JANM features Issei clothing from Hawaiian plantations

Barbara Kawakami, photo courtesy of JANM

LOS ANGELES — An exhibit featuring textiles and clothing used by Japanese immigrants to Hawai‘i from the late 19th century through the early 20th century, collected and documented by Barbara Kawakami, is on display at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) in Little Tokyo through Aug. 22.

The exhibit, “Textured Lives: Japanese Immigrant Clothing from the Plantations of Hawai‘i,” presents artifacts from the Kawakami collection and highlights the experience of the Issei immigrants in Hawai‘i. This foremost expert on the subject, who was born in Japan and grew up on an Oahu sugar plantation and was a dressmaker for 38 years, donated her personal collection to JANM in 2004.

Kawakami, author of “Japanese Immigrant Clothing in Hawai‘i 1885-1941,” recognized that the Japanese immigrants, who arrived in the Islands as early as 1868 and began coming in significant numbers from 1885 to supply sugarcane and pineapple plantation labor, were fast disappearing and their plantation clothing was a neglected subject. She even traveled to Japan to research their stories and gather samples of early Issei clothing.

She discovered that their garments were among the only material goods these Issei brought with them from their homeland. Once they settled in a tropical climate, they refashioned even their traditional kimono for the rigorous work conditions on the plantations and adopted the ideas and styles of plantation workers from other regions of the world.

Shochikubai Symbolism

Kawakami’s exhibit includes a white wedding kimono, one of three worn by Shizu Kaigo during her wedding in 1916, along with a black Montsuki (formal five-crested kimono) hand-painted with pine trees, and a red silk wedding Montsuki hand-painted with bamboo.

The three wedding kimono were the only set anyone had brought over from Japan to Hawai‘i, explained Kawakami. “It’s a beautiful shochikubai — the pine, bamboo and plum blossom designs that symbolize the virtues of physical and spiritual discipline and endurance. For the picture brides [women in Japan who married Issei bachelors living in Hawai‘i sight unseen, except for exchanges of photographs], because the Confucian ethic was so strongly instilled in them, their weddings used all of that symbolism.”

The exhibit also shows a black funeral haori (coat worn over a kimono); and an indigo blue kasuri (cotton, silk or linen fabric with “splash pattern” produced by tying and dyeing the yarn before weaving) kimono brought to Hawai‘i by Kimiyo Hamamura Okuno from Hiroshima in 1898 (her kimono is the oldest in Kawakami’s collection).

The Issei used practical approaches to working on a plantation by assembling clothing that protected them from the hot sun, sharp sugarcane leaves and the bites and stings from centipedes and scorpions.

A kasuri jacket is among the items made by Kin Watanabe around 1920 in Waipahu, on Oahu. One of the first adaptations in the early 1900s was to turn the kimono into something similar to Chinese women’s fitted jackets with mandarin collars.

Kawakami notes the differences in immigrants’ kimono from the four main islands of Japan and those from Okinawa, where clothing would have open sleeves since the tropical climate would require more ventilation. Exhibited Okinawa wear includes the Bashofu, a rare banana plantain hand-woven fabric brought by picture bride Matsu Miyashiro Kiyunu in 1909, used while toiling in the Kohala Sugar Plantation on the Big Island of Hawai‘i.

One of Nine Children

One of Todasaku Oyama and Matsu Saito Oyama’s nine children, Kawakami was born in Okkogamura of Kumamoto prefecture, Japan in 1921, and came to Hawai‘i with her parents when she was two months old. Her father returned to Japan after the 1920 major strike on all the plantations in Hawai‘i, but came back to Hawai‘i a few months later, in December 1921.

From a young age, Kawakami had an interest in plantation workers’ clothing. “I used to get up early with my father (who worked at the Oahu Sugar Company) and sit on the back porch to watch the workers walking by our house to take a train to the sugar cane fields,” Kawakami remembered. “At 5 or 6 years old, I could identify which people worked in the fields from their clothing.”

