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Issei Pioneers - Hawaii and the Mainland 1885-1924 - Part 5

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In 1900, Japanese laborers were involved in 20 of the 22 significant strikes recorded by the United States Labor Commissioner. Four years later, the workers demonstrated greater organization and solidarity when approximately 1,600 Japanese struck Oahu Sugar Company in Waipahu. However, the Great Japanese Strike of 1909 stood apart from the rest in the scope, duration, and organization. The strike lasted four months, involving five major plantations in Oahu, 7,000 workers, and the coordinated support of Japanese businessmen, professionals, and Japanese newspaper.

The strikers’ major demand was higher “wages equal to those paid to laborers of other nationalities.” The need for higher wages was raised by Gunkichi Shimada in the Hawaii Nichi Nichi and further articulated in a series of articles written by Yokichi Tasaka and attorney Motoyuki Negoro in the Nippu Jiji.

Negoro argued that “Hawaii’s economy is dependent on sugar. However, the prosperity enjoyed by the sugar industry does not extend to the Japanese who are suffering from the steadily rising costs and weighted down by a practice of discriminatory wage system.” He protested the “pitiable condition” where the Japanese “are assigned pigsty like homes and receive on $18.00 per month, while Portuguese and Puerto Rican workers doing the same type of work are paid $22.50 and given single family cottages to live in.” He argued, “There is no reason why the Japanese laborers who are just as efficient as foreign laborers should not be given equal treatment with the other races.”1

The Japanese language press agreed in principle on the need for higher wages, but differed on the approach. The Nippu Jiji felt that the workers grievances could be remedied only through collective bargaining, while the Hawaii Shimpo and the Hawaii Nichi Nichi believed differences between the planters and laborers could be settled through private discussions and conciliation. The Nippu Jiji accused the Hawaii Shimpo of being traitors to the Japanese in Hawaii, The Hawaii Shimpo counterattacked, charging the Nippu Jiji and its associates with being agitators and peace disturbers.

Public meetings held to discuss the issues led to the formation of the Higher Wage Association. Kunzaburo Makino who at the time was a successful drug store owner and later the founder of the Hawaii Hochi newspaper, was elected president. Motoyuki Negoro, a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley law school, was secretary, and Matsutaro Yamashiro, a hotel owner was treasurer. The Higher Wage Association moved quickly. It called for an end to the “coolie” wage system, an increase in wages from $18.00 to at least $22.50, and a meeting with representatives of the Hawaii Sugar Planners’ Association (HSPA).

On December 19, 1905 the Higher Wage Association sent a letter to the secretary of the Planters’ Association requesting a conference. While the planters dragged their feet, the Nippu Jiji, published by Yasutaro Soga, stepped up to its charges through its editorials and Higher Wage Association officers Makino and Negoro traveled from plantation to plantation in a rented automobile. Speaking before large crowds, they urged workers to submit requests for higher wages to their plantation managers. “Laborers have the right to strike but violence is a crime,” they warned, while advising workers of their legal rights.

The director of H. Hackfeld and Company accused Makino and his friends of “trying to stir up the laborers on the plantation.” The Hawaii Shimpo sided with the planters. “They (the planters) are men of affairs and gentlemen who will listen to reason. If we have approached them in a fair spirit and in a proper way, the question which is now disturbing the community might have been settled peacefully and everyone made contented.”2

Meanwhile, the higher wage campaign gathered steam. Workers on various plantations formed their own higher wage associations, accepting the leadership of Makino and others. Plantation workers on Hawaii, Maui and Kauai expressed their solidarity. Various prefectural, merchant, and occupational associations pledged their support. But the HSPA refused to recognize the demands of the Higher Wage Association.

On May 8, 1909, the Great Japanese Strike began. At 9:30 a.m., 1,500 Japanese workers at Aiea plantation decided to strike. “Banzai!” the angry workers yelled three times, banging on 5 gallon kerosene tins.

Soon after the strike began, over 60 plantation owners met to discuss strike-breaking tactics. They all agreed not to give in to the demands of the strikers and to share loses. The HSPA instructed the planters to evict the strikers from their plantation-owned quarters.

