The Japanese Community in Hawai‘i Was Hit Hard by a Pandemic

Kevin Kawamoto
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

Afull moon hovered over the Pacific Ocean as SS Siberia surged toward the Hawaiian Islands on December 23, 1912. The passengers on this steamship — including a 19-year-old woman named Yuki Yugoshi from a rural village in Fukuoka, Japan — were probably relieved to hear that they would be approaching solid ground soon.

The nearly 10-day journey of the Pacific Mail liner that departed from a port in Yokohama, Japan, had not been smooth. Just a day after leaving Yokohama, a cyclone of immense force “made going difficult for the vessel day after day,” according to an article in the Pacific Commercial Advertiser’s 1912 Christmas Eve edition. When the ship approached its destination from miles out at sea, rough waters again menaced, as the Siberia’s captain attempted to safely commandeer the 11-ton, 552-foot vessel into Honolulu Harbor.

Although passenger ships with Asian immigrants on board were not uncommon during this time in Hawai‘i’s history, this ship was newsworthy not only because of the rough voyage its passengers endured, but also because of a number of prominent travelers who occupied its cabins. Among them were Spain’s minister (or ambassador) to China and Siam (Thailand), the Honorable Luis Pastor, who was heading home for a vacation. Captain J. C. Schneidler of the Swedish navy and his wife were returning to Stockholm from Siam, where the captain was working with the Siamese navy. These distinguished passengers and others were passing through Honolulu en route to their final destination.

Five passengers whose final destination was Honolulu were Chong Wai Tong, Goo Sip, J.C. Muermann (“who has been investigating educational problems in the Orient on behalf of the United States government”), as well as Mr. and Mrs. J. A. McCanley, according to the Pacific Commercial Advertiser article.

The vast majority of the passengers on this ship, however, were referred to by the press as nameless travelers in “steerage.” The steerage part of the ship is located below the main deck, and while the exact origin of the word is in question, some believe that it originally referred to a part of the ship where cattle — or “steer” — were once kept during sea-vessel transport.

Indeed, when people were corralled into those quarters, they may have felt like cattle, packed together in large numbers in a dark, confined and overcrowded space. Some descriptions of travel in steerage also mention the lack of fresh air and thus a lingering stench from unsanitary conditions. This is how poor people traveled in the days when steamships were the predominant form of overseas transportation.

On SS Siberia were 166 steerage passengers: 113 Filipinos, 34 Japanese and 18 Chinese. Also on the ship were “995 tons of freight to be discharged at Honolulu.”

Where you can find specific names of everyone on board is the ship’s manifest, the hand-written list and brief description of all passengers on that trip. Manifests are available today in the form of microfilm or microfiche in the Hawai‘i State Archives or online in public or private ancestry research websites.

The first name for Japanese passengers on SS Siberia’s manifest is the aforementioned 19-year-old Yuki from Fukuoka. However, her last name is listed as Osaki, the family name of the man she intended to marry upon arriving in Honolulu. Although the marriage had not yet taken place, she had already been assigned her future husband’s surname before leaving Japan. (Her husband’s last name is alternately spelled Ozaki in some records, which is not unusual since the English spelling of Japanese names occasionally varied in those days.) In the ship’s manifest, it is actually her future husband’s father who is listed as Yuki’s father, as if by entering into this marriage she could no longer claim her birth family as her own.

Yuki Osaki, the name she was known as when she first arrived in Hawaii in 1912 to join her husband Senmatsu who worked on a Waimänalo sugarcane plantation. Senmatsu died in the 1919 “Spanish flu” pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Y. Kawamoto)

No one could have blamed Yuki if she wondered whether this rough start to her life in Hawai‘i was an omen of difficult times to come. However, the ship did finally arrive at the harbor, and she disembarked during what westerners celebrate as the Christmas season, although this holiday may have been as foreign to her as the plantation life in Hawai‘i she was about to enter. She married her husband, Senmatsu, the day after Christmas 1912 in what appears to have been an arranged marriage that was formalized at the Immigration Station in Honolulu.

Once married, Yuki and her husband headed to Waimänalo, where Senmatsu worked on a sugar plantation. By this time in Hawai‘i’s history, Waimänalo had a thriving sugar industry that had been established decades earlier.

