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  • Voices from the Canefields: Folksongs from Japanese Immigrant Workers in Hawai‘i by Franklin Odo
  • Christen Sasaki
Voices from the Canefields: Folksongs from Japanese Immigrant Workers in Hawai‘i. By Franklin Odo. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. xxviii + 242 pp. Bibliography. Index. Lyrics. $55.00 cloth

Franklin Odo’s study of the folk tradition, holehole bushi, provides a unique and in-depth look into the lives of issei, or first generation Japanese immigrants, in Hawai‘i. Through careful analysis of numerous folk songs, Odo successfully complicates the narrow image of the issei that is largely, “of a generation that suffered grievously, but with great patience and humility … in order to create better lives for their children …” (pp. x–xi), and offers an alternative narrative that is filled with fluidity, despair, love, lust, violence, and hope. This book is an important read for scholars of Japanese American history and historiography, ethnic studies, and labor history. It will also be especially useful to those engaged in comparative migration history, women’s history, Hawaiian history, and ethnomusicology.

Adapted from traditional Japanese folk songs and poetry, holehole bushi were composed and sung by a generation of Japanese men and women who toiled in Hawai‘i’s sugar plantations from 1885–1924. Odo’s meticulous attention to this local folk tradition of Hawai‘i opens up the global and fluid world of the issei. The holehole bushi in chapter 1, “Japan to Hawai‘i,” creates a complicated picture of this first generation of immigrant laborers and the transnational world in which they lived. The issei are depicted as men and women straddling a home society in transition, while also inhabiting a contested space between two emerging empires and the independent kingdom of Hawai‘i.

Chapters 2 to 5 are organized around themes found in the holehole bushi: work, despair and defiance, love and lust, and reflections. In chapter 2, “World of Work,” Odo tackles the harsh realities of plantation labor. Using holehole bushi lyrics, Odo adds to the scholarship on Hawai‘i’s sugar plantation labor by questioning the taken-for-granted gendered nature of work. He also successfully draws out the life choices that many issei faced when nearing the end of a three-year contract, and underscores the mobility of this generation within the islands and between nations. The holehole bushi analyzed in chapter 3, “Despair and Defiance,” breaks through “Hawai‘i’s plantation mythology” (p. 58) and offer a gritty depiction of issei life. Subjects such as gambling, gangs, rage, depression, prostitution, and alcoholism are among the topics covered. Chapter 4, “Love and Lust,” presents a unique glimpse into the intimate and sometimes scandalous world of plantation life. Here Odo shines as he reminds the reader through holehole bushi of the relative power some women wielded in a society where female companionship was scarce. In chapter [End Page 216] 5, titled “Reflections,” the holehole bushi reveal issei thoughts on their lived experiences, ranging from regret to gratitude.

Chapters 6 and 7 focus on the process of recovering this particular folk tradition. Chapter 6, “A Last Hurrah,” examines the collective and constructed identity of the issei decades after their last days on the plantation. The holehole bushi examined in this chapter were submitted in response to a contest sponsored by a Japanese language newspaper in 1960. “Renaissance of Holehole Bushi,” chapter 7, charts the recuperation of this folk tradition by Harry Minoru Urata and traces its usage in popular media and academia.

Odo writes in style that will entertain and engage a general audience. While there is some repetition in each of the chapters, they could easily be used as stand-alone pieces. Finally, having raised a number of issues for further study, including the mobility of the issei generation, “rurality,” and the fluidity of the plantation world, Odo leaves the reader with a collection of over 200 translated holehole bushi for their own reading and analysis. This project is clearly a labor of love for Odo, one that makes holehole bushi accessible to a new generation of Japanese Americans in Hawai‘i, as well as scholars and practitioners around the world.

Christen Sasaki
Assistant Professor, Department of Asian American...


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