The Japanese Fight for Equality in Hawaii; 1900-1920


The Japanese workers in Hawaii evolved into a class of their own in Hawaii. With their initial introduction into the Islands with the contract labor system they were already starting at a disadvantage. The contract system was designed to keep them submissive to the managers and planters with as little resistance to their abuse as possible. They had to fight through a Hawaiian version of indentured servitude with terrible pay, harsh living conditions, and daily abuse. Meanwhile fighting racism from the whites who reigned supreme on the islands and commoditized their main workers. Thanks to a government intervention and annexation from the United States the Japanese saw a freedom to progress in their lives. The ability to strike gave them the freedom to demand higher wages, better living conditions, and a chance at equality. Strikes did not lead to immediate relief of their poor conditions but rather helped build up slowly over time. They started with slightly better wages and progressed to better job positions and better living conditions. The managers attempted to squall any strikes with resistance but the Japanese were able to obtain their demands. The Japanese fought and obtained an equal place in Hawaiian society through exhausting work both in and off the fields.

Fighting the Cane

Plantation labor was repetitive and incredibly difficult. The workers on the plantation system were immediately greeted with loud whistles and screams to wake them up for the long and arduous day ahead. They would form in groups of twenty to thirty workers and head out to the sugarcane fields at six in the morning to begin their day fighting the cane. From there they would separate into what jobs they would be doing for the day which consisted of either hoeing the weeds, hole work, or working in the mill, with them all being demanding and difficult in their own ways. For the workers hoeing the weeds they would have to cut and chop weeds for until eight in the afternoon with one thirty minute break for food. The only small stoppages came when they had to sharpen their blades other than that they would be bent over for four hours straight. The demand it put on the body came from their inability to stand up straight without being reprimanded so by the end of even a single week their bodies were tight and their backs ached from stooping and working for so long. Hoeing however was not considered the most dangerous work on the plantation.

While various groups of workers were weeding the field another were doing “hole-work.” Which consisted of “…stripping dry and withered leaves from the stalks of sugar cane…pull away dead leaves in the hot sun often without ‘a breath of wind to cool the heated stagnant air. (Takaki, 59)” The reason “hole-work” was considered more difficult and dangerous then weeding was the fact that they fought off hoards of wasps or yellow jackets which were rampant in the fields. On top of that they had to wear thick clothing to prevent the sharp and spiney needles of the cane leaves and even with the thick clothing they were often cut from the saw-blade like leaves that were on the cane. Along with the abuse they took from the cane there were clouds of what was called “chocolate dust” that would clog their nostrils and force them to stop working to clear it out to breathe. A female worker reflected on the experience involved in harvesting the sugar cane, “Now that I look back, I thank goodness for the height for if I had seen how far the fields stretched I probably would have fainted from knowing how much work was ahead. My waistline for slimmer and my back ached from bending over all the time to cut the sugar cane. Sometimes I wished I was a dwarf so that I would not have to bend down constantly. (Takaki, 60)” Her work was strictly to the field and, as in her reflection, was long and taxing on the body, couple this with the thousands of workers on the plantation a picture begins to be painted on how life was for those working in the fields. However there was another aspect of work to consider that was involved in completing the finished product, mill work.

The cane that was cut down in the field needed to be crushed and the juices that came from it boiled to turn it into sugar and molasses. Mill work required more skill since the workers would be handling heavy machines in a factory where, “they operated engines, presses, furnaces, boilers, vacuum pans, centrifugal drums and other machines. (Takaki, 60)” Due to the amount of machinery in the mill the sound was deafening and the heat just as unbearable as it was in the fields. The heat was so hot that one worker, Baishiro Tamashiro, recalled, “It was so hot with steam in the mill that I became just like a popule [crazy]. (Takaki, 60)” To further their pain with technology electric lights brought about day and night shifts alike to double production.

