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From Okinawa to the Americas

From Okinawa to the Americas: Hana Yamagawa and Her Reminiscences of a Century

EDITED BY Akiko Yamagawa Hibbett
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  • Book Info
    From Okinawa to the Americas
    Book Description:

    Between 1889 and 1940 more than 40,000 Okinawan contract laborers emigrated to plantations in Hawaii, Brazil, the Philippines, and Peru. In 1912 seventeen-year-old Hana Kaneshi accompanied her husband and brother to South America and dreamed of returning home in two years’ time a wealthy young woman. Edited by her daughter Akiko, Hana’s richly detailed memoir is a rare, first-hand account of the life of a female Okinawan immigrant in the New World. It spans nearly a century, from Hana’s early life in a small village not long after the Ryukyu Kingdom’s annexation to Japan; to a sugar plantation in Peru and its capital, Lima; to her dangerous trek through Mexico and the California desert to enter the U.S. and start a new life, this time in the Imperial Valley and finally Los Angeles. Hana’s story comes full circle when she returns briefly, after forty-seven years, to Okinawa during the postwar American Occupation. From Okinawa to the Americas will appeal to not only students of Asian American and disapora studies, but also those seeking to understand the complexity of Okinawan culture and the networks of family relationships in Okinawa and in its overseas immigrant communities.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6095-0
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VIII)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. IX-X)
    (pp. XI-XVIII)
    (pp. XIX-XX)
    (pp. 1-14)

    Mama was born in Okinawa in 1894, just fifteen years after Japan had annexed the Ryukyu Kingdom, and she spent the next seventeen years in the northern hinterland of the island. She was aware that Okinawans were disdained by the ruling Japanese but seems to have internalized the notion of being a member of an inferior race striving for Japanese gentility. “Even if they looked down on us, there was nothing we could do about it,” she said. The political realities of her time in Okinawa were not prominent in the tellings of her childhood memories, which are about the...


    • Childhood
      (pp. 17-33)

      My earliest memory is of being carried piggyback by my great aunt, Obasan, lulling me from side to side, like this. Sometimes my feet would stick out from under the quilted robe and get very cold. Or maybe it was earlier, when I was taken to see my mother’s mother. She was eighty-nine years old and lying on her deathbed. She said to me in a loving voice, “You go on and grow up to be a big girl, now.” “Yes,” I remember answering. I must have been about three years old.

      I was born in the hamlet of Tabaru,...

    • School Years
      (pp. 34-58)

      Elder Brother’s Hamada and I were seven years old when we started school together. I was sometimes called Hamada, too, of course. Nabe arranged our hair neatly in an Okinawan topknot, and we wore short kimonos of banana fiber cloth, held together at the waist with a sash tied in a bow in the back. Barefooted, we walked together past the field of sugarcane, over the Oigawa Bridge and beyond for about a mile.

      The route they took to school has been described by Professor Nakasone Seizen, a scholar of Okinawan linguistics who compiled a dictionary of the Nakijin dialect:...

    • Victory Celebration
      (pp. 59-65)

      In 1904, when the Russo-Japanese War broke out, some men from Nakijin were drafted. The whole student body went to send them off and walked with them all the way to the Amesoko racecourse, singing “The Japanese Army.”

      Ten ni kawariteBy Heaven’s will

      Fugi o utsu.Our loyal, peerless soldiers

      Chuyu muso noStrike down evil.

      Waga hei wa.

      Kanoko no koe niCheering voices

      OkurareteSend them off from the homeland—

      Ima zo idetatsuThere they go now!

      Fubo no kuni.

      Katazuba ikiteHow brave

      Kaeraji toThe soul that pledges

      Chikau kokoro noVictory! Or Death!¹


    • Growing Up
      (pp. 66-74)

      Before home distilling ofawamoriwas outlawed, we always had it on hand, but after, it seemed I was always being sent out for it. Even in the scary night, Elder Brother would send me way off to the marketplace in Pama, beyond the cane fields and on the other side of the river, to bring back a jug from the liquor store.

      “But I don’t want to go. I’m afraid,” I said one night.

      “What are you afraid of?”


      “Ghosts don’t disturb the righteous.” I had to go, but I said to myself all the way to and...

    • Marriage
      (pp. 75-90)

      Soon after I was made to quit school, there came an offer of marriage from the Oshiro family. They were a rich and important family in Irinbari, on the west side of the village. The groom was named Zenko. Zenko himself was an adopted heir to his paternal uncle, but by this time his uncle was dead and it was his stepmother who came with the traditional jug ofawamorito make the proposal. She was turned away many times because I was too young and I didn’t want to get married.

      But Zenko and his stepmother would not be...


    • Contract Labor
      (pp. 93-99)

      Contract-labor ships were slow in those days. We stopped for about four hours in Honolulu, and for the first time I saw a black man. He was smiling. There were men diving for coins. Then after Honolulu we went directly to Peru. During the trip, all in all about fifty days, the tough calluses on the soles of my feet flaked off.

