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Manoa 14.2 (2002-2003) 59

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The Struggle for Independence:
An Introduction

Esther Kwon Arinaga


During the decades following World War i, disagreement over the policies of the major Christian church for Koreans in Hawai'i caused a serious and unfortunate split in the once-cohesive Korean American community. Politics, both national (Korea) and local (the Korean American community in Hawai'i), became intertwined with religion. On one issue, however, the factions did agree: the need for Korea's independence.

The Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910 affected the immigrants deeply. It saddened them that their relatives and friends lived under oppresive conditions. On March 1, 1919, more than two million Koreans in more than fifteen hundred separate gatherings in the homeland and thousands of Koreans in Hawai'i marched for Korean national freedom, simultaneously issuing a new Declaration of Independence. Japanese police forces brutally massacred the protestors in Korea, and the Japanese grip on the peninsula grew stronger.

Subsequent to this 1919 independence march, Korean women in Hawai'i organized the Korean Women's Relief Society, which pledged to assist the homeland in its struggle for freedom. Dressed in their white chogori (blouse) and ch'ima (skirt), the women were a colorful sight as they marched in parades and sang patriotic songs. They raised thousands of dollars by making and selling such Korean delicacies as ttok (rice cakes), kimch'i, and taegu (seasoned and dried codfish).

Despite the Japanese occupation, some of the immigrant women managed to return to Korea for visits, sometimes bringing along their children to show proudly to grandparents. These family reunions were joyful occasions, but it was painful for the women to see their country under foreign domination. Japanese was the sole language being taught in every school. Christian ministers were persecuted and imprisoned. The immigrants who had dreamed of returning to live in Korea after amassing wealth in Hawai'i began to have second thoughts.

Through Korean clubs, societies, and church groups, the immigrant women fostered a spirit of volunteerism that not only benefited the community directly, but also developed their leadership skills and a sense of community involvement. As time passed and the women secured greater economic security for Korean immigrants, they began to assist and reach out to the community at large. During World War ii, for example, the women rolled bandages for the American Red Cross, promoted the sale of u.s. War Bonds, assisted uso clubs, and opened their homes to American military personnel who were far from home.


Esther Kwon Arinaga is a retired attorney, writer, and community worker. Her father was among the first wave of immigrants from Korea to the United States and her mother was an early picture bride. Both parents were active in the Korean independence movement. Arinaga is coeditor of Allan Saunders: The Man and His Legacy and a contributor and consultant to many other books, including Montage: An Ethnic History of Women in Hawai'i.

"The First Wave Pioneers" and "The Struggle for Independence" by Esther Kwon Arinaga from "Contributions of Korean Immigrant Women" in Montage: An Ethnic History of Women in Hawaii, General Assistance Center for the Pacific College of Educational Foundation, University of Hawai'i, 1977. Reprinted by permission of the author.



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