The amount of work that went into producing sugar was incredible and every worker, whether skilled or unskilled, felt the pains of the jobs they did. The conditions of production were demanding and dangerous for the workers. Whether it was tediously cutting the cane down, to suffocating in chocolate dust and avoiding bees or running machinery in sweltering conditions, the production of sugar in Hawaiian plantations was extremely difficult and physically demanding. Even with the terrible conditions the workers found themselves willing to deal with them for the promise they received for a fortune and a better life.

The Struggles of Contract Labor

The contract labor system was the first stepping stone for the mass worker migration to the Hawaiian sugar plantations. It was introduced in the 1870’s after the exploitation of native labor was deemed unacceptable due to their “lazy” nature but in reality they did not succumb to the work that they viewed as unnecessary for their survival when they could deal with the bare essentials, food and a place to live. With the poorly viewed workforce domestically the companies began employing agents to look abroad. The United States issued a law that prohibited the entry of immigrants under contract labor in 1885 (Hosok O, 341). The law however did not include Hawaii and in fact helped to spur the flood of immigrants to the islands. With the law on their side the plantation owner’s first efforts were to find workers in Japan.

Japan became the place where they could find the most reliable and highest amount of workers. This was in part due to the Chinese Exclusion act of 1882 and was expanded by ten years by the Geary act in 1892. The ability for Japanese to enter the states was rather easy and provided one of the backbones for the mass immigration. With the need for cheap labor for the plantation and the willingness by the Japanese due to their thirst for a fortune, the two went together perfectly. It was the means of finding the workers and the ability to transport them that was the missing piece.

Fortunately for the Japanese workers the transportation was supplied by the plantation owners. Those involved in the allocation of sugar laborers were referred to as “sugar factors,” or agents. They were employed by the plantation owners and their job; “Sugar factors purchased the supplies the plantations needed, recruited labor… (Whitehead, 296)” The primary jobs of purchasing supplies and recruiting labor often went hand in hand as the view towards the laborers was that of a commodity that could be bought for whatever purpose necessary. In the commodification of people the Japanese among other groups of Asians experienced racism and discrimination early on in their time in Hawaii.

Unfortunately for those involved the contract labor system was almost identical to indentured servitude. The power was completely in the hands of the owners at the turn of the 19th century and well into the 20th. The owners of the plantations, often called the “Big Five,” used the sugar factors to seduce Asian workers to go to Hawaii in order to work. The promise was a small fortune and life in paradise which was all stipulated in a short term work contract. The Japanese in Japan may have been induced to seek the “promised land” for work by the government in order to encourage trade for the empire. Whatever the case may be the numbers were impressive in the waves that went to Hawaii. Up to 600 Japanese came over in the initial wave and there were 48,072 laborers in the United States by 1933 in total. The amount of the total population in 1900 was almost 40 percent Japanese alone with whites only taking up 18 percent and, to further show the sugars involvement for the course of the islands, the native population was dwindled down to 19 percent. The parameters for the workers were strict in terms of the pay and conditions. They would be working, “…ten-hour days swinging machetes or digging trenches six days a week for slightly less than $15 per month. (McGowan, 177)” The pay and work they would be doing was written in the contract but the agents and employers failed to mention the terrible conditions in which they would be working and living in.

The workers had to deal with not only long work exhausting workdays but also conditions similar to slavery but with a closer resemblance to indentured servitude due to the addition of money being involved in the picture. While there was pay, it is questionable at that. Once they signed onto work they were already losing money as the owners made them pay for “…the costs of room, board and washing… (McGowan, 180).” By the end of the day the workers barely had any money to build their fortune. The conditions that they endured were the mirror image of slavery in the south of the United States. The scorching hot long day of work under the watchful eye of a manager ready with a whip in hand. And the whip was not just for intimidation, lashings for inadequate work at the hand of a temperamental manager, for the poor effort however they would be sent home, without pay and even without food.

