Japanese agricultural workers began immigrating to Hawai`i in 1868, primarily to work on sugar plantations. This immigration peaked in the late 19th century. At this time the population of Native Hawaiians was crashing. As Hawaiians had more contact with Europeans they contracted diseases that they had no immunity to. Sugar plantations, mainly owned by American businessmen, needed workers. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited immigration from China, further restricting sources of labor. This led to contracting work from Japan, where economic depression motivated young people to seek work outside of the country. Harvesting sugarcane was hard work and the hours were long. Both men and women worked in the fields and women did difficult labor along with the men. They worked to earn as much money as they could, not only for themselves, but also to send money to their families in Japan. These workers expressed feelings about their experiences through work songs, called holehole bushi. Holehole is a Hawiian word for sugarcane leaves that the women stripped from the canes as they were harvested and bushi is a Japanese word for tunes. The tunes were brought from Japan. In Japanese folk music, as in many traditions, there are a few tunes that are used again and again as new words are created and then sung to the familiar tunes so that anyone can sing them. The words of the work songs were composed by workers in Hawai`i.
Holehole bushi songs were in use from the late 19th to the early twentieth centuries and then were not used for work anymore. The songs and the recollections of the workers about this period in Hawaiian history might have been lost if not for the work of a Japanese collector, Harry Urata, a school teacher who recorded surviving cane workers in the 1960s and 1970s. The collected songs eventually became part of a folksong revival, sung by a new generation of Japanese Americans. The revival allowed younger people to connect to the history and experiences of the first Japanese to come to the Hawaiian Islands. This history and the songs are part of a book by historian Franklin Odo, whose paternal grandfather immigrated to Hawai`i in 1893. Odo also was Director of Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center from 1997-2010. The book, Voices from the Canefields: Folksongs from Japanese Immigrant Workers in Hawai`i, was published in 2013. That same year Odo spoke at the Library of Congress about the collection and his research. He presented examples of recordings of the songs in this lecture at the Library of Congress in 2013. Here is an example of a song he translated and provided in a handout that was given out at the lecture:
Yuko ka Meriken yo
Kaero ka Nihon
Koko ga shian no
Go on to America
Or return to Japan?
This is our dilemma
Here in Hawai`i
The songs are often sad. Some express complaints about work conditions, pay, and the behavior of those who governed their work, among many other subjects. Odo paid special attention to the songs and histories of the women workers. While men and women both worked in the fields, they were known as women’s songs because they are most closely associated with the holehole work of stripping leaves from the cane stalks done by the women, but the men and women worked closely together and everyone sang. The songs were created by both men and women, and, interestingly, men and women sang each other’s songs while working. Many do bring light on the lives of the women workers and the difficult choices they faced. It is remarkable to learn so much of ordinary women’s lives as is preserved in these songs and in the oral histories. Here is the video of Dr. Odo’s lecture:
As Odo explains in his talk, the sugar plantations had an enormous impact on the history of Hawai’i, which was an independent nation when this story began. In 1893 American businessmen in Hawai`i, mainly sugar plantation owners, staged a coup, taking over the government of Hawai’i and deposing Queen Liliʻuokalani. They expected that the United States would annex Hawai`i as a territory. President Cleveland was a friend of the Queen and condemned the action, but stopped short of sending the military to restore the Kingdom. This led to the creation of the Republic of Hawai`i from 1894 to 1898, when Hawai`i was annexed to the United States during the administration of President McKinley. The wealthy American plantation owners continued to have tremendous power in the governance of Hawai`i well into the twentieth century.
The Japanese agricultural workers continued to be the major work force harvesting sugar until World War II, when they, like other Japanese Americans, were interned in camps for the duration of the war. So the history of the sugar plantations and of these workers is intertwined with the history of Hawai’i and the United States.
What is wonderful about the collection of Harry Urata and its interpretation and translation by Franklin Odo is that not only songs were collected and preserved, but the culture and oral history of the workers who were interviewed. The context of the songs and many aspects of the people’s lives and the consequences of the working conditions and poor pay are all recorded. Franklin Odo’s talk and his book bring a richer understanding to a little known chapter in American history, illuminating the lives of Japanese immigrants to Hawai`i and their descendants in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Canefield Songs: Holehole Bushi, documentary, produced by PBS Hawai`i, 2015. (Franklin Odo mentions that this documentary is in production in his talk.)
Hall, Stephanie, “How Hawaiians Saved their Language,” Folklife Today, May 24, 2017. (Includes more on the history of the annexation of Hawai’i and its cultural consequences.)
Odo, Franklin, “Voices from the Canefields: Folksongs from Japanese Immigrant Workers in Hawai`i,” essay for his talk about the book of the same title at the Library of Congress provided as a handout at the event, 2013 (PDF, 2 pp.).