Review | Voices from the Canefields: Folksongs from Japanese Immigrant Workers in Hawai’i

Voices from the Canefields: Folksongs from Japanese Immigrant Workers in Hawai’i. By Franklin Odo. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. [xxviii, 242 pp. ISBN9780199813032, Hardback: $49.50.]. 

Reviewed by Jennifer Milioto Matsue / Union College

In Voices from the Canefields, Franklin Odo provides an extensive study of folksong amongst Japanese immigrant workers on Hawaiian sugar plantations. These holehole bushi are songs from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; “holehole” is a native Hawaiian term referring to the stripping of leaves from sugar cane plants and “bushi” is a general term in Japanese for song, thus hinting at the complexity of immigrant identity contained within. Odo has compiled what he feels are all the holehole bushi available at the end of the twentieth century, translating some 200 songs (xxiv). Holehole bushi are short songs comprising four lines with 7, 7, 7 and 5 syllables – a common form in Japanese folksong (min’yō) that allows lyrics easily to be interchanged. And it is the lyrics of the songs themselves that motivate the thematic content and organization of the book as a whole. Odo thus offers an intriguing look at the life of Japanese issei (first generation Japanese immigrants) and nisei (second generation Japanese immigrants) and their descendants in historical and cultural context, in turn illuminating our understanding of Asian-American identities through musical practice. In doing so, Odo “relies on family histories, oral histories, and accounts from the prolific Japanese-language press” (xxvii) to create a text valuable to those interested not only in Japanese folksong, Asian-American experiences, and Japanese immigrants in Hawai’i, but also broader questions of “comparative migration history, women’s history, labor history, and ethnic/racial movements within national and international contexts” (xxvii).

The chapters are organized around the themes raised in the numerous holehole bushi, through which the daily life and most pressing concerns of the issei emerge. Chapter One necessarily looks at songs that address the motivation of the movement of people from Japan to Hawai’i at the end of the nineteenth century through the early twentieth century, as Japan’s presence as a global imperial power increased at the same time as the United States expanded its governance with the annexation of Hawai’i in 1898. Although Japan was rising as a military power within Asia, and despite Japanese Americans remaining the largest immigrant population on Hawai’i until after WWII, these songs reveal that issei lamented their position as lesser than the haole (the white ruling group) and felt abandoned by their homeland.

Not surprisingly, many of the holehole bushi therefore explore the difficulty of work and deplorable conditions on the plantations. The different types of labor are detailed in Chapter Two, which reveals that even within this world there were hierarchies, with the less arduous tasks, such as stripping dry leaves, falling to women. As in many similar agricultural settings, the singing of holehole bushi was encouraged by the overseers (luna), individuals who were often extremely cruel. Restrictions were placed on “talking since conversation interrupted focus on the work; however, as with other slave or indentured regimens, whether dealing with sugar, cotton, or tobacco, communal or call-and-response singing like holehole bushi, was not only tolerated but encouraged since workers toiled in rhythm” (25). Nonetheless, songs expressed honest feelings of the workers, emphasizing a sense of “just getting by,” concerns on the adverse effects of this life on children, and even the struggle to decide whether to go home or extend contracts and stay in Hawai’i. Ultimately these songs highlight the “movement” of plantation workers, from job to job, island to island, or even back to Japan, and in some cases between romantic partners.

The difficult conditions led to overwhelming feelings of despair as well as moments of insolence, the central themes of the songs in Chapter Three. Here again Odo likens these songs and the horrific circumstances of the singers to those of American slaves (40) but adds “the very creation and singing of holehole bushi in tedious teahouses, accompanied by musicians and lubricated by quantities of sake, was also an expression of defiance – the refusal to submit meekly to persistent disrespect and degradation” (40). Corrupt government did little to assist struggling plantation workers who predominantly suffered in silence – referring to themselves as rejected or abandoned subjects (kimin) as opposed to proper immigrants (imin). Officials, for example, turned a blind eye to gangs, prostitution and gambling, a particularly popular pastime in Japan (43), with holehole bushi providing an important means of expressing dissatisfaction with both the local and Japanese government.