One major problem was the inability to strike or say anything back to the manager or owner at risk of up to an additional year without pay, all of which was stipulated in the contract that they signed. While they were under the notion they would work three long years for a fixed wage they faced up to two additional years just for speaking their minds. In reality the contract labor system was a mix between indentured servitude and slavery. The Japanese were not the only ones involved in the contract labor system, Koreans, Chinese and Filipino’s all endured this as well while Whites enjoyed superiority and better pay.

With the Whites enjoying the upper hand on the plantation the issue of racism and discrimination was alive while contracts were in place. One of the major issues facing the Japanese and other ethnics groups was the commodification of them. Similar to the slave trade, the request for supplies included the need for workers. In one order, “A planter ordered ‘bone meal, canvas, and Japanese laborers’ in that order. (McGowan, 181)” The order in which he placed the significance reflects the attitude towards the laborers as they were less important than bone meal or canvas. The attitudes against the Japanese were shown in the derogatory names they received, “Japs.”

The cultural differences came down to three main categories, living arrangements, pay, and job status. They segregated each group into their own encampments, with the Europeans living in more spacious living areas that were very often made for a single person. While the Asians were forced into small, cramped living arrangements. The pay was also higher for the Whites with the plantation owners justifying this by describing the man as “skilled labor.” The average skilled laborer received $63.11 while the contract laborer only received an average of $17.74. To bridge the gap even further the average American or British skilled worker received a staggering monthly wage of above 90 dollars, while the average Japanese worker received a measly 15 dollars. The difference between the wages and living, or more likely in the terms of contract labor surviving, is outstanding. The skilled labor came not only with higher pay but a higher position as well. Often taking the manager role or overseer of the plantation above the workers. While the Asians were forced into menial, repetitive, yet hard labor, such as cutting the sugar cane in the sweltering heat, processing the sugar in the mill, under the contract system.

During the labor contract era the power favored the owners and the managers. This was in their ability to use the contract that the migrants signed against them effectively. As I have said, without strict adherence to the signed contract the workers were subject to fines, lashings, and additional years working on the plantation without pay. Meanwhile the managers were also able to stop the workers from unionizing which played out better for the owners. Whether it was unknown to the worker or simply ignored cannot be confirmed but the type of contract can best be described as a “yellow-dog contract” which is an agreement between the worker and the manager not to unionize (McGowan, 178). Without the ability to unionize the plantation owners were able to suppress any strikes that might occur or any demands that the workers might have regarding better pay, better living conditions, and better working conditions.

When workers found these conditions unacceptable and unbearable they would become disgruntled rather quickly. Something that the plantation owners might not have anticipated was the reaction to the demands they placed on their workers. In many insistences laborers would leave the plantation to find work in the surrounding towns or mainland. And in less than common cases the laborers would sue the plantation owner, using the contract as support, for not living up to their end of the agreement, not providing appropriate housing or the food they claimed they would provide. The plantation owners did however retain a powerful advantage over their workers with the labor contracts regardless of the few weaknesses that came with it.

While there were numerous plantations and various owners on the islands, the main plantation owners of Hawaii were described as the “Big Five.” Namely; “…Castle & Cooke, Ltd., Alexander & Baldwin, Ltd., C. Brewer and Company, Ltd., Theo H. Davies & Company, Ltd., and American Factors, Ltd. These companies controlled the territory’s economy and were the focus of most commentators’ awe, enmity, or consternation. (Whitehead, 296)” These “Big Five’ were the main force in driving the Hawaiian economy and the social structure of the classes in the Hawaiian Islands at the end of the 19th century and into the 20th. Their aim and focus was to provide a permanent workforce to supplement their business. The Contract Labor system did not guarantee a permanent workforce like serfs of the medieval Europeans but it did supply a steady stream of workers that were constantly replacing one another or joining the already occupied area.