The women were dressed in kasuri outfits, she recalled. “They brought kimono from Japan and they couldn’t afford to buy western materials, so they would take apart the clothes they wore back in the village in Japan. Most of them knew how to weave their own cloth.”

When Kawakami’s father died in 1928 at age 63, it was especially hard for her mother, who became a widow at age 39 and was pregnant with her ninth child. “My mother struggled on her $25 monthly plantation pension, so she started taking in laundry, mainly from Filipino bachelors,” Kawakami related.

At the time, the plantations kept their workforce segregated, Kawakami recalled. “We lived in the Japanese camp, and they had an Okinawan camp, Portuguese camp, Puerto Rican camp, Spanish camp, Filipino camp and a small Korean camp.”

After graduating from the eighth grade in 1936, Kawakami received her standard dressmaking certificate from a local private sewing school in 10 months, and earned a certificate within six months from Kiester’s Tailoring College in Honolulu, at age 15.

After sewing at home in Waipahu one year, she went to work for a dressmaker in Wahiawa, on Oahu, near Schofield Barracks military base. “Miss Furukawa was a wonderful dressmaker,” related Kawakami, who now lives in Mililani, on Oahu. “She had a lot of the officers’ wives come to her shop … That’s where I really learned the skills of practical sewing. After one year, I did dressmaking at home until I got married at age 22 to Douglas Kawakami.”

During wartime, she was considered an enemy alien (her brothers and sisters were American citizens). “I couldn’t go anywhere after 6 p.m. because there was a curfew … and I couldn’t work near any military installations,” she recounted. “It was very hard for me.”

After the war, she opened a dressmaking shop in Waipahu and sewed for many military officers’ wives. “They used to come in chauffeur-driven cars in those days. Today, I don’t think they do that,” she said.

Becoming a naturalized American citizen in 1955 and passing the  General Equivalency Diploma test to gain her high school diploma in 1959, Kawakami eventually visited her birthplace for the first time in 1972. “Returning to Kumamoto the first time was very emotional. When the train passed the farmlands with people harvesting the rice fields … the tears flowed down, as I thought that I’m going to see my birthplace from where I was brought to Hawai‘i when I was two months old,” she said.

Encouraged by her youngest son, Kawakami enrolled at Leeward Community College at age 53, and soon moved on to the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa, where Dr. Ellen Des Jarlais suggested that the bilingual, plantation-reared, former dressmaker should write a book on Japanese immigrant clothing.

Attaining her bachelor of science degree in textile and clothing in 1979, the middle-aged graduate student helped a Women’s Studies professor produce a slide show about the picture brides from Japan, Okinawa and Korea. Then she participated in the master’s program in Asian studies, during which she researched for one month at Suye Mura in Kumamoto prefecture.

“How my parents lived in Hawai‘i during the early period was exactly what I saw in Suye Mura,” she said. “They were cooking rice on the open fire outdoors. They did weaving on the hand loom in the village … By the time I was ready to write the book, I felt like I had firsthand knowledge.”

Kawakami, who donated 350-plus items to JANM, noted that many of the kimono are more than 100 years old, original, hand-woven and hand-dyed. “I had some beautiful kimono that I wore when I was 10 or 11.”

JANM President and CEO Akemi Kikumura Yano stated, “We are honored to have material from the Barbara Kawakami Collection displayed in our exhibition, ‘Textured Lives.’ Her work in researching a vital chapter in the history of the Japanese in the United States is invaluable. It is likely that much of this information would have been lost without Barbara Kawakami.”

Winner of the 1994 Outstanding Book Award from the Association for Asian American Studies in Ann Arbor, Mich., Kawakami also received the Hawai‘i Publishers Guild Award for the Best Reference Book the same year. She plans to have her exhibit in Hawai‘i next year, possibly at the Academy of Arts, and is currently working on a book about the picture brides.

Kawakami is a consultant on Japanese immigrant clothing for Hawai‘i Public Television, Waipahu Cultural Garden Park, Bishop Museum, and JANM.

JANM is located at 369 E. First St. in downtown Los Angeles. For more information, call (213) 625-0414 or visit www.janm.org.

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