A Brief History of Okinawa’s “Father of Emigration”

Lynette Teruya
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

Statue of Kyüzö Töyama, the “Father of Emigration from Okinawa,” at the Hawaii Okinawa Center in Waipi’o. (Photo by Caro Higa)
Statue of Kyüzö Töyama, the “Father of Emigration from Okinawa,” at the Hawaii Okinawa Center in Waipi’o. (Photo by Caro Higa)

Have you ever visited the Hawaii Okinawa Center in Waipi‘o and seen the statue of Kyüzö Töyama next to the banquet hall? Who was he and why is his statue there? He is someone about whom all Okinawans in Hawai‘i should learn; if it were not for him, the Okinawan community might not be here today.

Kyüzö Töyama. (Photo from "Uchinanchu: A History of Okinawans in Hawaii”)
Kyüzö Töyama. (Photo from “Uchinanchu: A History of Okinawans in Hawaii”)

Kyüzö Töyama, known as the “Father of Emigration” in Okinawa, organized and pushed for allowing Okinawans to emigrate overseas. Initially, he gathered 30 men — including his younger brother, Matasuke — as the first immigrants to Hawai‘i. Twenty-six passed the screening processes and quarantine, allowing them entrance.

The group left Okinawa on Dec. 5, 1899, making stops in Ōsaka and Yokohama before arriving here on Jan. 8, 1900. Due to his tremendous efforts, thousands of Okinawans emigrated overseas and built their lives all over the world, just as Töyama exclaimed in 1903 when he accompanied the second group of 40 men to Hawai‘i:

Iza yukan
Warera no ie wa
Makoto hitotsu no
Kin sekai seki

Let’s set out into the world
Our home is
The five continents
With sincere forth [sic] and determination
Remember the marble stone of Kin
— Kyüzöō Töyama

This is inscribed on the 18-ton boulder, which came from Töyama’s hometown of Kin. It was unveiled at HOC on Jan. 8, 2000 — the exact centennial anniversary of the arrival of the first Okinawan immigrants. The boulder sits behind the statue of Töyama, great reminders of the immigrants’ pioneering spirit.

Töyama was born on Nov. 9, 1868, in Aza Namisato (Namisato District) of Kin Magiri (Kin Village) while Okinawa was still officially the Ryükyü Kingdom, not yet a prefecture of Japan (which it would become in 1879).

According to a 1983 Okinawa Times article by Tomonori Ishikawa, Töyama’s birth occurred in the first year of the Meiji Restoration, when the emperor was restored to power and Japan started becoming a more modern, westernized nation. In the same year, the first Japanese immigrants, referred to as Gannenmono (or “first-year people”), arrived in Hawai‘i. He was the second of five children in the family known by its yagö (house name) of “Ufuyaa.”Although once an affluent family, they were by no means wealthy as he grew up.

Töyama showed fortitude and perseverance throughout his life; he was highly competitive, never wanting to lose to anyone at anything. He did well enough to gain scholarships from Kin Village and the prefecture to attend the Okinawa Normal School for Teachers. After graduating in 1890, he taught at a couple of local normal elementary schools and eventually became a principal.

At the time, although more Okinawans were being educated than in the Tokugawa era, there were still only a few Okinawan schoolteachers and high-ranking government officials. Many in high-ranking positions came to Okinawa from other prefectures. This created a disparity whereby Okinawans were looked down upon in their own homeland by others who came in to govern and instruct them.

As Mitsugu Sakihara points out in the 1981 book “Uchinanchu: A History of Okinawans in Hawaii,” “Education served to accelerate the assimilation of the Okinawan people within Japanese society, but it also led to an awareness of the discriminatory treatment of Okinawans by the government.”

Töyama fought for social justice, often protesting when he felt it was justified. He once went to a government official to protest the unfair treatment of Okinawan school teachers. Shortly thereafter, he resigned from his post as principal and became a district representative for Namisato, demonstrating his versatile talents. He contributed to social change that made a difference to his community.

In 1896, Töyama went to Tökyö to study and to develop effective plans for change, as Okinawa’s population was rapidly expanding while facing shortages of food and resources. Meanwhile, he again taught at a school in Tökyö, later becoming its principal. He also met with fellow Okinawan and scholar, Noboru Jahana, who led the People’s Rights movement; the two worked closely as partners. While there, Töyama became keener on overseas migration when he came across a book about migration at an old bookstore.

When Töyama returned to Okinawa, he was convinced that overseas emigration could help Okinawa out of its dire situation. He proposed to have Okinawans emigrate overseas to work and help their islands by sending remittances home to support the poor economy. He thought this would also make the population more manageable with its limited available resources. He asked for assistance from an immigration employment agency in Kyüshü, which had been sending people overseas. The official said the agency would help if Töyama could get the governor of Okinawa to approve this plan. However, this was not an easy task because Okinawa’s governor, Shigeru Narahara, rejected the proposal, as he thought Okinawans would turn out to become poor representatives of Japan overseas. Töyama refused to give up and asserted that something had to be done about Okinawa’s urgent circumstances.

Finally, the governor gave in and signed the approval. But there were still other issues to work out. Töyama realized while recruiting that people weren’t signing up, because many could not afford the application fee to go overseas. He took out a mortgage on his home and land and approached the wealthy in the community to ask them to help out the cause, according to Shigeru Takayesu whose oral history, “Okinawan Pioneers,” also appears in “Uchinanchu: A History of Okinawans in Hawaii.” With that, Töyama was able to gather the men such that 26 successfully made it to Hawai‘i. In 1903, Töyama accompanied the second group, spending six months here checking out the working conditions at different plantations on different islands.
According to a Shin Nichi-Bei news article entitled “Okinawa Leader’s 50th Year Memorial Held” published on Sept. 24, 1959, the success of this mission eventually led to the expansion of migration to North, Central, and South Americas, the Philippines, the Pacific Islands and Southeast Asia.

In 1908, Töyama went back to Okinawa, moving to Yonabaru. In 1909, when the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly held its first election, he won the Kunigami seat with the most votes. However, Töyama died shortly after that on Sept. 17, 1910, at home in Yonabaru. He was 41. His remains were sent to California, where his brother Matasuke lived, and interred at the Mountain View Cemetery in Fresno. However, on Jan. 7, 2000, they were brought to Hawai‘i to be re-interred at Mililani Memorial Park in an Okinawan-style grave that was built in Okinawa and shipped here by Kin Town.

People are reminded of Töyama’s pioneering spirit and of his legacy in all the places in which Okinawans now live. At Yuhi no Mori in Kin Town, which overlooks the Pacific Ocean, there is a symbolic reminder: a statue of Töyama standing with one hand resting on a globe while the other hand is extended out, pointing towards Hawaiʻi. Because of this one man, our home is truly the five continents with our Okinawan cousins in every corner of this earth. How amazing is that! To Kyüzö Töyama, we say with much respect, heartfelt gratitude and aloha: ukaji dëbiru, mahalo nui loa…

Lynette Teruya is a librarian at Chaminade University of Honolulu. She studies uta-sanshin (simultaneously singing and playing the sanshin) under the tutelage of Katsumi Shinsato. She was a 1997-1998 recipient of the Okinawa Prefectural Government scholarship and studied language and culture at the University of the Ryükyüs. Teruya also studied at Nagoya University on a Monbusho (Japanese Ministry of Education) scholarship.


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