There was a much needed attraction that was a necessary part of the equation in gaining laborers to work for these companies in extreme conditions. The first attraction was the pay that seemed like a fortune to the naïve immigrants. They may have been swindled in the easily appealing visions of a promised land already established with some groups, such as the Chinese with the ideas of “…’the land of fragrant sandalwood hill’ and the Filipino’s vision, ’Hawaii, the land of glory’… (McGowan, 180).” A more sustainable cause for workers would be for the betterment, of not only themselves but, of their children and their safety, education, and hopefully the ability to flourish. So in an attempt to help families the companies built nurseries for the children, supported public school systems, and began language schools for the workers, as well as for their children. The companies managed to reel in their workers in a two-fold manner, promises of fortune and paradise, and the hope for a better future for their offspring.

Unfortunately the laborers came to realize that, while the islands had their perks, the companies were able to manipulate them enough to gain an edge over them. This edge was a debt cycle that essentially created their sought after permanent workforce. The debt cycle, or debt peonage, was sufficient enough to make a dependency on the owners by the laborers through the original purchase of the ticket to the island, foodstuffs, living area, and washing of clothes.

With the debt peonage it was essential for the laborers to work and make every penny that they could to be able to pay the debts that were collecting with the consumption of food and room and board fees. Because of that there were few that could afford to take the day off and not worry about the consequences. Many Japanese workers experienced this shift in priorities, “In Japan we could say ‘it’s okay to take the day off’… since it was our own work. On the plantation- we had to work ten hours a day (McGowan, 180).” The concept of endless work and the inability to take any personal time off was a completely new concept to the Japanese. But with the need to work they had to adjust and so they did, which gave them a considerable amount of power in their knowledge of the machines and techniques that sustained the sugar plantations.

The amount of money the average Japanese worker was not a fair reflection of the work they put in and power they truly held. Without the workers under the contract labor system the sugar plantations and sugar industry would not have flourished as it had. There was hope for the workers when the United States government stepped in with the annexation of the Hawaiian Islands. When the annexation took place in 1900 the contract labor system was abolished completely from being used any further in the Organic Act of 1900. And since the recruiting from China for workers was cut off, due to the Geary act in 1892, it gave the Japanese a general monopoly on the workforce. With this nullification of the contract system workers enjoyed the first taste of real freedom in Hawaii.

The first major change from the annexation was the ability to sell their services to a plantation that was the best fit for their situation. The situations varied depending on the worker, either they had a family to take care of or they were alone and looking to build the biggest fortune, or looking forward to the adventure that was involved in moving to a strange new land. Whatever the case may be, it was a huge advantage to be able to see which plantation would fit their needs and pick out who they wanted to work for. The freedom of choice was the first substantial step towards the Japanese workers realizing their initial hopes in coming over of the “promised land” that was not seen during the contract system era.

The annexation led to the Japanese gaining control of their lives in Hawaii. They began selling their services to plantations and were able to market themselves accordingly. This ability led to ideas of better wages and pushed forth small strikes within the first few years of the annexation. Thanks to the shift in attitude from subordinates to the idea that they controlled labor the Japanese began viewing their situation in a new light, where they were the “complete masters of the labor situation (McGowan, 182).” Strikes seemed to be natural then as they could openly show their grievances without any repercussions to their pay or the time they spent on the plantation. To the planters who were used to the power they held the demands seemed to be small and unimportant but the workers who had to deal with the inconsistencies of the work every day they were highly important. The demands which could be maintenance of a machine, higher pay, or more social freedoms were the result of months of buildup on the workers side and needed to be addressed.

In 1900 when they were first annexed there were twenty strikes alone and over 8,000 laborers took part. The demands however were more than the Organic Act granted, the demands which were, Japanese over-sears instead of white ones, less work hours, higher pay, and mandatory union membership for the plantation workers. In all of their demands only the increase of wages were met by the managers.

