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VOICES FROM THE CANEFIELDS: FOLK SONGS FROM JAPANESE IMMIGRANT WORKERS IN HAWAI‘I

VOICES FROM THE CANEFIELDS: FOLK SONGS FROM JAPANESE IMMIGRANT WORKERS IN HAWAI‘I

VOICES FROM THE CANEFIELDS: FOLK SONGS FROM JAPANESE IMMIGRANT WORKERS IN HAWAI‘I 

By Franklin Odo 

(New York: Oxford University Press, 2013, 272 pp., $55, hardcover) 

In his most recent book, Franklin Odo, the former director of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program, historically charts the role of holehole bushi, Japanese folk songs on the sugar plantations, by revealing the lived experiences of the Japanese immigrant workers, many of them Issei, from 1885 with the arrival of the first large wave of Japanese immigration to the Hawaiian Islands. 

By relying on the extensive research and documentation of the many holehole bushi songs of Harry Minoru Urata, Odo carefully uses the folk songs as historical documents to convey the “beliefs, values, prejudices, dreams, and nightmares” of these early Japanese immigrant pioneers. 

The book is organized as a historical narrative of the immigration of Japanese into the Hawaiian Islands through the vehicle of the holehole bushi by highlighting transnational flows of labor between Japan and Hawai‘i, plantation life, reflections of the Issei’s experiences, the maintenance of cultural productions and the longevity of ethnic folk music. This creative approach makes the history of Japanese immigration quite accessible to a larger public audience, while providing another important scholastic work for academics as well. 

“Voices from the Canefields” does a great job in providing Japanese women voices and perspectives during the sugar cane plantation era. By thinking against the romantic image of the “Meiji woman,” who historically has been constructed as a symbol of “extreme dedication, enormous strength of will, patient self-sacrifice, and duty to family,” Odo allows the reader to understand that not every Issei woman fit neatly into this category. The Issei women would use holehole bushi to deal with trauma, despair, sexual desires, lust, economic opportunities, hope, relationships and community issues. 

Besides gender, Odo also contemplates the role of sexuality and lust in Japanese American history by posing a provocative question: “Why is (love and lust) not more widely acknowledged as a legitimate element of the Japanese immigrant heritage? Perhaps our scholars or curators have trouble imagining their parents or grandparents involved in significant acts involving the body or issues challenging mores of ethics or morality.” Odo’s question is an important intervention in broadening our understandings of the Issei generation in Hawai‘i. 

For a mainland audience, especially in the Bay Area, “Voices” shows the different trajectories of holehole bushi that is not only confined within the cultural and spatial boundaries of Hawai‘i but that have also migrated to the mainland. Odo shows that holehole bushi even surfaced in the Japanese American incarceration during World War II. With the draft resisters at Heart Mountain, Wyo., Odo discovered that two draft resisters, one from Hawai‘i, created a holehole bushi entitled “The Song of Cheyenne,” which documented the experiences of protesting the unconstitutional incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans during the war. 

The book is a vital addition to any interested persons’ library in Japanese American studies; furthermore, I commend Odo’s courageous scholastic endeavor in attempting to complicate the generalized narrative of the Issei struggle of hard work, perseverance, and overcoming insurmountable burdens and pressures on the sugar cane plantations. Odo even acknowledges in his conclusion that, “more than a few of the last survivors might have taken exception to the amount of attention provided in this book to the seamier sides of the Issei experience.” However, Odo’s book does a great service by pushing the Japanese American community to critically engage our history, whether that be in Hawai‘i or in San Jose. By pushing our understandings, “Voices from the Canefields” offers a more complex, holistic, and full account of our Japanese immigrant pioneers at the turn of the 20th century. 

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