COURTESY BARBARA KAWAKAMI COLLECTION
Kekaha Plantation workers, new brides from Japan, posed for this studio photo in 1919.
Threads of issei lives dwell in fabric
At 86 years old, going on 87 in August, Barbara Kawakami concludes that she lived her life backward, having established a career as a seamstress before going to school. For a time, she regretted the combination of family finances and social mores that prevented her from going to high school in the 1930s, but she's over it.
"Pride & Practicality: Japanese Immigrant Clothing in Hawai'i"
» Place: Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii, first floor
» Date and time: Opening reception: 10:40 a.m. Saturday; continues 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays through Sept. 27
» Admission: $3 for Hawaii residents, $5 for nonresidents, free for JCCH members
» Call: 945-7633
"Maybe my life would have been different," she said. "My girlfriends, they went to high school, and now they can't remember anything about plantation life, but because I stayed on the plantation, I remembered."
Kawakami's memories and research into plantation-era immigrant clothing forms the basis for the exhibition "Pride & Practicality: Japanese Immigrant Clothing in Hawai'i," opening Saturday at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii. The display marks a rare opportunity to see a few of the pieces she collected over a 30-year period. Three years ago she donated her clothing collection to the Los Angeles-based Japanese American National Museum because she believed they would be better able to care for the garments, many more than a century old.
The exhibition serves as a small preview of larger exhibitions to take place throughout Honolulu during the 11th Textile Society of America Biennial Symposium in September.
If not for Kawakami's research, much of the day-to-day history of the plantations could have been lost. Historians often focus on the major players of eras rather than on the little guy, and certainly not the plantation worker who could not speak English.
COURTESY BARBARA KAWAKAMI COLLECTION
The first Japanese immigrants wove their cultural pride and identity into the fabric of Hawaii. Their kimono and textiles influenced plantation-era clothing and preserved unique traditions of dyeing and weaving.
A majority of the issei never learned to speak English, and, hailing from several prefectures in Japan, they spoke many different dialects.
"I grew up on the plantation, so I would hear them speaking all the time," Kawakami said. "You unconsciously learn it. I couldn't speak it fluently but I could understand."
She began collecting the stories of the issei, recording them on tape, and she began to collect the clothing and artifacts of the late 1800s to early 1900s when few revered these pieces. Families of the issei often regarded them as useless old rags as well as a shameful reminder of early poverty.
"So much history and culture is being thrown out and lost because people don't know what these things are," she said.
There were many instances when she received phone calls from people who discovered trunks of kimonos and "kasuri" put out on sidewalks for garbage collection. One time, she was led to a trunkful of hand-woven kasuri -- a cloth made by dyeing fibers, spacing out colors so that when woven, they form a pattern -- from Okinawa, in a rare yellow ochre color, dating to 1900.
"You can't find that today," she said. "It's so valuable."
The issei arrived with no understanding about what their life in Hawaii would entail. They brought the traditional kimono and fabric of Japan and were forced to be creative in adapting them to life on the plantation.
Lacking the money to buy tabi, the immigrants learned to make "waragi," or straw sandals, by gathering the scrap stalks from the rice harvests of their Chinese neighbors. When the Chinese moved off the plantation to open more lucrative businesses in town, the Japanese plantation workers substituted bulrush, or swamp grass, for the rice stalks.
NADINE KAM / NKAM@STARBULLETIN.COM
Barbara Kawakami spent 30 years building up her plantation collection. Three years ago she donated the laborers' clothing and artifacts to the Los Angeles-based Japanese American National Museum.
Even today's greens could learn from the immigrants' example. Kawakami notes the superior quality of the colorfast, environment-friendly indigo dye that they used. The indigo also helped repel insects in the field, and as a result of all these qualities, the workers' outfits on display, though nearly a century old, look as crisp, vivid and sturdy as if they were made today.
"What we learned was, if you don't have it, you can really get by," Kawakami said. "Boys wore women's kimono. It was very practical because you didn't have to worry about fit, and everyone wore panties made of bleached rice bags. Boys' shirts were made from rice bags, and cement bags were used for pants. It's really funny to think about today.
"The Japanese laborer couldn't afford a $5 raincoat at the plantation store, but he could afford $2.50 muslin that they made water-repellent with candlenut sap. They lived so frugally and utilized what they could from nature."
She believes the example offered by the issei is important for those struggling to subsist in today's economy.
Kawakami's father died when she was about 7, leaving her mother with eight children to raise alone.
"She didn't borrow a dime to raise us. We never had to depend on social welfare. She did extra work, and the kids all contributed before and after school," she said. "We made our own toys. We never had candies, we didn't have ice cream, but we had fresh fruit from the trees. We learned to make things from scratch.
"We don't need to spend hundreds of dollars to have a good time, and that's what I think this clothing collection will teach: the values of the issei."