If they were like most young couples, Senmatsu and Yuki undoubtedly hoped for a bright future for the children they envisioned having, as they planted roots in Waimänalo. They would work hard on the plantation and sacrifice with the hope that one day their descendants would enjoy a more comfortable lifestyle. Yuki couldn’t have known at the time that her life would take a dramatic turn for the worst in six years, when Senmatsu’s untimely death would leave her a widow and force her to support four young children as a single mother.

Senmatsu’s Death

Waimänalo in the early 1900s was rural but beautiful, as it still is today, with a vast azure ocean and majestic mountain range within walking distance of each other. This is the scene that awaited Yuki as she settled down with her husband to start a new life. She may have concluded that the rough seas from Yokohama to Honolulu weren’t a bad omen after all. The warm climate might have reminded her of summer days back in her home village in Northern Kyüshü.

Around their first or second year of marriage, Yuki gave birth to a son. The boy must have been a source of great pride and happiness to the newlyweds. Two daughters were born over the next several years. Senmatsu was a strapping young man in his early 20s who could endure whatever work was assigned to him on the plantation. Immigrant laborers tend to come from healthy stock, or they wouldn’t be able to endure the rugged journey across the Pacific and the harsh working conditions that awaited them in Hawai‘i.

In their book, “A Pictorial History of the Japanese in Hawaii: 1885 to 1924,” Franklin S. Odo and Kazuko Sinoto characterize plantation work as “backbreaking struggle,” especially because Hawai‘i’s tropical weather enabled the industry to operate year-round, unlike in Japan where farming was more seasonal, allowing for periods of rest and relief when the weather was less favorable for farming and harvesting.

“In Hawai‘i,” Odo and Sinoto explained in their book, “the Japanese found that doctors employed by the plantations held the power to determine whether they were too ill to work. There was an endlessly predictable schedule: six days per week; 10 hours in the field or 12 hours in the mill. Whistles, bells and sirens determined waking and resting; luna (supervisors) with whips dictated the pace of work. A typical day would find male workers rising at 4:30 a.m. to dress and have breakfast, with women getting up even earlier to prepare breakfast and the lunches to be taken to work. Work started at 6 a.m. and ended at 4:30 p.m. with half-an-hour for lunch.”

So life could not have been easy for Yuki and Senmatsu, but they had each other and their little children to brighten their existence. Like so many immigrants on Hawai‘i’s sugar plantations, they had to pin their hopes and dreams on a better life in the distant future. It was something they might work toward together.

Sadly, that long-term future together was never to be. As fate would have it, after only slightly more than six years of marriage, 29-year-old Senmatsu died on Jan. 23, 1919, leaving Yuki with three young children, and one on the way who would be born after Senmatsu’s death. Yuki was only about 26 years old when her husband died. This 4-foot-10-inch woman who had only been in Hawai‘i for a relatively short part of her life would be left with four young mouths to feed at a time when the Territory of Hawai‘i was swept up in a global catastrophe: the so-called Spanish Flu of 1918, a massive influenza pandemic that spread across the globe in several waves lasting until 1920.

A Pandemic Hits Hawai‘i

In 1912, a total of approximately 192,000 people lived in Hawai‘i (compared to 1.4 million today). Residents of Japanese ancestry were by far the largest single ethnic group, with nearly 80,000 people out of the total population in the territory.

From the years 1918 to 1920, a severe flu virus spread worldwide, including in Hawai‘i. Although the disease is often referred to as the “Spanish flu,” it is not certain where the flu originated. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States today estimates that one-third of the world’s population became infected with the virus.

“The number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide,” describes an article titled “Spanish Flu (H1N1 virus) ” on the CDC website, “with about 675,000 (deaths) occurring in the United States.”

This may be a conservative estimate. It is worth noting that some other sources estimate the number of deaths to be much higher. Even today with more sophisticated diagnostic tests and reliable record-keeping, an accurate death toll is difficult to calculate. Some estimates put the number of Spanish flu deaths worldwide at 100 million or more.

Interestingly, unlike the current pandemic in 2020, the pandemic that started in 1918 killed a relatively large number of younger members of the population, in addition to older ones.

According to the CDC, “Mortality was high in people younger than 5 years old, 20-40 years old, and 65 years and older. The high mortality in healthy people, including those in the 20-40 year age group, was a unique feature of this pandemic.”

