870, and the second group arrived a week later.

About 110 Gannenmono remained to finish their labor contracts, which expired the following year. About a dozen of them returned to Japan at that time, while about half of the remainder left for the United States. Roughly 50 of the original Gannenmono remained behind, and these were the ones who decided to settle permanently in Hawai‘i.

Dr. Mark McNally is a professor of history at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa. His area of specialty is Tokugawa Japan (1603-1868). He earned his bachelor’s degree in Asian Studies from Pomona College and his master’s and doctorate degrees in history from UCLA. McNally spent three years in Nagoya as a participant in the Japan Exchange and Teaching, or JET, Program. He was a postdoctoral fellow at the Edwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies at Harvard University and a foreign research scholar at Tökyö University’s Historiographical Institute. He was also the recipient of a Fulbright fellowship. Dr. McNally’s primary research interests are in early modern Japanese social and intellectual history, including Confucianism and Kokugaku.


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