Field Work & Family Work:
Picture Brides on Hawaii's Sugar Plantations

by Teresa Bill

Between 1908 and 1924 nearly 20,000 Japanese, Okinawan and Korean women arrived in Hawaii as "picture brides" while thousands of others also migrated to the U.S. Mainland. Photographs extended traditional matchmaking across oceans and reflect women's participation in 20th century immigrant communities. In Hawaii, this concentrated emigration of young Japanese women and the subsequent growth of families changed the composition of sugar plantation communities from primarily single male laborers to a mix of families and laborers. Immediately upon arrival in Hawaii, women contributed both paid and unpaid labor to their families and communities. Their work in the cane fields and in their homes ensured the economic survival of their families and the development of a sustained family community on Hawaii's sugar plantations.


4:00 am          Women wake to prepare breakfast & lunch
5:00 am Whistle! Wake-up
6:00 am Gather at train or walk to field
11:00 am Whistle! Kaukau
11:30am Whistle! Kaukau pau -- go back to work
4:30 pm Whistle! Pau Hana
Go to furo/bath
Fix dinner
Garden, sew & other family care
8:00 pm Whistle! Lights Out
Continue family care activities as necessary

PAID LABOR: Field Work & Kitchen Work

Immigrants came to Hawaii to earn money and the wives of sugar workers, including Japanese picture brides, constituted a key financial resource. While young men married to establish households and obtain the benefits of marriage--home cooked meals, sexual relations and a family --they also expected, and needed, their young brides to contribute to the family coffers.

In 1910, one-third of all employed Japanese women worked in the sugar fields. Assignment to a "women's field gang" immediately upon arrival was typical. Women on the sugar plantations earned 50¢ for a 10-hour work day and were expected to work six days a week. A full month's pay of $13 was based on 26 days of work and equalled 66% of Japanese men's wages. Women typically weeded the fields (hoe hana), irrigated (hanawai), stripped the cane of dry leaves (holehole) or cut seed cane (pula pula). However when women worked with their husbands in contract (konpan) gangs, they did everything, including the heavy work of cutting, carrying and loading cane.
The canefields were a social space as well as worksite. With families to care for, women had little free time and fieldwork offered daily contact with other women. The companionship of others is what women most often remember about their field work days. As picture brides, women often emigrated to new communities without the support of sisters or mothers. They created new networks of friends from their prefectures to replace the assistance of friends and female relatives back home.

Pregnancy necessitated a decision between fieldwork and other income-earning activities. Not only was field work hard physical labor, but watching over a child in the fields was difficult and required a sympathetic luna. While a number of "progressive" plantations offered childcare, not everyone had access or could afford the fees. Thus, women used a number of childcare strategies including tying their infants to their backs or leaving their younger children in the care of an older sibling or a neighbor. Other women left the canefields and earned money providing laundry, meals or clothing for the "bachelor" men on the plantations. For many women, this was the only way to combine family responsibilities with income earning.

While the emigration of Japanese women during the picture bride era changed the composition of the plantation camps there still remained a large community of single male laborers. In 1910 men outnumbered adult women 2-to-1 in the Territory and in some communities, the sex ratio was even more skewed. Concurrent with picture bride emigration, sugar planters recruited young single Filipino laborers. A 1927 census of all 43 sugar plantations reported that while the ratio of Japanese men to women was 1.5:1, Filipino men outnumbered Filipinas 7 to1 and unfortunately for men on the neighbor islands, most Filipino women lived on Oahu. Both Filipinas and Japanese women earned money providing domestic services--laundry, clothing and meals--to single men. The money women earned, from fieldwork, laundry or a combination of both, was essential for their families' survival.

