Immigration Convention of 1886

The Treaty: Hawaiian-Japanese protocol that protected Japanese agricultural workers in the independent Hawaiian Islands

Date: 1886

Also known as: Treaty of Immigration

Significance: As a landmark agreement between two sovereign nations designed to protect the human rights of Japanese immigrants relocating to the kingdom of Hawaii, the Immigration Convention reflected less a lofty humanitarian imperative than a pragmatic economic necessity, as it guaranteed a steady stream of cheap immigrant laborers for Hawaii’s sugar plantations.

By the 1840’s, sugar cane was the primary agricultural export of the kingdom of Hawaii. Sugar planting was labor-intensive; crops required year-round maintenance, and plantation work was grueling under the best circumstances—backbreaking work and long hours in scorching temperatures. Initially, uneducated native Hawaiians provided most of the labor. However, when news of the California gold strikes reached the islands during the late 1840’s, waves of native Hawaiians headed to the mainland looking for easy riches, and leaving the islands’ sugar plantations in need of cheap labor. At that time, Japan was itself emerging from nearly two centuries of self-imposed isolation from the West, and leaving its new Meiji government was ready to pursue Westernization. In 1867, Japan signed an accord with the government of Hawaii to send Japanese laborers to work the sugar plantations. On June 19, 1868, the first immigrants, 153 men, landed in Hawaii.

With little agricultural background and none in the exacting work of harvesting sugar efficiently, the Japanese workers were quickly unsettled by their experiences on the islands. Hampered by language differences, the Japanese workers were routinely whipped to get them to work more efficiently, and they suffered from high rates of accidents. In addition, the Japanese workers had difficulty adjusting to the tropical climate. Indeed, their working conditions recall the antebellum slave plantation system of a generation earlier in the American South. Many of the first immigrants wanted to return to Japan, and word quickly spread about the harsh conditions. The Japanese government launched an investigation into the allegations of cruelty. During the late 1870’s, it threatened to stop sending workers to Hawaii.

Despite these problems, Japanese immigration to Hawaii continued to rise, largely because of Japan’s own economic problems caused by the country’s rush to industrialize. By the early 1880’s, an estimated 28,000 Japanese laborers worked Hawaii’s sugar plantations. Because plantation work was shunned by native Hawaiians, the islands’ government understood that it needed to address the concerns of the Japanese government. In 1886, the Hawaiian government intervened on behalf of the Japanese workers at the urging of Katsunosuke Inouye, a special commissioner sent by Japan to investigate plantation conditions. The ensuing accord, the Immigration Convention, redefined the Japanese plantation workers as wards of the government and the planters as agents of the government, thus putting the practices on the plantations under direct government control and scrutiny.

The agreement represented an unprecedented act of intervention by a government to protect the human rights of an immigrant population. However, although the new directive provided a system for reporting abuses and a protocol for accountability, it was largely voided within a year. Nevertheless, Japanese immigration to the islands continued to increase because of bad economic conditions in Japan. By the turn of the twentieth century, nearly 60,000 Japanese worked on the islands.

Joseph Dewey

Further Reading

  • Jung, Moon-Ho. Coolies and Cane: Race, Labor, and Sugar in the Age of Emancipation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008. 
  • 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: Anti-Japanese movement; Asian immigrants; Asiatic Exclusion League; Gentlemen’s Agreement; Hawaii; History of immigration, 1783-1891; Imingaisha; Immigration Act of 1882; Japanese immigrants; “Yellow peril” campaign.

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