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Japanese Problem


Japanese Problem

Bronze statue of Japanese sugarcane workers erected in 1985 on the centennial anniversary of the first Japanese immigration to Hawaii in 1885.

The Japanese Problem, also referred to as the Japanese Menace or the Japanese Conspiracy, was the name given to racial tensions in Hawaii between the European-American sugar plantation owners and the Japanese immigrants hired to work in the cane fields.


  • Origins 1
  • Cultural retention 2
  • Strike of 1920 3
  • Christianization 4
  • Great Depression 5
  • References 6


The first Japanese immigrants arrived in Hawaii in 1885 to work on Hawaii’s sugar plantations.

Cultural retention

Initially plantations were tolerant of new coming immigrants allowing open expression of their native culture, including flying the flag of their homeland.

Strike of 1920

The 1920 strike was a multiracial strike. Prior to then, when one ethnic group went on strikes the other groups worked as strikebreakers, leading to a strike’s failure. After years of organizing, the Filipino Labor Union and the Federation of the Japanese Labor united the Filipinos and Japanese groups.

The strike began for Filipinos and Hispanics on January 20, 1920, and Japanese officially joined on February 1 (although many Japanese independently joined earlier). The strike involved 8,300 workers spanning six plantations. Picketers had brought demands earlier on December 4, 1919: pay raises from $0.77 to a $1.25 for males and $0.58 to $0.90 and paid maternal leave for females per day from the Hawaiian Sugar Planters' Association. Initially the planters refused demands and attempted to end the strike by attrition. One retaliatory action against the strike was the eviction of picketers and their families from plantation housing. A total of 12,020 people were evicted. Another dilemma was finances for food. The Japanese union’s approach was to build up a reserve for the Japanese picketers and their families; this fund held $900,000. The Filipino union’s approach was to be sustained by donations from Filipinos working on other plantations not affected by the strike. In less than a month, the Filipinos were desperately low on funding and on the verge of starvation. If the Filipinos had returned to work the strike would have collapsed. The Japanese union used their reserves to sustain the Filipino picketers, and avoided a collapse of the strike. During the strike the Spanish Flu hit Hawaii; 55 Japanese and 95 Filipino picketers died during the world-wide epidemic.[1] The strike lasted until July 1, more than half a year, when a compromise was reached. Although the strike was successful, the “Japanese Problem” and the “Filipino Problem” were exposed as a larger issue than the Planters realized.

Following the strike of 1920, powerful European-Americans began to question the consequences of a large population of Japanese, particularly the spread of Japanese beyond the plantations where whites (European-Americans) were outnumbered by non-whites three to one. Militarily the Japanese Problem was recognized in 1919 and considered a possible conspiracy to spread Japanese influence by diaspora. With Japanese expansionism there was a prospect the Japanese Empire may lay claim to the Hawaii.


A solution was proposed by a Japanese Evangelical Reverend Takie Okumura to Christianize and Americanize the Japanese community; to integrate the people which would bring peace and snuff out ideas and demands for better labor rights and ambitions outside the plantations. Immigrants to Hawaii usually encountered Christian groups proselytizing to newcomers, but with plantation owners allowing high tolerance for the immigrants’ culture, these immigrants continued their own religions. During the strike of 1920 Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines took a risk by supporting the striking workers, providing food when pay stopped and shelter when the workers were evicted. Christian Churches on the other hand wanted to maintain good relations with the plantation owners and opposed the strike. The planters believed if the Japanese were converted to Christianity, planter-friendly churches could influence the Japanese in favor of the planters.[2]

In January 1921 Okumura began an “Education Campaign” to coax Japanese into Christianity by educating them concerning the similarities to Japanese culture and to take pride and modesty in their niche as plantation workers.[3] The campaign was flawed from the start since it was known that he sided with planters and opposed the 1920 strike. The Japanese began to reject Okumura as a “traitor”. He was also known for his abusive language and he unintentionally agitated the situation with offensive remarks toward Buddhist “aliens” as “pagans” who could not be “true Americans” until they were Christians. Buddhists were insulted by these remarks and rejected Okumura further. Okumura criticized the plantation workers as Un-American in that they were stubborn in preserving Japanese culture and not adopting American culture. The planters were beginning to doubt Okumura and complained he had made the Japanese more skeptical of American culture and more belligerent than before. The planters even accused Okumura of being a double agent because he said he would make the Japanese subordinate workers and he would solve the Japanese Problem; instead he exacerbated the conflict and putting Whites and Japanese further at odds. The planters abandoned Okumura’s campaign in 1927 and Okumura ended the campaign in 1929.

The Christian movement was met with a strong counter-movement as the Japanese rejected Christianity as a ploy by the Planters. This created a resurgence of Buddhism and businessmen backed the formation of strong Buddhist establishment in the 1930s which Christians dubbed the counter-movement “re-paganization”. At its height, Buddhists accounted for one-third of the territory's population. One of the fears was realized: the Japanese left plantations at any opportunity and established their own shops and small businesses. Japanese were already the majority of the population. Another fear arose: If the Japanese became more active voters, that they would dominate the vote. Senator Hiram Bingham III, grandson of Hiram Bingham I, preferred the islands of his birth to remain in European-American hands rather than let democracy shift power into the hands of the Japanese. In 1932 he proposed a possible solution to Congress, in a bill to make Hawaii a military territory under the U.S. Navy. It would have discontinued elections in the territory before the Japanese became the voting majority.[4][5]

Great Depression

New technology improved production and better living and working conditions. In the 1930s Great Depression tensions between the Japanese and the Whites of the earlier decades went dormant. It became unwise to make demands. Anti-syndicate and anti-rioting laws ended unions and the labor movement dwindled and refusing to vote Republican could result in the loss of employment.

racial demographics of 1959.


  1. ^ Working in Hawaii by Edward D. Beechert
  2. ^ Cane Fires by Gary Y. Okihiro
  3. ^ Kodomo No Tame Ni-For the Sake of the Children by Dennis M. Ogawa
  4. ^ Hawaii Pono by Lawrence H. Fuchs
  5. ^ Cane Fires by Gary Y. Okihiro
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