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  • Issei Women and Work:Washerwomen, Prostitutes, Midwives, and Barbers
  • Kelli Y. Nakamura (bio)

I used to wake up about 3 o’clock in the morning. From that time on, even at noon, there was no time to rest. It was necessary to do my household tasks, too, and do such things as my laundry … In the afternoon I had to make preparations for the obento, and I also had to prepare for feeding them the pau hana dinner. Plus also, there were my household tasks … For my cook work to be completed, it takes up to 8 o’clock [p.m].1

Kame Iwatani, a retired Del Monte Corporation field worker, describes in this account her usual work day as an Issei woman in Hawai‘i. Born in Yamaguchi-ken, Japan, in 1896, she arrived in the Islands in 1922 as the picture bride of Kumeiji Iwatani, a pineapple field worker. After settling in Ka‘a‘awa, O‘ahu, with her husband, she taught sewing to the children of the camp while working in the pineapple fields. In 1924, they moved to Waimea, O‘ahu where she did the laundry for the Filipino workers of the Fruits Company and heated the ofuro [public bath] for camp use. For the ten years that her husband worked as a luna [overseer] in Leilehua, she cooked meals for the field workers, and for a short time she also did housework for the plantation boss. Iwatani’s life in Hawai‘i, which was defined by different kinds of work, was not uncommon in the experiences [End Page 119] of Issei women, as many worked multiple jobs while caring for their husbands and families.

Yet, in many Issei histories, the story of women has been limited to primarily two narratives: the reticent and subservient picture bride and the hard-working, silent plantation field laborer. Defined by their husbands and their secondary economic status, Issei women’s activities in Hawai‘i have not been regarded as worthy of close historical analysis. While many women arrived in the Islands as picture brides and most labored on the plantations, these simplistic characterizations do not capture the wide range of activities performed by Issei women. Although plantation owners, luna, and husbands undoubtedly exploited women who had limited language skills and alien citizenship status, other women found opportunities within the gender imbalance on the plantations. For example, as women were paid less than men, many had to take on additional “women’s jobs” like laundering, cooking, and sewing to ensure their families’ economic survival. Yet, the necessity of these professions on the plantations, as well as their economic success performing these duties, enabled them to have alternatives beyond field labor and to exert an influence both within and outside the family that challenged the Meiji ideal of “good wife, wise mother” (ryōsai kenbo).2 Although ideally women were to confine themselves to their homes as “dutiful wives and intelligent mothers,” very few migrant women could afford to limit themselves to these two roles. Economic realities forced the majority of women to assume a third role as workers whose labor was indispensable to plantations, families, and small businesses. Issei women came to dominate certain professions such as barbering, midwifery, and even prostitution—all of which enabled them to make a living independent of their marital status and of the plantations. For Issei women, Hawai‘i offered unprecedented personal and economic opportunities, transforming traditional ideas of “proper” gender roles in both America and Japan. By the necessity of engaging in different types of work, Issei women broke down the traditional divide that separated the domestic and public spheres. Thus, by analyzing the work experience of Issei women, a more nuanced understanding of a traditionally “invisible” population emerges. These women often exerted agency and initiative to transform not only their lives, but also those around them to establish the foundations of family and community life in Hawai‘i. [End Page 120]

Economic Opportunities Through Marriage

Although most Issei women arrived as picture brides and have been defined solely by their marital status, many of them were not motivated by romantic notions of marriage or love. Nor did they...