History professor Dr. Yukari Takai pursues research on gender, migration and borders in Japanese Hawaii
Dr. Yukari Takai is delving into the shifting personal worlds of Japanese immigrants in the sugar cane fields of Hawai‘i and its urban capital of Honolulu, which once cultivated a culture that facilitated the casting aside the idealized traditional role for women. Her project, entitled “Many Ties of Intimacy: Gender and Social Relations of Japanese Women and Men in Hawai`i, 1885-1924,” is funded by a Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada Insight Development Grant of $71,000. The research began in 2014 and Takai expects to complete the project in 2021.
Takai says, “A small but increasing number of Japanese women who migrated to the Hawaiian Islands prompted many working class issei (first generation) Japanese to deviate from the Meiji Japan’s state-promoted ideology of ‘good wives and wise mothers.’” For every Japanese woman in Hawai‘i there were about 20 Japanese men. “Given the gender ratio, it wasn't difficult for them to run away if they didn't like their husbands.”
Takai’s on-going project is the first significant historical examination of the complex gender and social relations involving Japanese women and men in Hawai‘i. It challenges the familiar portrayal of Japanese issei women as hardworking wives and sacrificing mothers. In doing so, she offers a new perspective to understand Japanese women and men within and beyond the nexus of migration and marriage.
Takai says the year 1885 marked the beginning of the Japanese government sponsored and regulated immigration to Hawai‘i known as kanyaku imin (官約移民), replaced about a decade later by so-called free immigration promoted by private companies. Thousands of men and women arrived in Hawai‘i as contract labourers on three-year contracts. Among them, a small but growing number of women had arranged marriages and met their husbands for the first time as they stepped off the boat. “While many women got along with their husbands, many others did not,” says Takai.
Dr. Takai is exploring unique sources in Japanese and English including the lyrics of songs called holehole bushi. “It's an extremely rich source because the songs were created and sung largely by women working together in the cane fields,” Takai states. “In some of the holehole songs, they would sing phrases to lovers such as ‘come see me on Sunday while my husband will be away….’"
The melody of helehole songs resembles tunes sung by workers on fishing boats in the southwestern part of Japan, especially near Hiroshima, which was the place of departure for the largest number of Japanese migrants to Hawaii. The lyrics are mostly in Japanese mixed with words in Hawaiian, Chinese and other languages.
Takai considers it extremely important to place Japanese migration in the context of border-crossing, both across the Pacific and across the Canada-U.S. border, because the trajectories of many Japanese Hawaiians included leaving the islands for Victoria or Vancouver and then crossing the land border southward into the United States. “This suggests that Hawai‘i emerged as a kind of an ocean-bound borderland which linked Japan to Canada and to the United States,” Takai says. “North America’s many borders and borderlands are connected to one another.” Takai emphasizes that to understand local and regional border issues, one has to pursue new knowledge from transnational and transcontinental perspectives about the impact of global migration, increased border control and restrictions around the world.
Takai is excited that two undergraduate history students, Alexi Erickson and Jillian Parker, have joined the project as research assistants. She looks forward to completing this project and sharing the findings with her students at Windsor and scholars in North America and Japan and beyond. Early findings from the research have been presented at national and international conferences organized by the Canadian Historical Association, the European Social Science History Association and the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, Gender, and Sexualities.
Dr. Yukari Takai is a historian of the modern United States, transnational migration, women, gender and race. She joined the University of Windsor’s History department in 2015. Before coming to Windsor, Takai taught at York University in Toronto, Aichi Prefectural University in Nagoya, and Sapporo International University in Sapporo, Japan.