The Great Strike of 1909

The small strikes were met with mixed responses until the workers could not take it anymore which culminated in the first major strike of the Hawaiian Islands in 1909. The first major strike was the result of unfair treatment of the Japanese. The main issue of the strike was unequal pay amongst the workers as the Japanese laborers were paid less than the Portuguese and Puerto Rican workers. The problem with the Japanese workers however was that they lacked a union to speak on behalf of the workers. There was a Japanese association for higher wages, Japanese Higher Wage Association respectively. But that was a union that was representative of the entire Japanese community including newspapermen and hotelkeepers, not specifically the sugar workers. Luckily for the Japanese plantation workers the hotelkeepers could provide a place for them to stay during the strike.

The strike lasted just around three months from May to August in 1909 with the strikers returning to work without their demands met. That is until they returned to work where they received equal pay with the Puerto Ricans and Portuguese workers. But a drawback was the increased in recruitment for the jobs to be filled by workers from the Philippines and continued in recruiting towards Puerto Rico and Portugal. In the end the Japanese workers not only gained pay which equaled the Puerto Ricans and Portuguese but also a realization of how important a union was for their cause. Due to their disheveled group and lack of any solid leadership they were unable to gain footing to fight for their cause for too long. The experience however gave them a strong sense of what they needed to do, organize a union for plantation laborers.

Collaboration in Striking 1920

Laborers found it difficult to build a union that would be able to support their interests and be able to fight for them in a prolonged strike. Several attempts were made to start a union specifically for Japanese laborers looking for better wages and hours. Unions such as, the Japanese Young Men’s Association, and the Young Men’s Buddhist Association of the Waialua Plantation fought for higher wages and less hours but whenever they would attempt to organize a strike it was easily counteracted by the planters who would in turn hire Filipino workers at higher wages. The only sensible way to successfully strike and gain higher wages and eight hour work days would be to combine efforts and both strike at the same time and support each other in their efforts. The combination worked in the workers favor with the planters giving the workers a 50 percent increase in salary and the option to collect bonuses at the end of every month. And is seen as one of the most significant strikes because of their forays into a combined effort of races on the islands to help stop further discrimination between races.

The Japanese emerged as not only the most dominant race in Hawaii but one that could be seen as equal amongst the Filipino, native Hawaiians, and European and American Whites. The fortune of having the government of the United States intervene and annex the Hawaiian Island’s was immensely beneficial for the laborers. A major change it brought about was the end of the Contract System and allowed the workers to strike when they felt mistreated. Using the power to strike was essential for the Japanese to be treated and viewed as equal among the diverse classes in Hawaii. While the struggle lasted twenty years, two major strikes, and numerous smaller ones they accomplished a great deal. They gained pay equivalent to the whites and Filipino’s, Japanese over-seers and managers, and better living conditions for them and their families.  With the formation of unions and a collaboration from Filipinos they were able accomplish these feats to gain equality and respect on the islands.


The Japanese fought for their place in Hawaii and were determined to make it an equal one. Through the Contract Labor system the Japanese were introduced to the promises of fortunes but immediately came to realize it was not what they signed up for and in fact was a type of indentured servitude. This led to many runaways and broken contracts because of the abuse and low pay they received. But for those that stayed on the plantations for the duration of their contract they found it had even more drawbacks than physical abuse and low pay. They were the lowest rung of the societal ladder and were only seen as commodities bought to make the planters richer. Thankfully for the Japanese the United States government officially annexed them in 1900 and they were better off immediately following that.  What came with the annexation was the ability to strike which proved to be the most effective tool for gaining equality. They organized many strikes with two major ones, in 1909 and 1920, to gain better wages, living conditions, and equality. The strikes worked with the planters giving in to the demands at the relief of the strikers and granted Japanese workers more powerful positions along with more money. By 1920 the Japanese were able to become viewed and treated as equals in the workforce and in the community of Hawaii, which was more than they could have imagined in 1900.


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