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Hawaii is a tropical paradise that draws tourists from around the world, but you may have noticed the especially large number of Japanese visitors and residents.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: There are many Japanese people in Hawaii due to the strong historical, economic and cultural ties between Japan and Hawaii that date back over 150 years.

In this approximately 3000 word article, we will explore the fascinating history behind the Japanese influence in Hawaii and the reasons why so many Japanese chose to immigrate to the islands over the past century and a half.

The First Japanese in Hawaii

Have you ever wondered why there are so many Japanese people in Hawaii? The answer lies in the history of immigration to the islands.

Let’s explore the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants in 1868 and their significant contribution to Hawaii’s sugar plantations.

Arrival of the First Japanese Immigrants in 1868


In 1868, the first group of Japanese immigrants arrived in Hawaii. They were known as the “Gannenmono”, which translates to “first-year people”.

These immigrants were mostly young men from the southern region of Japan who sought better economic opportunities in the Hawaiian islands.

The Meiji government in Japan encouraged their departure, hoping they would gain valuable experience abroad and bring back newfound knowledge to benefit Japan’s modernization efforts.

The journey to Hawaii was long and arduous, with the immigrants enduring months at sea on crowded ships. Upon their arrival, they faced a challenging adjustment period, as they were unfamiliar with the language, culture, and customs of their new home.

Despite these challenges, the Gannenmono persevered and laid the foundation for future generations of Japanese immigrants in Hawaii.

Working on Hawaii’s Sugar Plantations

Upon their arrival, the Gannenmono found employment on Hawaii’s sugar plantations, which were a vital part of the island’s economy at the time.

These immigrants brought with them their strong work ethic and agricultural skills, which proved invaluable to the success of the sugar industry.

The Japanese workers quickly gained a reputation for their hard work and dedication.

They were often assigned to the most labor-intensive tasks, such as clearing land, planting, and harvesting sugar cane.

Their contributions helped to increase productivity and profitability for the plantation owners.

Over time, more Japanese immigrants followed in the footsteps of the Gannenmono, seeking employment opportunities on Hawaii’s sugar plantations. They formed close-knit communities and established cultural traditions that are still celebrated today.

According to the 1920 U.S. Census, there were over 61,000 people of Japanese descent in Hawaii, making up almost 43% of the population. Today, the Japanese community continues to play an integral role in the cultural, social, and economic fabric of Hawaii.

If you are interested in learning more about the history of Japanese immigration to Hawaii, you can visit the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii website. They have a wealth of information and resources that delve deeper into this fascinating topic.

Anti-Japanese Sentiment and Exclusion

Rising Tensions in the Early 1900s:

In the early 1900s, anti-Japanese sentiment began to rise in Hawaii due to various economic and social factors.

As Japanese immigrants started to arrive in larger numbers, they faced discrimination and exclusion from certain industries and social circles. This was fueled by the perception that Japanese workers were taking jobs away from local Hawaiians and other ethnic groups.

Additionally, cultural differences and language barriers further contributed to the growing tensions between the Japanese community and the rest of the population.

During this time, laws and regulations were put in place to restrict Japanese immigrants’ rights and opportunities.

The Alien Land Law of 1913, for example, prohibited Japanese immigrants from owning land, which severely limited their ability to establish themselves economically.

These discriminatory practices persisted for many years, creating a challenging environment for the Japanese community in Hawaii.

World War II Internment:

One of the darkest chapters in the history of the Japanese community in Hawaii was the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the United States government deemed Japanese-Americans, including those in Hawaii, as potential threats to national security.

As a result, over 120,000 Japanese-Americans, including both immigrants and their American-born children, were forcibly relocated and interned in camps across the country.

In Hawaii, around 1,500 Japanese-Americans were interned, mainly from the islands of Oahu and Maui. The internment camps were often overcrowded and lacked basic necessities, causing immense hardship for those imprisoned.

Families were separated, businesses were lost, and lives were upended. The internment experience deeply scarred the Japanese community in Hawaii and had long-lasting effects on their social and economic well-being.

It is important to note that the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II was later recognized as a grave injustice by the U.S. government.

In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, formally apologizing for the internment and providing reparations to those affected.

This acknowledgment was a significant step towards healing and reconciliation for the Japanese community in Hawaii and the nation as a whole.

Post-War Rebound of Japanese Influence

After World War II, Japan faced a long and arduous road to recovery. However, the country’s resilience and determination led to an incredible rebound, not only in its economy but also in its global influence.

