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Japanese laborers arrive

The first Japanese immigrants to the Islands, like the Chinese, appeared not long after Western contact, but the greatest numbers arrived in the mid-1800s to fill the labor needs of the sugar plantations. After the U.S. Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 shut off growers' access to Chinese workers, they turned to Japan. Farmers and peasants from southern Japan, having suffered a series of crop failures at home, eagerly filled the Hawai'i jobs promising comparatively high wages. Most came from the areas of Hiroshima, Yamaguchi and Kumamoto. The trickle of workers arriving in 1868 turned to a flood by 1886 then slowed after the turn of the century.

Plantation life was harsh - backbreaking, tedious work, primitive living conditions and bosses who could be physically brutal - and about half the workers from Japan returned to their home country at the end of their contracts. Issei, the first immigrant generation that stayed on in the Islands, fought to improve work conditions and wages and took the lead in organizing labor. In 1909 and 1920, Japanese workers joined with Filipinos to strike for improvements. Nisei - second generation Japanese born in Hawai'i - continued the push and helped Issei form the first successful unions.

In 1924, the Federal Immigration Act prohibited all immigration from Japan. Although the immigration flow stopped, Hawaii's population remained heavily Japanese. In following decades, many moved beyond plantation life, becoming prominent in politics, education and business. During World War II, many Nisei fought with great distinction for the United States in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. In 1950, Issei were granted U.S. citizenship and awarded the right to vote.

When Japanese arrived to work on the plantations they were overwhelmingly single men. Those who decided to stay on usually preferred to marry a Japanese from home rather than a local bride. To fill this need, picture brides became common. Photos of potential brides and grooms were circulated in Hawai'i and Japan with a marriage agreement reached on the basis of the pictures. The bride then traveled to Hawai'i to begin her married life.

Japanese men and women arriving in the Islands often maintained strong cultural ties to Japan. They brought with them the religious traditions of Shinto - the ancient religion of Japan - and Buddhism, especially the Jodo and Shin sects that dominated in southern Japan. By 1897, Nishi Hongwanji was begun in Honolulu and Japanese missionaries had arrived from Honzan to spread their beliefs. Many other traditions, foods and celebrations are still prominent in local Island culture: leaving shoes outside when entering a home, eating sushi, musubi and teriyaky-style meat, observing Girls and Boys days and attending summer bon dances.

Economically Hawai'i continues to have strong ties to Japan. Japanese visitors are a mainstay of the tourism industry and Japanese investment in property and businesses remains high.

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