At Waipahu plantation, the Japanese strikers were given on week’s notice to either report to work or leave. First they cleaned their plantation homes, left words of gratitude to the manager for his kindness, then marched out of camp to the music of a marching band. Workers at Kahuku, Waialua, and Ewa Plantations were given 24 hours notice At Waimanalo, workers decided not to strike by donated $600 to the strikers.

The Higher Wage Association decided that workers on the other islands would continue to work and donate money to the strikers. Provisions, money, and services were donated by merchants and professional groups. By the end of June, 5000 evicted strikers and their families had made their way to Honolulu, where they were housed, fed, and given medical care. “The city of Honolulu was just like a battlefield, with everything in extreme confusion,” recalled Soga.3

Despite the tremendous support, important factions were apposed or remained neutral. Senichi Uyeno, the Japanese Consul General, criticized the strikers for disturbing the peace and harmony and instructed his countrymen to “behave quietly and keep working.” Reverend Takie Okumura, an influential leader in the community, also counseled the strikers to go back work. The Honolulu Japanese merchants publicly took a neutral position.

As the strike continued, the police stepped up repressive measures. High Sheriff William Henry unabashedly declared, “We didn’t like the Japanese in Hawaii…It is only the presence of the 5,000 American troops in the islands that keep them in their place…They are unreliable and tremendously conceited, and we in the islands have had our fill of them.4

In the month of June, the four major leaders, Makino, Negoro, Soga, and Tasaka, faced continuous harassment and arrest. Soga alone was arrested more than 10 times. “The more times I am arrested, the firmer the Japanese will stand,” declared Makino. But as the strike funds began to dwindle and Chinese, Hawaiians, Koreans, and Portuguese were brought in as strike-breakers and paid $1.50 a day –far more than what the strikers were asking—small groups of Japanese strikers returned to their plantation.

On July 31, the delegates voted to end the three-month strike, costing the planters about $2 million and the supporters of the strike approximately $40,000. Makino, Negoro, Soga, Yamashiro, and reporters Keitaro Kawamura and Yokichi Tasaka were arrested on charges of co-conspiracy in the attempted murder of Sometaro Shiba, the owner and editor of the Hawaii Shimpo, who was stabbed by a striker. The defendants were found guilty, sentenced to 10 months in prison, and fined $300 each.

But with the help of Reverend Okamura and other community leaders, they were released after serving three months in prison. A large crowd of supporters welcomed them with three cheers of “Banzai!”

At a special dinner honoring the leaders, Soga told the supporters that “the strike may have caused some ill-feeling between the Japanese and Americans and disturbed the peace of the community, but it called the attention of the general public to the fact that the Japanese were not ignorant people contented with a discriminatory slave-like existence, but they were a people with human dignity and aspiration.”5

The strike was broken but within months the planters increased Japanese wages from $18.00 to $22.00 a month and announced that workers would be paid on a merit basis. A bonus system was introduced with improved housing and sanitary facilities.

Part 6 >>

1. Motoyuki Negoro, Hawaii Hojin Katsuyaki Shi (Japan, 1915) in James Okahata, A History of Japanese in Hawaii, pp. 173-174. .
2. Hawaii Shimpo, February 7, 1901, in Ernest Wakukawa, A History of the Japanese People in Hawaii (Honolulu, 1938), p.175.
3. In Roland Kotani, The Japanese in Hawaii: A Century of Struggle, p. 31.
4. Take Beckman and Allan Beckman, “Hawaii’s Great Japanese Strike,” Pacific Citizen, December 23, 1960. Reprinted in Mimeograph, U.H. Ethnic Studies Program, in Kotani, The Japanese in Hawaii: A Century of Struggle, p. 32-33.
5. Yasutaro Soga, Gojunen no Hawaii Kaiko, pp. 11-12, in Yukiko Kimura, Issei Japanese Immigrants in Hawaii, p. 96

* Issei Pioneers: Hawai‘i and the Mainland, 1885-1924 is the catalogue accompanying the National Museum’s inaugural exhibition. Using artifacts from the National Museum’s collection to tell the story of the courageous “Issei Pioneers,” the catalogue focuses on the early immigration and settlement years. To order the catalogue >>

© 1992 Japanese American National Museum

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