Home in Hawaii: Japanese American women share their stories

A filmmaker is working to spotlight a group of Japanese American women who have lived through a unique period in history in Hawaii. Their stories are humble – and sometimes heartbreaking.

"I became a maid when I was sixteen. At that time, I didn't have a bed at home, so I just slept on a mat on the floor."
Tomoe Oketani, 96, is a second-generation Japanese American—known as Nikkei Nisei—who was born and raised in Hawaii.

Her parents immigrated from Hiroshima Prefecture. Her father worked on a sugarcane plantation, and her mother did the housekeeping at home. When she was a young child, she began helping her father harvest sugarcane under the strong sun. After graduating 9th grade, she started working as a maid at the sugar plantation owner's house. She worked hard, and by the time she had children she was able to give them the education she had never had access to.

Tomoe Oketani
Second-generation Japanese American Tomoe Oketani began working in the sugar fields as a young child.

Japanese American struggles between Japan and US

Japanese immigration to Hawaii began in 1868, the first year of the Meiji era and a time of great turmoil. For people mired in poverty, the lure of life on the sugar plantations of Hawaii proved attractive. The immigrants worked hard, primarily in agriculture at first, but as they began to win the trust of the locals, they moved into other industries. By around 1920, people of Japanese descent represented an estimated 40 percent of the population and were active in all parts of society.

When the Pacific War begun, many Nisei men enlisted for the United States to demonstrate their loyalty — which was being questioned after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Two units in particular, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Infantry Battalion, were comprised almost entirely of men of Japanese descent. They became synonymous with bravery, and are still the most decorated of their size in US military history.

Women's histories often ignored

Japanese independent filmmaker Matsumoto Hiroyuki has been researching the history of the Nisei for more than a decade and found that it's usually the stories of the men that get told. The women's voices are all but ignored.

"But the women remember important details, such as how Japanese families lived after the first wave of immigration, and the hardships during the war," he says. "I felt strongly that their stories needed to be recorded, so I decided to make a film that focuses on Nisei women."

For the last three years he has been making regular trips to Hawaii, meeting and interviewing Nisei women.

One told him of the pain she felt when her brother was killed in the war. Another described how Japanese immigrants survived backbreaking labor on a sugarcane or coffee plantation. Through it all, the women Matsumoto interviewed survived and protected their families without giving up hope.

"I think there is a lot to learn from their attitude and the strength they needed to overcome all their difficulties," he says. "They are always trying to maintain respect for others even in the hardest of times."

Matsumoto Hiroyuki
Independent film maker Matsumoto Hiroyuki is spotlighting the stories of the Nikkei Nisei women.

The COVID-19 pandemic has limited Matsumoto's ability to fundraise for his film, but he says he's determined to finish it as soon as possible, for the sake of his interviewees.

"All of those who testified are already in their 90s. Unfortunately, two of them died after our interviews. It is truly regrettable that I couldn't show the movie to them," he says.

He's targeting a release date this fall. He thinks his film, called "Okagesama de", which translates as "Gratitude", will be a small gesture of thanks to the Japanese American women who have helped shape history.

Every year, Tomoe and Matsumoto send seasonal greetings, with Tomoe using her Japanese.
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