The way countries tried to manage the spread of this disease 100 years ago bears some resemblance to how the current pandemic is being managed.

“With no vaccine to protect against influenza infection and no antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections that can be associated with influenza

infections,” the CDC explains, “control efforts

worldwide were limited to non-pharmaceutical interventions such as isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants and limitations of public gatherings, which were applied unevenly.”

How the virus arrived in Hawai‘i is a matter of speculation, but it is possible it was brought to the islands by individuals who served overseas during World War I, as this military service was at its height when the pandemic spread. Noting scant mention of the pandemic in Hawai‘i history texts, Robert Schmitt and Eleanor Nordyke tackled the subject in a 1999 article published in an issue of The Hawaiian Journal of History. Schmitt was the retired Hawai‘i state statistician and retired cultural anthropologist Nordyke was also a population specialist at the East-West Center; both were well-respected authorities on Hawai‘i demographic history.

The pandemic arrived in Hawai‘i in three waves, the second being the most severe, according to Schmitt and Nordyke. The first wave in 1918 saw hundreds of cases at military and naval bases, among other places. The authors noted that so many pineapple workers were calling in sick, that children had to be rounded up to help fill the vacancies.

The article also mentioned the shortage of doctors and nurses, hospital beds, and other medical personnel and facilities. The Queen’s Hospital (now The Queen’s Medical Center) had been converted to a general hospital for influenza cases. The territorial government of Hawai‘i asked U.S. military medical personnel for assistance, but these workers were also overtaxed by service members who fell ill with the virus in large numbers. Facilities around the territory were turned into quarantine sites. Former nurses were employed to visit schools and look for possible flu cases among the children. It was an “all hands on deck” kind of response to a crisis that the territory — and the world — had little experience dealing with.

Some businesses and social institutions temporarily closed. Indoor public gatherings were prohibited. Schools were left open so school personnel could monitor students’ health status. One article in the daily newspaper encouraged mask use. Another encouraged keeping hands clean and advised against shaking hands. Congested tenement housing sheltering the territory’s poor and immigrant families likely contributed to the spread of the virus, as did labor unrest that saw large groups of protestors demanding better wages and working conditions from the plantation managers. Moreover the federal government attempted to underplay the seriousness of the pandemic to avoid distracting the population from the war effort.

Nevertheless, people had eyes and ears. Imagine the fear and anxiety that must have swept across the territory, as community members fell ill to this mysterious disease. Many of the victims would have been young parents and children. Hundreds of parents ended up having to bury their children whose weaker immune response made them more vulnerable to the disease. The psychological wounds left by the pandemic are incalculable.

The public health and social welfare system at the time lacked the resources to combat this insidious, relentless virus. The flu did not spare isolated rural areas on and outside of O‘ahu. Remote communities on the other islands were also affected. It is not known how Senmatsu caught the virus in Waimänalo, but here is one possibility. In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson established by executive order the Waimanalo Military Reservation on land leased from the Waimanalo Sugar Plantation. This land was later renamed Bellows Field. Military personnel often live and work in close quarters, which is an ideal environment for highly contagious respiratory viruses to spread. Could it be that military personnel in Waimänalo unintentionally spread the virus to the larger community?

The Schmitt and Nordyke article offers more detailed statistics. The number of deaths from influenza, bronchopneumonia and lobar pneumonia from 1917 to 1921 show the rise and fall of the pandemic in Hawaii: 1917 registered 447 deaths due to these diseases. In 1918 that number rose to 615 deaths. In 1919, the death toll was even higher at 796. The worst year, however, was 1920 with 1,489 deaths. By 1921, the number of deaths was decreasing. Hundreds of children under 5 years old were included in each year’s fatalities from these diseases. Overall, considerably more males than females died from the virus.

