- Sea of Opportunity: The Japanese Pioneers of the Fishing Industry in Hawai‘i by Manako Ogawa
This transnational history of the Hawaiian fishing industry in the modern age fills a useful niche in several fields, but does not live up to the promise of the introduction to dramatically revise our understanding of any of them. Manako Ogawa has done solid work in archives, secondary literature, and especially oral history interviews, in Japanese and English, and has constructed an efficient and readable history. The book starts with a “pre-history” of Japanese fishing cultures, then moves through the arrival, rise, and ascendancy of Japanese immigrants in Hawaiian fishing. World War II interrupts this progress, of course, and the post-war industry is transformed into a multi-ethnic enterprise, with an influx of workers from U.S.-occupied Okinawa taking the place of mainland Japanese or Hawai‘i Japanese apprentices.
For the most part, this is a new version of the familiar narrative of Japanese migrants who took up agriculture in early twentieth century California: adapting Japanese methods to dominate a previously underdeveloped industry; facing discrimination and competition on the basis of national origin; circumventing legal restrictions by transferring title to Nisei even though Nisei frequently preferred other work; massive loss of property and position due to racial displacement in World War II; and a postwar recovery marked by legal victories over prejudice and general economic success. Ogawa doesn’t make that comparison, unfortunately. She focuses on contrasts with the agriculturalists and professionals who moved from Japan to Hawai‘i, whom she characterizes as “static farmers” (p. 5) with a culture of collectivist patriarchy (p. 7). This is odd, as multi-directional and seasonal labor migration was well-established tradition in Japan and a prominent feature of the Hawai‘i Japanese [End Page 181] experience. Plantation work was a stepping stone to physical and educational mobility and immigrants who did remain in agriculture had a similarly hard time convincing their offspring to stay “down on the farm.”1
Ogawa situates this research as part of the rising tide of ocean-based histories, and argues that Japanese are fundamentally “maritime people” (p. 2) with the effect that the experience of fishing folk should be considered the central, not peripheral, experience of migration. “[T]he agricentric literature on the Japanese has often overlooked or obscured” seafaring people, she argues. (p. 2, though it’s “agrocentric” on p. 129) This is definitely a contribution to newer maritime studies of Japan, which includes recent works on classical trade, Tokugawa-era travel, and medieval piracy. Looking at Japan’s oceans as an historical field falls into the same category as women’s history fifty years ago; it seems absurd now that there was a time when we didn’t ask this question, but all questions start somewhere. Ogawa doesn’t return to this argument at the end and the lack of a strong, thoughtful conclusion is a serious structural flaw in a monograph with an aggressive historical thesis.
Ogawa admits sometimes that the numbers in fishing are small (p. 65), but suggests that maritime mobility proffers new ways of looking at oceans and travel. She argues effectively that the economic impact of the fishing industry under Japanese immigrant leadership is underappreciated, and that fishing communities were politically and economically independent of other Hawai‘i Japanese. Ogawa also highlights how women were independent economic actors within fishing communities, with substantial oral history interviews. Oral history from working women is a particularly welcome addition to the literature, though Ogawa gives only a passing nod to similar scholarship on Japanese immigrant women in agricultural and mercantile settings. All of these arguments would be more convincing if her depiction of non-fisher folk was more realistic, or the argument more subtly developed. For example, non-fishing Japanese were the most important consumers of fish and the political vanguard of Japanese power in the islands, which shouldn’t be...