In Chapter Four Odo stresses the role of holehole bushi for capturing the real importance of more intimate topics, especially love and lust, in plantation life for the Japanese. Songs, for example, highlight the nature of “picture brides,” (shashin kekkon); the practice of arranging marriages with women back in Japan, who often arrived in Hawai’i with false expectations of “paradise,” improved living conditions, and ideal romantic partners only to be disappointed (70). The “picture bride” resulted from government prohibitions against continued immigration of Asian laborers, but which still “allowed immediate family members to be summoned to join male workers” (70). As a result, from 1900 to 1920 approximately 20,000 women entered Hawai’i as picture brides, in some cases under false pretenses with no intention of honoring marriages, or as prostitutes, either by choice or coercion (71). Many of these marriages were to fail, either from men essentially “stealing” another’s wife, selling their wives, or women deserting once reality set in. The holehole bushi often express a bawdy and explicit sexuality, an aspect of identity that may taint the “ideal” immigrant image and therefore, according to Odo, has not been adequately represented in other narratives of these people. Odo argues “[i]t may be useful, then, to reintroduce the notion of Japanese immigrant sexuality to the general public as well as the Japanese American community and its leaders, who may be tempted to marginalize or eliminate the subject from the narrative” (82).

Holehole bushi encapsulate the ways in which “Japanese immigrants on Hawaii’s sugar plantations critically examined their experiences and fates, [the theme of Chapter Five], beginning as soon as they left Japan, continuing during their working years, and extending well into retirement. Many lyrics reflect unfortunate decisions or the sorrows of misfortune. Other songs celebrate profound relief at the end of a lifetime of struggle” (83). Many Japanese came to Hawai’i with aspirations to make money and return back to Japan, a plan that often did not materialize. The reality of plantation life quickly erased the rosy image and many holehole bushi reflect on harsh conditions (as covered above). Yet the author notes the number and variety of holehole bushi that imply “that there was some degree of satisfaction even given such harsh conditions” (87). Not surprisingly songs also reflected on the rapid passage of time, and the growth of families, all the while revealing the constant negotiation of immigrant identity; lost between Japan and Hawai’i, but nevertheless a community grounded in both cultures. Ultimately these holehole bushi echo the individual and collective memories of these people (93).

Recognizing the importance of these songs for capturing these immigrant’s experiences, in 1960, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the arrival of the first Japanese contract workers in Hawai’i in 1885, the Hawaii Times published a selection of holehole bushi collected from the issei and nisei, which motivate Chapter Six. Much had improved for the Japanese immigrants by the 1960s, following a particularly tumultuous period of complex and rapid changes that began in WWII. The holehole bushi from this collection, with their emphasis on early immigrant experience, reflect the same themes Odo notes elsewhere, although several new ideas emerge that result from the increasing historical distance from the late nineteenth century. Such songs, for example, comment on being released from the rigor of planation life, or the sadness over the loss of others not so lucky (some of the most compelling lyrics in the volume; see 122), while others celebrate the grand accomplishments of the community, in turn also essentially eradicating the much earlier lewd lyrics and feeding the creation of a “model minority” identity Odo critiques elsewhere (104).

It was assumed the holehole bushi would perish with the passing of the last of the Japanese issei but they actually experienced resurgence as a result of both this 1960s publication, and the work of Harry Minoru Urata (1917-2009). Odo celebrates Urata’s creative initiative in Chapter Seven and a separate Acknowledgement at the end of the main text, in which he explores Urata’s motivation for collecting and teaching the holehole bushi as a means of illuminating the life of Japanese immigrants. Following his own internment in a detention center during WWII, Urata collected and preserved the holehole bushi of the aging issei. He began this massive undertaking in the 1960s, traveling around the Hawaiian Islands taping 30 interviews and completing numerous transcriptions, even producing a phonograph record of these songs in Japan, and in the 1970s and 1980s transmitting the holehole bushi to hundreds of students. In the 1980s Urata passed his “notes, interviews, recordings, transcriptions, and other ephemera” to Odo, the contents of which forms the basis of this book (x); an impressive collection that now belongs to the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage (x). Odo attributes the revival of the holehole bushi to these efforts of Urata, further fostered by the use of these songs in the film Picture Bride (1995), but ultimately because of song’s ability to bring the conditions of the issei into visceral focus (130).