      During the passage, her revered Emperor Meiji died, but totally unaware of this momentous transition in Japan from one era to the next, Mama herself was undergoing a metamorphosis. She gave herself the Japanese name Hana (Flower), which...

    • Lima
      (pp. 100-111)

      When my brother and Cousin Kwangoro got to Lima, they were taken in as apprentice barbers on a six-month contract at a wage of sixty soles for the whole period—about sixty Japanese yen at that time—which didn’t even allow for cigarettes. My brother, who craved an alcoholic drink now and then, took to nipping hair tonic.¹

      In Mama’s time, there were many public squares in Lima, and the central Plaza de Armas was “neatly kept and adorned with beautiful tropical gardens set with flowers and stately pines, and ornate lamp posts supporting arches of lights for festivals.”² Public...

    • Yamagawa Kitaro
      (pp. 112-128)

      Teruya Rinsuke boarded with my employers, the Kishabas. He had a head for business. He used to buy shops that weren’t doing too well, build them up, and then sell them at a profit. Or, he might start up a new business to sell. At that time, he was running a shop of some kind and had asked the Kishabas to help him get me to marry him. He was really nice, but I didn’t want us to be anything more than just good friends, which we were. In the fall of 1918 Teruya Rinsuke’s cousin, your father, Yamagawa Kitaro,...


    • Imperial Valley
      (pp. 131-140)

      Papa and Kohatsu Heitoku continued picking cotton in Mexicali until December, when Taira Kokichi went across the border to help them. We were deeply grateful to him.

      We heard later that our traveling companions who got jailed in Baja California were released for one hundred dollars a head. Arresting Japanese was just another moneymaking business for some Mexican officials.

      We stayed with Brother for a while after arriving in Brawley, and on January 21, 1920, Kiyo was born. Sumi-san, Taira Kokichi’s wife, was supposed to help with the delivery, but she was not experienced and kept saying, “Wait a minute”...

    • Los Angeles
      (pp. 141-154)

      The first house we had in Los Angeles was an old four bedroom house on Koehler Street between Seventh and Eighth streets. After settling in, I went to a walnut ranch in Covina, twenty miles from Los Angeles, to work as a cook for a camp of about twenty Japanese laborers, getting paid twenty-five cents per laborer fed. Leaving Kiyo and Kenji, eight and seven years old, with Papa, I took along Joe and you, five and three. But after a few days Papa brought Kenji out to the walnut ranch to stay with me because after midnight, when Papa...

    • The World War II Years
      (pp. 155-160)

      Mr. Nakasone Shingoro, a longtime resident of Littleton, Colorado, whose wife was a first cousin to Kiyo, Uncle’s wife, graciously took us in with their family for a few weeks. We found that there were about ten Japanese families that had been farming in Littleton for a couple decades. Five of the families were Okinawan: Nakasone Shingoro’s family, Nakaema Seijin’s, Miyagi Zenkichi’s, Miyasato Genei’s, and Taira Senzo’s. We became much beholden to these Colorado Uchinanchu, who encouraged us, gave us moral support, and became lifelong friends.

      We could not finance the boys in continuing their education and suggested they work...

    • Los Angeles Again
      (pp. 161-164)

      Kenji again postponed college to reestablish us in Los Angeles, and Cousin Taira Koyu generously lent us the capital to buy the lease to the Sheridan Hotel, on Eighth Street and Central Avenue in the previous market district. It was a three-story, seventy-room building with a grocery store and a branch of the California Bank on the first floor. We lived there as well as ran the business. All the hotel tenants were poor and black. When Papa or the boys tried to collect the rent, the tenants would answer with mostly curses and threats. It was I who had...


    • Tethered by a Silken Thread
      (pp. 167-180)

      Half a year later, in October, I heard from you in Kyoto that you were planning to go see Uncle, who had gone back to Okinawa in 1952 and was now seriously ill. I quickly decided to join you in Tokyo and then go on to Okinawa together with you. I mailed bundles of clothing, bedding, linen, coffee, and so on, to divide among my relatives in Tokyo and Okinawa, who were still struggling to recover from the war. In Tokyo, Elder Brother’s grandson met me with tears and the news that Uncle was already dead. This added misfortune made...

  10. Afterword
    (pp. 181-194)

    Fully recovered from her fractured ribs, Mama returned to Los Angeles in May 1979 and immersed herself in gardening and her mission to make the Okinawa Club flourish.

    “I want to do as much as I can for the club in Papa’s stead,” she said. She also made four more trips to Okinawa.

    With each visit after that first in 1957, she noted that the standard of living was steadily improving (and markedly since the reversion of Okinawa to Japan in 1972), that the poverty of the prewar and postwar years was fading from memory, and that her mother tongue...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 195-208)
    (pp. 209-210)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 211-212)