A shortage of laborers to work in the growing (in size and number) sugar plantations became a challenge. The only answer was imported labor.
Starting in the 1850s, when the Hawaiian Legislature passed “An Act for the Governance of Masters and Servants,” a section of which provided the legal basis for contract-labor system, labor shortages were eased by bringing in contract workers from Asia, Europe and North America.
The first to arrive were the Chinese (1852.) The sugar industry grew, so did the Chinese population in Hawaiʻi. Concerned that the Chinese were taking too strong a representation in the labor market the government passed laws reducing Chinese immigration. Further government regulations, introduced 1886-1892, virtually ended Chinese contract labor immigration.
In 1868, an American businessman, Eugene M Van Reed, sent a group of approximately 150-Japanese to Hawaiʻi to work on sugar plantations and another 40 to Guam.
This unauthorized recruitment and shipment of laborers, known as the gannenmono (‘first year men’,) marked the beginning of Japanese labor migration overseas. (JANM)
One early arrival was Sentaro Ishii. “He had been a samurai warrior in the service of a lord opposing the emperor. Unemployed, he was approached by a young man in Tokyo who told him there was a chance to go to Hawaii and ‘earn some money.’”
“Obtaining traveling money from his highly placed sister he walked to Yokohama. In order to enter Yokohama, he had to discard his samurai sword to avoid arrest, a highly symbolic act which, in effect, cut him from his past.”
“At Yokohama we went on board a sailing vessel in the evening, as we had not passports from the government.” (Beechert)
“He left Tokio in a Spanish sailing vessel, commanded, he says, by an American captain, but he had no idea where he was bound for. When the vessel reached port he got shore leave, and he overstayed leave.”
“He forgot the way back to the ship, and as he couldn’t find anyone to talk his language was not able to ask the way and was left behind.”
“He finally found the landing from which he was supposed to reach his ship but the ship was gone. He was stranded in a country he did not know and where there were practically no persons who knew his language. The port was Lahaina, Maui.” (Maui News, July 21, 1916)
“He was assigned to the McKee Ulupalakua Plantation. After the initial contract pay of four dollars per month, they received nine dollars per month on re-signing.” (Beechert)
Later, when his contract expired, Ishii declined to return to Japan, “as I did wrong while in Japan. I left my lord, my wife, and a child who was two years old at the time.” (Beechert)
“In 1880 he went to Kipahulu. He married a Hawaiian woman (Philomena (born Kahele)), by whom he had four children.” (Maui News, December 3, 1915)
In 1916 Ishii was determined to be the oldest Japanese living in the Territory and therefore entitled to the gift of the Mikado’s coronation cup, a medal from Emperor Yoshihito in commemoration of his coronation.
“One Japanese in all Hawaii was found who was eighty years old and qualified, therefore to receive a medal from Emperor Yoshihito in commemoration of his coronation. He is Sentaro Ishii of Kipahulu, Maui, eighty-two years old.”
“He announced himself when he arrived from Maui yesterday morning, and Acting Consul-General Arita forwarded his name to Tokio in the Shinyo Maru’s mail yesterday afternoon.”
“Ishii was the only one who reached, eighty years, but there was a seventy-eight-year-old woman here, a seventy-nine-year-old man at Moiliili, and another seventy-seven years old at Ola‘a, Hawai‘i.” (Maui News, December 3, 1915)
“In 1935, Ishii Sentaro, the last surviving member of the gannenmono, told an interviewer that he joined the group because working for four dollars per month was a ‘splendid offer,’ though he did not know what sugar cane was or where Hawaii was located.” (Van Sant)
“The last of the original group, Sentaro Ishii, died on September 18, 1936, at the age of one hundred two.” (Okihiro)