To be sure, in the Conclusion, Odo once again stresses that through holehole bushi, we gain a more accurate picture of the life of these immigrants. And “[t]racing their genealogy to the present gives us a sense of the remarkable durability and power of ethnic heritage in America. For a century now, the holehole bushi have defied the odds in retaining life and vibrancy. They have been the folk songs that refused to die” (142) in part a result of the strong community of Japanese Americans who keep them alive through active singing (xx). For Odo, “they provide a glimpse of lives too often ignored, marginalized, or simply taken for granted. They are valuable precisely because they encourage us to imagine the thoughts, desires, fears, and rage that seem inevitably to drift into anonymity” (63). Though folksong in other cultural contexts may serve a similar function, holehole bushi of course speak to the specific transitory and transnational identity of Japanese Americans in Hawai’i, captured in the blend of Japanese dialect and native Hawaiian in lyrics, as well as themes (as covered above).

Through these songs, one gains a sense that Japanese immigrants never felt that they belonged; Japanese were no longer connected with the homeland but neither were they fully integrated into Hawaiian culture. Odo argues that the following lyric captures this sense of displacement exceptionally well (xvii and included elsewhere in the text):

Go on to America

Return to Japan?

This is my dilemma

Here in Hawai’i

The struggle to identify one’s place in the new immigrant context may have been even greater for women. The holehole bushi in fact collectively present not only the immigrant experience, but women’s perspective in particular, as many of the songs were sung by women, whether in the field or by geisha in the teahouses, or deal with issues of special relevance to women’s lives, as highlighted in the following song (50 and included elsewhere in the text):

A sudden downpour

Drenches the laundry

Baby on my back sobs –

And the rice just burned

The songs present Japanese immigrant women removed from then emerging national expectations of appropriate female behavior back in Japan (captured in the discourse ryōsai kenbo or “good wife and wise mother”). According to Odo, “this was a moment in history when immigrant women could pay no heed to official Japanese “lessons” of obedience, humility, and chastity. Japanese immigrant women, thousands of miles from the homeland and living in different countries, were at a relatively safe distance from the growing power of national patriarchy in Japan” (xxiii). And contrary to stereotypical imagery, many of these songs “reveal issei women who were themselves raw and rough” (13). It is because of this disagreement between desired image and reality that Odo argues “[t]hese images of the issei women will not be universally welcomed by Japanese Americans (or their friends) in light of the general narrative or stereotype of the issei woman as long-suffering upholder of grand Japanese values” (13). Odo thus further argues for the importance of holehole bushi for accurately representing all aspects of Japanese immigrant life rather than a sanitized version.

Odo, through including so many evocative lyrics, ultimately makes a strong case for the importance of folksong in expressing immigrant identities. The same or similar lyrics, however, are included in multiple locations, even an Appendix, which on the one hand reveals the diverse experiences and multiple themes that a single song simultaneously may speak to, but also leads to a sense of repetition. Sometimes the text is similarly hard to follow as Odo moves circularly around points, continually returning to the arduousness of this life for the issei. Odo regularly draws attention to other folksong traditions, especially Anglo-American to contextualize the unique character of holehole bushi, but in some cases the comparisons seem too far removed from the point at hand and not as thoroughly drawn out as could be (see for example the discussion on 76). And though Odo explains that he purposefully avoids “overt reference to theoretical issues,” while noting a few broader implications in the Conclusion, the chapters may have been stronger if he had mused a bit more throughout, bringing larger academic issues to play.

The strength of the book clearly resides in the numerous lyrics, but the lack of any transcriptions of melodies leaves an important musical element out of the picture. The lyrics are important, but these are songs and not just poetry, and therefore the melodies to which they are sung seem deserving of some attention. Odo notes, for example, that Urata compiled a representative holehole bushi melody, but this too is not included and it is rather confusing as to just what was involved in this process, despite the fact that “[t]oday Urata’s standardized holehole bushi has become the basic version popularly available” (147). Odo introduces a website in the opening that does feature several performances (xv;, but what are the musical characteristics central to this folksong form?  How much variance is possible? And does the musical vehicle affect the inherent meaning of the text? Perhaps these are questions that another researcher can explore now that Odo has laid the foundation. Despite these shortcomings, Odo successfully argues the importance of holehole bushi and indeed hopes to inspire further such studies on folksongs as depositories of immigrant identity (xxviii).

"Sounding Board" is intended as a space for scholars to publish thoughts and observations about their current work. These postings are not peer reviewed and do not reflect the opinion of Ethnomusicology Review. We support the expression of controversial opinions, and welcome civil discussion about them. We do not, however, tolerate overt discrimination based on race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, or religion, and reserve the right to remove posts that we feel might offend our readers.