“Kane wa kachiken
Ase to namida no
“My husband cuts the cane stalks
And I trim the leaves
With sweat and tears we both work
For our means.”
Japanese laborers quickly comprised the majority of Hawaiian sugar plantation workers after their large-scale importation as contract workers in 1885. (Oxford Press)
Their folk songs provide good examples of the intersection between local work/life and the global connection which the workers clearly perceived after arriving.
While many are songs of lamentation, others reflect a rapid adaptation to a new society in which other ethnic groups were arranged in untidy hierarchical order–the origins of a unique multicultural social order dominated by an oligarchy of white planters. (Oxford Press)
From 1885-1924, about 200,000 Japanese came to Hawai‘i to work on the sugar plantations. (Kim) By 1900, the Japanese population, about 40% of the total, was the largest ethnic group in Hawai‘i. (Densho)
Many of those Issei women, first generation of Japanese immigrants, came as picture brides and found themselves working long hours in the canefields.
The men cut the cane; the women’s work was to strip the leaves from sugar cane stalks so that it produces more juice while providing fertilizer for the growing plant.
These women sang songs about work and the dilemmas of plantation life. The songs, called Hole Hole Bushi, used old Japanese folk tunes, and mixed Hawaiian and Japanese words for dramatic lyrics. (Kim)
Hole Hole Bushi is a hybrid term that combines the Japanese word for tune (bushi) with a Hawaiian term describing the stripping the leaves off of sugar cane (hole.) Issei women composed and sung a repertoire of these songs, set to familiar Japanese melodies, which expressed their hardships, disappointments, and hopes. (Kim)
Hole Hole Bushi is a folk song which Issei (first-generation Japanese overseas emigrants) who immigrated to Hawai‘i at the end of the 19th century, sang at their work in the sugarcane fields. (Nakahara)
Folk songs are short stories from the souls of common people. Some, like Mexican corridos or Scottish ballads, reworked in the Appalachias, are stories of tragic or heroic episodes. Others, like the African American blues, reach from a difficult present back into slavery and forward into a troubled future. (Oxford Press)
Japanese workers in Hawaii’s plantations created their own versions, in form more like their traditional tanka or haiku poetry.
These Holehole Bushi describe the experiences of one particular group caught in the global movements of capital, empire, and labor during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (Oxford Press)
The name “Hole Hole Bushi,” first appears in Saishin Hawai Annai (The Latest Hawai‘i Guide) by Namitarō Murasaki (1920.) “Hole-hole Bushi” is described as one of Hawai‘i’s specialties to see, as in the following:
“Honolulu is a song-less town. One rarely hears singing except through a phonograph or overhearing a spree coming out of a restaurant. Of course, new popular songs are imported every time Japanese ships come into port. But these songs are sung only at tea houses for the time being, and mostly disappear before they spread outside.”
“Nevertheless, if you go to the countryside, you can still hear the loud singing of a tune saturated with a sorrowful mood. That is “Hole-hole Bushi”—a distinctive feature in Hawai‘i.” (Nakahara)
The lyrics are mostly in Japanese with Hawaiian and English words mixed in, and follow a poetic form with lines of 7+7+7+5 syllables. The texts cover a wide range of topics, from the hardships of field labor and uncertainty in life to the relationships between men and women, name-calling and gossip.
Around 1930, the lives of the Issei improved, and many moved to cities. The Hole Hole Bushi which had been sung in the field disappeared, and, in its place, lively-sounding versions of Hole Hole Bushi were performed in Japanese tea houses.
During the Second World War, the government banned Japanese cultural activities. After the war, however, the great success of the Nisei troops in the fight received admiration. However, Hole Hole Bushi was never performed; for the Issei, Hole Hole Bushi had become an embarrassment. (Nakahara)
Hole Hole Bushi performed by Allison Arakawa at Japanese American National Museum: