Imingaisha

Definition: Japanese-based corporate organizations that recruited emigrant workers for Hawaii’s sugar cane industry during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries

Significance: The workers sent to Hawaii by the imingaisha began an era of organized Japanese economic emigration that reversed imperial Japan’s long-standing restrictions on population movement outside the country and marked the beginning of the Japanese community in the United States.

During the latter part of the nineteenth century, the expansion of the sugar cane industry in the independent kingdom of Hawaii created a demand for foreign workers because the islands’ native population were unable to keep up with the new demands for manpower. Of the many nationalities considered for recruitment, the Japanese were seen as most desirable. However, the Japanese government’s legal restrictions on emigration posed significant obstacles.

After the failure of several unsanctioned attempts by private individuals to bring Japanese workers to Hawaii during the 1860’s, an agreement was reached between Japan and the kingdom of Hawaii permitting workers to emigrate under imperial sanction while governed by ministry officials. After this initial period of Japanese government- sponsored emigration ended in 1894, a new system was set in place to address concerns of possible exploitation of Japanese workers. By that time, Hawaii’s monarchy had been replaced by a republican government. In 1898, the U.S. government would annex the islands and make them an American territory. Meanwhile, the independent Hawaiian government was concerned about the danger of allowing so many Japanese workers to enter the islands that they would shift the balance of racial and ethnic groups in the population.

The new arrangement was built on fifty-one independent private corporations that were created to maintain the flow of contract workers (and the economic benefits to Japan their remittances provided), with the five earliest such firms appearing between 1891 and 1894. The original imperial ordinance of 1894 governing the trade in workers was expanded and became law on April 29, 1896, as Imin hogoho, the Emigration Protection Law. It defined imin as persons who emigrated to foreign countries other than China or Korea for the purpose of labor, and whatever members of their families accompanied or later joined them abroad. Typical imingaisha firms operated by negotiating with the owners of more than fifty separate Hawaiian sugar plantations to establish their manpower needs. They then sent recruiters to rural Japanese villages in selected prefectures to contract predominantly male workers, arranging their transportation to Hawaii, while making profits on the entire enterprise.

The Japanese government saw the emigrants as helping to address both the unemployment problems of rural Japan, while providing a new source of income to assist in the nation’s modernization efforts. The degree of popularity of this form of overseas labor can be seen in the fact that the companies eventually transported some 124,000 Japanese workers to Hawaii. The change of Hawaii from an independent republic to an American territory on July 7, 1898, led to the extension of an 1885 U.S. law prohibiting foreign contract employment (a measure originally intended to interdict Chinese laborers) to Hawaii, over the protests of the sugar planters, who tried unsuccessfully to have their workforce exempted from this law.

Paradoxically, the end of the imingaisha era came when these same workers’ complaints against them for violating the Emigration Protection Law resulted in the formation of the Japanese Reform Association in 1905, while many workers started coming to Hawaii unbound by labor contracts, thereby simply bypassing the organized emigration process completely. The 1907 Gentlemen’s Agreement between the United States and Japan banned the movement of Japanese from Hawaii to the mainland but also eliminated the issuance of passports for laborers intending to enter the American market.

Robert B. Ridinger

Further Reading

  • Jung, Moon-Ho. Coolies and Cane: Race, Labor, and Sugar in the Age of Emancipation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008. 
  • Moriyama, Alan Takeo. Imingaisha: Japanese Emigration Companies and Hawaii, 1894-1908. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1985. 
  • Okihiro, Gary Y. Cane Fires: The Anti-Japanese Movement in Hawaii, 1865-1945. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992. 
  • Van Sant, John E. Pacific Pioneers: Japanese Journeys to America and Hawaii, 1850-1880. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2000. 

See also: Asian immigrants; Contract labor system; Farm and migrant workers; Gentlemen’s Agreement; Hawaii; Immigration Convention of 1886; Issei; Japanese immigrants.

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