The “People of the First Year” Were Hawai‘i’s First Japanese Immigrants

Kei Suzuki
Re-edited from “Hawai‘i’s AJA Pioneers”

Editor’s note: The year 2018 marks 150 years since the Gannenmono, or “First-Year People,” arrived in Hawai‘i in June 1868. This first group of immigrants planted the seeds of today’s Japanese community in Hawai‘i.

This milestone anniversary will be celebrated statewide throughout the year, with the Kizuna Group and Gannenmono Committee taking the lead in organizing events and activities, a few of which are listed at the end of this piece. The committee is led by tri-chairs Tyler Tokioka, Christine Kubota and Sal Miwa. The Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i’s New Year’s ‘Ohana Festival on Jan. 14 will kick off the celebration year.

The following historical profile of the Gannenmono by researcher Kei Suzuki was published in “Hawai‘i’s AJA Pioneers: One Hundred Profiles Commemorating the Centennial of Hawaii Hochi.” The book was published in 2012 by Hawaii Hochi, Ltd. to commemorate the newspaper’s 100th anniversary.

The first organized and documented group of immigrants from Japan was referred to as the “Gannenmono” — “People of the First Year” — who arrived in Hawai‘i on June 19, 1868. These immigrants were also referred to as “Meiji Gannen” people, meaning they arrived in Hawai‘i in the first year of Emperor Meiji’s reign in Japan.

The person most responsible for the immigration of the Gannenmono was Eugene Van Reed, an American of Finnish descent who, in 1865, had been appointed consul general of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i. Van Reed knew of the sugar planters’ need for laborers to work the Islands’ sugar plantations and decided to ask the Japanese government to send contract laborers to Hawai‘i and worked with the government in recruiting the laborers. In their book, “A Pictorial History of the Japanese in Hawai‘i, 1885-1924,” Dr. Franklin Odo and Kazuko Sinoto note that the Gannenmono were a mixed group that consisted of a few samurai, artists, a hairdresser, cooks and even a 13-year-old who was a heavy drinker — people “hardly prepared to cope with the rigors of sugar plantation work.”

There is a discrepancy in the number of emigrants who came ashore in Hawai‘i in May 1868. According to Odo and Sinoto, there were 148 passengers on the ship. Jane Komeiji and Dorothy Hazama, on the other hand, cite 153 emigrants in their book, “The Japanese in Hawai‘i: Okage Sama De.”

When the emigrants sailed out of Yokohama Harbor aboard the Scioto on May 17, 1868, they did so knowing that the new Meiji government had not authorized their departure. And although they knew nothing about their destination prior to departing, many believed they could earn money quickly and easily in Hawai‘i after learning about a Hawaiian government effort to eradicate snakes in the Islands for which the government would pay 1 ryo (a gold coin) for each snake caught.

The leader of the Gannenmono was an armor-maker from the Sendai Clan named Tomisaburo Makino, who reportedly could speak a few words of English. Another in the group, Yonekichi Sakuma, kept a trip journal, documenting their lives at sea. Among his entries were reports of a death en route to Hawai‘i and a near-knife fight with a Chinese sailor. Sakuma also wrote about most of the emigrants cutting off their topknots prior to docking in Honolulu.

After the immigrants’ arrival, the Hawaiian Gazette, an English-language newspaper, reported in its June 24, 1868, edition:

“At first glance, these Japanese looked like good people. They were brimming with vigor and zest. These people from the Empire of Japan did not appear to have visited foreign countries before and strolled through the streets as if they were enjoying the novelty of it all very much.

“They are of a very polite race. They quickly took to our greeting, ‘Aloha!’ and repeatedly returned the courtesy with ‘Aloha, Aloha.’

“In spite of their shabby clothing, they did not appear to be timid in the least. On the whole, they created a favorable impression and were greeted warmly by white residents and natives alike. It is hoped that they will turn out to be amiable and useful workers.”

About two weeks later, the newly arrived immigrants were given their work orders: Roughly 70 workers were assigned to plantations on O‘ahu, about 50 were sent to Maui plantations and eight workers were sent to Kaua‘i. Another 20 remained in Honolulu and were assigned domestic jobs. Their contracts with the Kingdom of Hawai‘i called for them to be paid $4 per month for a period of three years. (The contract was later amended to $10 a month for the same three-year term.)

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One of the highlights of the 150th anniversary celebration will be the annual convention of the Association of Nikkei and Japanese Abroad, set for June 6 and 7 in Honolulu. A commemoration ceremony and symposium will be held June 7 at the Sheraton Waikiki Hotel. Speakers will include Dr. Dennis Ogawa, professor of American Studies at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa; Dr. Akemi Kikumura-Yano, former president of the Japanese American National Museum, who has done extensive research on immigration to the Americas; and Dr. Masako Iino, former president of Tsuda College and head of Fulbright Japan.

Other Gannenmono 150th anniversary celebration events include:

• Jan. 5: Honolulu Japanese Chamber of Commerce shinnenkai

• Jan. 6: United Japanese Society of Hawaii shinnenkai

• Jan. 14: JCCH ‘Ohana Festival

• Feb. 3: Waimea Cherry Blossom Heritage Festival on Hawai‘i Island

• Feb. 11: Ukulele Picnic at Kaka‘ako Gateway Park

• March 9-11: JTB Honolulu Festival

• March 11: Honolulu Rainbow Ekiden

• March 17: Cherry Blossom Festival Ball

• May 7: Maui Matsuri at Queen Ka‘ahumanu
Shopping Center

For more information on the Gannenmono 150th anniversary, visit kizunahawaii.com, or email info@kizunahawaii.com.

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