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From Okinawa to the Americas

Hana Yamagawa and Her Reminiscences of a Century

Edited by Akiko Yamagawa Hibbett

Publication Year: 2011

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.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press

Series: Intersections: Asian and Pacific American Transcultural studies

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pp. xi-xviii

Hana Yamagawa, my mother, tripped, fell, and fractured a couple of ribs against the brick edging in her garden on March 20, 1979. She was eightyfour years old. Though painful and inconvenient, it was a fortuitous accident. It limited her mobility and presented her with an opportunity to correct a brief article about her life as told to Tamaki Shigemori and ...

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pp. xix

My many thanks to Steve Rabson and Dorothy May: Steve for his meticulous reading of the earliest manuscript, lo so many years ago, and Dorothy for her generosity with a more recent one. To an anonymous reader I owe gratitude for correcting a factual error and for suggesting I tighten the writing in places. I am also grateful to Masako Ikeda ...

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pp. 1-13

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 ...

Part I Tethered by a Silken Thread

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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 ...

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School Years

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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. ...

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Victory Celebration

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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.” ...

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Growing Up

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pp. 66-74

Before home distilling of awamori was 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. ...

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pp. 75-89

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 of awamori to make the proposal. She was turned away many times because ...

Part II Go, My Lucky Child

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Contract Labor

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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. ...

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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 ...

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Yamagawa Kitaro

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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. ...

Part III On the Ship of Good Fortune

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Imperial Valley

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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. ...

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Los Angeles

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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. ...

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The World War II Years

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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 ...

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Los Angeles Again

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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 ...

Part IV And Return

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Tethered by a Silken Thread

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pp. 167-179

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, ...

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pp. 181-193

... 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 was finally dying. It was on the 1987 trip that she asked the little children chatting in Japanese ...


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pp. 195-207

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 209-210

E-ISBN-13: 9780824860950
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824834005

Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Intersections: Asian and Pacific American Transcultural studies

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Subject Headings

  • Okinawa-shi (Japan) -- Biography.
  • Ryukyuans -- Peru -- Biography.
  • Ryukyuans -- California -- Biography.
  • Yamagawa, Hana, 1894-1995.
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