This train with the Ko‘olau Mountains in the background was part of the Waimanalo Sugar Company and used to transport sugarcane harvested from the Waimanalo Sugar Plantation. Circa 1900. (Photo courtesy of Hawaii State Archives)

In real numbers, people of Japanese ancestry had the highest number of deaths from the pandemic. In the years 1918, 1919 and 1920, more than 1,000 people of Japanese ancestry in Hawaii succumbed to the flu or flu-related diseases. The number seems large when compared to other ethnic groups, but that is because the total number of ethnic Japanese in the population was so much larger. If death rates (i.e., one death per 1,000 in the population) are considered, those identified as pure Hawaiian suffered the worst fate, followed by Filipinos. Native Hawaiians, of course, have a long history of dealing with deadly epidemics brought to their homeland by outsiders. Caucasians had the lowest death rate. According to Schmitt and Nordyke, “In Hawai‘i, more than 2,338 persons died from influenza, bronchopneumonia or lobar or unspecified pneumonia between July 1, 1918 and June 30, 1920.”

As if the death of her husband was not traumatic enough, Yuki’s first-born child, the one born during her and Senmatsu’s first or second year of marriage, never lived to see adulthood. In fact, but for genealogical research, his very existence might not be known today.

In the 1920 Census record for Yuki’s household, a 7-year-old son is listed as the oldest child, followed by two girls and a boy in that order. The youngest is only 6 months old, born after Senmatsu’s death. Yuki is listed as a widow. A search for information on the first-born turned up a death record. Whether he, too, died of the flu is not known but the pandemic was still raging in Hawai‘i at that time, so it is one possibility among others. As mentioned above, 1920 was the worst year for flu-related deaths in Hawai‘i. As anyone who has visited old cemeteries is well aware, infant and childhood deaths were not uncommon before advances in prenatal and neonatal care.

The Rest of the Journey

The story will have to end here except with the footnote that despite the dire situation Yuki found herself in due to the pandemic that hit Hawai‘i from 1918 to1920, she somehow managed to survive. She eventually remarried, had four more children, lived out her remaining years helping to support her family doing low-paying jobs but giving all of her children the best shot at life that she could. Her children, in turn, worked hard to support her as she grew older. They embraced their mother’s spirit of sacrifice and courage to help their own families achieve a more comfortable life.

Yuki’s sorrows did not end with the death of her husband and first-born child. She also outlived the last-born child whom she had with Senmatsu, the one born during the Spanish flu pandemic. As a young man, that son moved to the continental United States where he eventually died of an illness in his early 30s away from home, away from his mother. Yuki lived about eight more years after that until she herself died in Honolulu, deeply mourned by all of her surviving children who knew well what she endured on their behalf. The pain etched on their faces in the customary funeral photo outside Hosoi Mortuary spoke more than words could say.

Yuki was My Grandmother

I only learned about Yuki’s story relatively late in my own life. One of Yuki’s children from her second marriage was my mother, Barbara, who started me on this search for family history. While I was helping care for my mother in her old age, she began to reminisce about her past more and more, telling me stories about her family history that I had never heard before. Listening to these stories that my mother shared during our walks, car rides, weekend excursions on the bus or our idle times at home, I wanted to fill in the blanks where my mother did not have the answers.

With the help of other relatives who had important bits and pieces to add, and a friend whose passion and expertise is genealogical research, as well as archived news articles and other documents, I was able to piece together a narrative that connected past with present, as we struggle to move forward with our lives in the midst of another global pandemic.

Unfortunately, I never met my maternal grandmother, Yuki, because she died years before I was born. But I was given her name as my middle name, Yukio, with the “o” added at the end of the word to indicate that it is a male name. The Japanese character for “yuki” means snow. I also have only one photograph to remember her by. Her name fits her like a glove. Snow can be light and gentle at times, which is the sense I get from looking at her face and body language in the photograph. But snow can also be immovable and powerful, without being loud. She was that, too.

When I consider the pandemic of 2020 and everything that we are going through, it’s hard not to think of the pandemic of 1918 a century ago and how that one must have impacted the people who lived in Hawai‘i – people like my maternal grandmother, who had to find the strength within themselves to not give up and to move forward, whatever it takes, for the sake of future generations. She was only one person, but she affected many lives after her, including my own. There were many others like her in Hawai‘i’s history, both men and women.

That spirit of believing a better life awaits us somewhere in the distance, despite the challenging realities staring us in the face in the present, is the mark of a resilient and optimistic human being. It is a gift that so many of our ancestors have passed down to us to inspire hope and strength in troubled times. Our role is to likewise pass it forward. I carry her spirit — and her name — proudly and with gratitude.

Kevin Yukio Kawamoto is an educator, writer and longtime contributor to The Hawai‘i Herald.


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