UNPAID LABOR: For Family & Community

In addition to their income-earning activities, women also performed unpaid work at home as they maintained the wellbeing of their families. After an exhausting 10 hours in the fields women returned home to care for the household needs of their family--cooking, cleaning, sewing and child development. These family responsibilities extended women's work days into the dark hours of night. A woman's household labor benefits not only her family, but also her family's employer as she provides the daily necessities--food, clothing, emotional care--to replenish the worker. Women's "reproductive labor" extended beyond their biological capabilities to include the care and maintenance of workers and family members.

The entire community benefits from women's unpaid "reproductive" labor as women build stable communities and maintain cultural practices within their families and communities. Temples, prefectural associations and cultural groups depend upon women's community work and perpetuatation of cultural traditions, especially in immigrant communities.

Labor Organizing for a Better Life

After 1900 various plantations found married men to be more dependable. With families to feed, they couldn't afford to take days off or cause trouble. But family responsibilities cut both ways. With families to feed, workers needed larger paychecks. Not surprisingly, increased wages were the primary demands of both the 1909 and 1920 sugar strikes.

Constituting 70% of the workforce, the Japanese organized the 1909 strike amongst themselves but were broken by the united efforts of the Hawaii Sugar Planters Association (HSPA). However, three months after the strike, HSPA raised wages and abolished wage differentials based on race (although wages for women were usually uniform). Both the restrictions on Japanese immigration and the solidarity of the Japanese strikers encouraged the HSPA to diversify its workforce and begin recruiting in the Philippines.

Sugar workers did not organize a multiethnic, unified labor union until 1946 under the auspices of the International Longshoremen's & Warehousemen's Union (ILWU). Worker ethnocentricity combined with the history of sugar planters' history of playing one ethnic group against another as strikebreakers kept workers wary of each other, socializing separately and organizing separate labor unions.

However, in 1920 both Japanese and Filipino workers participated in a coordinated, 6-month long strike on Oahu (with workers on the neighbor islands sending funds). But the existence of two separate "ethnic unions," the Japanese Federation of Labor and the Filipino Labor Union, did not facilitate a unified walk-out. The strength of the workers and the preparation of the Federation of Japanese Labor is manifest in the 12,000 workers the plantations had to evict and the $11.5 million estimated loss by the plantations.

As 20% of the Japanese sugar workforce, Japanese women participated in the 1920 sugar strike in large numbers. The Japanese Federation of Labor initially included paid maternity leave ( 2 weeks prior & 6 weeks post-partum) as a strike demand. The key issue in the 1920 strike, the demand for higher wages, was based on the need to provide for workers' families.

The number of Japanese women working in the sugar fields decreases rapidly after 1920. As the immigrant generation ages, widowhood was the most likely reason to remain working for the plantations. Young Japanese American daughters work in domestic service and pineapple canneries. Young women only return to the plantations after 1932 when the Depression forces many second generation men and women (nisei), back to the plantations for stable but low-waged work. However, an occupational shift occurred as these young women did not work in the fields but in plantation offices and stores.

The early 20th century was a time of immense social change in Hawaii's sugar plantations. Annexation of Hawaii as a Territory of the U.S. abolished contract labor and workers were theoretically free to leave plantations whenever they could afford to do so. This change in the employer/employee relationship encouraged responsible plantations begin to consider workers' needs to entice them to stay on their plantations. The 1907 Gentlemen's Agreement restricted the immigration of Japanese male laborers who responded by sending for wives and family.

There is always a tension between the controlling, very powerful forces of employers who control where workers live and work, and the human side of this social interaction we call work and community-building. Even with limited choices, people interact and build lives for themselves.

It is part of our immigrant folklore to expect a mismatch of a young beautiful woman with an older, work-wearied husband whose matchmaking photo was taken many years before. The folklore of romance includes the not uncommon tales of those couples who grew to love and cherish each other. However, no community is immune form the social ills of abuse, alcoholism, gambling and the stress of a new marriage in a new country. Both these extremes, as well as the middle ground, are the history and legacy of immigrant picture brides as they labored in the canefields and in their homes to develop of a strong family community in the sugar plantations of Hawaii.