A panel speaks at the Gannenmono Symposium in Honolulu

Hawai‘i Celebrates 150-Year Anniversary of First Japanese Immigrants


Festivities are under way across Hawai‘i in honor of the Gannenmono, the first group of Japanese nationals to immigrate to Hawai‘i in 1868. The Kizuna Group, a collaboration of 20 organizations that work to support amity between Japan and Hawai‘i, is facilitating a wide variety of events across the state to celebrate Japanese culture.

The Gannenmono celebrations began on January 5 with a shinnenkai, or a New Year’s gathering, hosted by the Japanese Chamber of Commerce. From January through June, various groups held a total of 41 events, including a photo exhibit examining the legacy of Nikkei, or Japanese diaspora, in Hawai‘i, a Matsuri festival that recreated a Japanese village on the campus of UH Maui, and the year’s keynote event— a symposium in Honolulu featuring speakers and performers who discussed the history of Japan-Hawai‘i relations and the experiences of Japanese immigrants in Hawai‘i. The festivities continued into July in Honolulu with two Obon services, a traditional Japanese Buddhist practice to honor one’s ancestors.

The Gannenmono themselves are only the first chapter in a long history of exchange between Japan and Hawaiʻi. The Gannenmono, a phrase meaning “first year people”, earned their title for departing from Japan in 1868, the first year of the new Meiji government. The group of 148 travelers of backgrounds ranging from peasants to samurai worked on sugar plantations in Maui, Oahu, and Kaua‘i as part of a mission to promote diplomatic and economic connectedness. Ultimately, 50 of the Gannenmono chose to remain permanently in Hawai‘i, setting the stage for future Japanese migration to the islands, which reached its peak in the 1920’s when over 40% of the Hawaiian population was of Japanese descent.

Hawai‘i and Japan continue to have especially strong cultural connections. The first memorial honoring Japanese immigrants was dedicated in 1927, and the Gannenmono centennial celebrations of 1968 included numerous donations from Japanese cities and prefectures, including a Buddha statue donated by Kanagawa Prefecture in Japan to the Foster Botanical Garden in Honolulu. More recently, students at the University of New Mexico-Valencia hosted a taiko ensemble, a traditional Japanese style of drumming, one of many cultural events at universities across the United States. Japanese students make up 27.7% of the international student body in Hawai‘i, considerably higher than the nationwide rate of 1.7%. Furthermore, Hawai‘i and Japan share 22 sister partnerships, highlighted by Honolulu, whose 7 sister cities in Japan are the most of any city in the United States. The large number of Japanese Gardens, cherry blossom donations, and Japan America Societies in Hawai‘i further contributes to the thriving cultural exchange between the two.

Luke Pluta-Ehlers is a research intern at the East-West Center in Washington. He is a fourth-year undergraduate student at the University of Chicago studying Global Studies and Geography.