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.) In March 1881, King Kalākaua visited Japan during which he discussed with Emperor Meiji Hawai‘i’s desire to encourage Japanese nationals to settle in Hawaiʻi.
Kalākaua’s meeting with Emperor Meiji improved the relationship of the Hawaiian Kingdom with the Japanese government, and an economic depression in Japan served as an impetus for agricultural workers to leave their homeland. (Nordyke/Matsumoto)
By 1884, Hawai‘i Island counted more than thirty plantations, many of them in the Hilo area. Immigrants were arriving by the thousands, mostly from Asia. They fulfilled labor contracts and afterward stayed on. (Olson)
“Upon their arrival in Honolulu those desiring help were permitted to select their labourers and take them to their plantations. Each man was allowed from twelve to fifteen dollars a month, and each woman thirteen, a house to live in, fuel, free water and medical attendance.”
“The labourer was allowed to return to his country at the end of three years, and while here he was not to be separated from his family. … Living largely upon rice raised by himself, and under the favourable condition of the climate, the labourer could lay by a modest sum each year if he chose.” (Browne)
The first ship of Japanese sugar workers, City of Tokyo, arrived with 944 emigrants on February 8, 1885. The second ship, Yamashiro Maru, brought 988 more Japanese (930-men, 34-women and 14-children, most of them from Hiroshima and Kumamoto. They arrived on June 17, 1885; their living quarters were called ‘Nikai-sen Camp’ (second ship camp.)
There used to be a Japanese plantation workers camp associated with Wainaku Mill known as Nikai Camp – for most, it was referred to as the Japanese Village.
It became an attraction. “A mile and a half from Hilo, above the Wainaku mill, there is to be found, in a green, fern-clad valley with a sparkling stream and a dashing waterfall, a complete Japanese village, with thatched roofs and bamboo walls for its houses.”
“Few strangers know of its existence, but it is, to my eye, the most picturesque and unique cluster of dwellings in the Hawaiian isles. Many of the doors of the cottages are shaded by luxuriant banana trees, bearing bunches weighing from sixty to seventy pounds.”
“The hamlet is swarming with rosy babes and smiling young mothers. All look healthy, contented and happy. Mr. Furneaux has some very artistic photographs of this Arcadian village, as well as other scenes in the environs of Hilo.” (Pacific Commercial Advertiser, May 17, 1892)
“One of the curious and interesting sights around Hilo is the Japanese village of bamboo huts on the Wainaku plantation. Every foot of space is utilized. Cucumbers and squashes covet the thatched roofs with luxuriant growth.”
“The Board of Health has had to interfere, however, with some of their curious and malodorous processes of utilizing fertilizing material.” (Daily Bulletin, January 20, 1892)
However, tragedy struck the village … “During Monday afternoon, the 15th (January 15, 1895,) the Japanese camp at Wainaku was completely destroyed by fire.”
“The village consisted of fifty or sixty thatched houses fashioned from bamboo and cane leaves which formerly had been often pointed out to tourists as one of the most picturesque sights in Hilo district.”
“It is stated that Manager Scott will immediately rebuild the camp but this time the dwellings will be constructed of prosaic northwest lumber.” (Pacific Commercial Advertiser, July 24, 1895)
Hilo wasn’t the only Japanese Village attraction … “By the way it would repay one to mount his horse and ride away to a little Japanese village nestling on the mountain side amid the corn lands of Haleakala Ranch.”
“Perhaps Fukuda who keeps a neat little store there would kill a chicken and entertain a well-dispised stranger most hospitably.” (Pacific Commercial Advertiser, September 25, 1893)
In 1971 Wainaku, Hakalau, Pepe‘ekeo and Pāpaʻikou sugar companies were consolidated in a processing cooperative that also included independent cane growers. Two years later, Pepe‘ekeo Sugar merged with Mauna Kea Sugar to form Mauna Kea Sugar Co., Inc., the state’s fourth largest sugar company with 18,000 acres of cane.
The mills at Wainaku and Hakalau were closed as the Pepeʻekeo mill was modernized to double its capacity by 1974. (HSPA) The Hilo Coast Processing Company and the Mauna Kea Sugar Company (at that point called Mauna Kea Agribusiness Company) mill shut down in 1994.