The effects of this rebound can be seen in various parts of the world, including the significant presence of Japanese people in Hawaii.

Japanese Investment in Hawaii

One of the key factors contributing to the large number of Japanese people in Hawaii is the significant investment made by Japanese companies in the state.

Japanese businesses recognized the potential for growth and expansion in Hawaii and seized the opportunity to establish a presence there. This investment not only brought economic benefits to Hawaii but also created job opportunities for both locals and Japanese immigrants.

Japanese companies such as Toyota, Honda, and Sony have established manufacturing plants and offices in Hawaii, contributing to the state’s economy and providing employment opportunities.

This investment has further strengthened the ties between Japan and Hawaii, attracting more Japanese individuals and families to settle in the state.

Read moreHow Much Of Hawaii Is Owned By Japanese Investors?

Continued Immigration

Even after the initial wave of Japanese immigrants to Hawaii, there has been a continued influx of Japanese individuals and families seeking new opportunities and a better quality of life.

Hawaii’s diverse culture, warm climate, and strong sense of community make it an attractive destination for many Japanese people.

Furthermore, the close proximity of Hawaii to Japan makes it a more accessible choice for Japanese individuals who wish to maintain close ties with their home country.

The ease of travel and the ability to maintain cultural connections play a significant role in driving continued immigration from Japan to Hawaii.

The Japanese community in Hawaii has also played an active role in promoting cultural exchange and preserving their heritage. Numerous Japanese cultural festivals, language schools, and organizations exist in Hawaii, providing a sense of belonging and connection for Japanese immigrants and their descendants.

Modern Cultural and Economic Ties

Japan culture

Japan and Hawaii share a deep and longstanding relationship that has resulted in a significant Japanese population in the Hawaiian islands. This connection can be attributed to various factors, including tourism and ongoing cultural exchange.


One of the main reasons for the presence of a large Japanese community in Hawaii is the thriving tourism industry. Hawaii has always been a popular destination for Japanese tourists, thanks to its beautiful beaches, tropical climate, and vibrant culture.

The close proximity to Japan, coupled with direct flights and visa-free travel, makes it an appealing choice for Japanese travelers. In fact, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority, Japanese visitors accounted for nearly 20% of all tourists in Hawaii in 2019.

The Japanese influence on Hawaii’s tourism industry is evident in various aspects, from the availability of Japanese-language tour guides and signage to the presence of Japanese-owned hotels, restaurants, and shops.

This has created a welcoming environment for Japanese visitors, making them feel at home and encouraging them to return year after year.

Ongoing Cultural Exchange

The cultural ties between Japan and Hawaii can be traced back to the late 19th century when the first wave of Japanese immigrants arrived in the islands.

Over the years, the Japanese community in Hawaii has grown and flourished, contributing significantly to the cultural diversity of the state.

Ongoing cultural exchange programs and initiatives between Japan and Hawaii have further strengthened the bond between the two regions.

These programs include student exchange programs, cultural festivals, and collaborative projects in various fields, such as arts, music, and sports.

They provide opportunities for people from both Japan and Hawaii to learn about each other’s cultures, traditions, and way of life.

The Japanese community in Hawaii actively preserves and celebrates its cultural heritage through events such as the annual Honolulu Festival, which showcases the diversity of Hawaii’s multicultural society.

This celebration brings together people from different ethnic backgrounds, including Japanese, to promote understanding and appreciation of each other’s cultures.

Furthermore, the Japanese government and private organizations have been instrumental in promoting cultural exchange between Japan and Hawaii.

The Japan Foundation and the Consulate General of Japan in Honolulu, for example, support various cultural and educational initiatives that foster mutual understanding and friendship between the two regions.


As we have explored, the Japanese influence in Hawaii has deep historical roots but remains a prominent part of the islands’ modern culture and economy.

Over 150 years, hundreds of thousands of Japanese immigrants made Hawaii their new home and contributed their traditions, values, and labor.

Though anti-Japanese prejudice led to their mass internment during World War II, the Japanese rebounded quickly postwar to reestablish themselves through investment and immigration.

Hawaii continues to hold special meaning for the Japanese, seen as an appealing vacation destination and lasting symbol of the immigration success story.

With tourism booming and Japanese culture leaving an indelible mark on Hawaii over the generations, the close ties between the islands and Japan seem likely to continue flourishing.

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