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The Japanese Conspiracy: The Oahu Sugar Strike of 1920

Author(s):Duus, Masayo Umezawa
Reviewer(s):Beechert, Edward D.

Published by EH.NET (February 2000)

Masayo Umezawa Duus, The Japanese Conspiracy: The Oahu Sugar Strike of

1920. (Translated by Beth Cory and adapted by Peter Duus.) Berkeley:

University of California Press, 1999. xiii + 375pp. $55 (cloth),

0-520-20484-0: $18.95 (paper), 0-520-20485-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Edward D.

Beechert, Professor Emeritus of Labor History, University of Hawaii.

In early 1920 in Hawaii, Japanese sugar cane workers, who made up nearly half

of the work force on Hawaiian sugar plantations, struck for a wage increase.

Although the strikers eventually capitulated, the Hawaiian territorial

government cracked down on the strike leaders, bringing them to trial for

conspiracy to dynamite the house of a plantation official.

Afterward, to end dependence on Japanese immigrant labor,

the planters lobbied in Washington to lift restrictions on the immigration of

Chinese workers. Instead, the clash helped secure that passage of the

Immigration Act of 1924 (often called Japanese Exclusion Act). Originally

published in Japan in 1991, Masay o Umezawa Duus’s narrative of these events

presents a complex picture of the Oahu sugar strike tailored to the Japanese

audience. (In fact, the book won the Oya Prize and the Sincho Gakugei Prize,

the two most distinguished nonfiction prizes in Japan.) The author tries to

remedy a limited knowledge in Japan regarding Hawaii in 1920 by surrounding

the details of the strike and its aftermath with a variety of details and

material not immediately relevant to Hawaii, such as comments on the

Sacco-Vanzetti case to

illustrate the fear of radicals then prevalent.

Using newspaper sources, Japanese Foreign Office correspondence and reports and

Hawaii court records, Duus gives a detailed, blow-by-blow account of the

strike, the dynamite case which occurred after the strike, and the trial of

fifteen of the alleged conspirators. This narrative leads to the conclusion,

which examines the 1924 Immigration Act sponsored by Senator Hiram Johnson of

California. The bill added Japanese to the excluded category — now all

Asians were excluded and lower quotas were put in place for southern and

eastern Europeans. The legislation reflected the views of residents of the

Pacific coast states and was bitterly resented in Japan.

The “conspiracy” of the title stems from the news paper and sugar planters’

propaganda developed to fight the strike and the campaign to persuade Congress

to admit Chinese workers on an indenture contract to counter the perceived

dominance of Japanese workers. Hawaiian planters had been searching for the

proverbial ideal worker — cheap, docile and plentiful since 1850. Hawaiians,

Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese, eastern Europeans,

Puerto Ricans, African-Americans, poor white Americans, and Filipinos made up

the list of trials; each in turn had been found

to be unreliable,

expensive, truculent and generally unworthy. Each new group in turn was praised

as the “final solution’ to Hawaii’s “Labor Question.”

While Duus’s narrative is interesting and somewhat informative, the

conspiratorial approach results in

a misleading picture. Despite the erratic documentation, the author presents

an interesting and useful picture of the important event from a Japanese

perspective. The intense focus on actions of Japanese workers tends to obscure

the Hawaiian elements of

the situation. There is considerable confusion in the story about the events of

the Kingdom of Hawaii, its overthrow and the establishment of the Republic of

Hawaii and its subsequent annexation. Thus, chapter one is good in showing the

flow of ideas between Japan and the United States but is weak on Hawaiian

details. There is no recognition of the fact that Japanese men had been barred

from emigrating to Hawaii since 1906 and that a large percentage of the

plantation workers were born in Hawaii. The lack

of knowledge of the labor movement results in a telescoping of the labor

structure. The American Federation of Labor is described as the “largest union”

(p. 23). In an attempt to set the scene, the author describes the IWW on the

mainland as being identified as “bomb throwers,” drawing on the Haymarket

affair. A meeting at Waialua Plantation in 1913 is described as a

“meeting of white telephone operators from the mainland urging the Japanese to

join the IWW” (p. 44). A Hawaiian Sugar Producers Association (HSPA)

transcript of the IWW meeting describes one A. V. Roe, a telegraph operator,

addressing the Portuguese Camp workers at Waialuas (Beechert,

Working in Hawaii, p. 153). Lurid descriptions of the Filipino workers

being imported to Hawaii are based

on stereotypical newspaper accounts. The author seems unaware that the

Hawaiian sugar industry was desperately seeking a new supply of labor. Cut off

from Japan in 1906 and barred from China as a source, the Philippines was the

sole remaining source of cheap labor. The industry had tried to meet U.S.

objections to Asian labor by importing a variety of Europeans. The high cost

and the refusal of these to submit to the conditions of sugar employment led to

the elaborate scheme to import indentured Chinese

workers. The Hawaii Emergency Labor Commission,

formed in 1921, launched a massive campaign to persuade Congress to grant an

exemption to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

The Japanese sugar workers’ strike of 1920 had its origins in World War I

inflation. As early as 1917, the Young Men’s Association of Hawaii, a Buddhist

organization, began to hold meetings on the issue of the cost of living and the

wage scale. Made up largely of young men born in Hawaii,

these workers communicated through the Buddhist organization. Beginning in

Hilo in 1919, the Young Men’s Association issued demands for a higher wage.

“Within ten weeks organization ran like a cane fire through the four major

islands.” (John E. Reinecke: Feigned Necessity: Hawaii’s Attempt to Import

Chinese Contract Labor, 1921-1923, 1979, pp. 98-99) The HSPA issued a

warning in early 1917 to its managers that wage demands of Japanese

organizations could lead to trouble. Nowhere in the text is there any awareness

of this development. The younger workers, recalling the results of the 1909

strike, were determined not to allow the Honolulu Japanese business and

intellectual community to dominate the issue. Plantation unions, based on the

AF of L model were set up through 1919-1920.

Local leaders formed an executive committee. As negotiations broke down,

the need for planning resulted in the appointment of spokesmen. The book

focuses on these spokesmen to the exclusion of the local leadership. The

emphasis is placed on the propaganda generated by the

Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association and the two main Honolulu newspapers. The

Honolulu Advertiser was hysterical in its denunciation of the strike as

a plot by Japan “to take over Hawaii” as an outpost of Japan. No evidence is


nor is there any explanation of how such an action could occur without U.S.

response. The lack of citation throughout lends an air of popular journalism to

the book. Conversations are laid out at length, thoughts and mindsets are

described in vivid terms, all without documentation. Then at other points, the

author is lavish in documentation, as in the blow-by-blow account of the

dynamite conspiracy trial.

The problem of translation and “adaptation” is evident in a number of ways.

The leading defense attorney is misidentified. William B. Lymer is

consistently cited as Lymar. J. Edgar Hoover is listed as the Director of the

Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1920. The Bureau of Investigation,

the predecessor of the FBI, produced a report in 1921 describing the strike as

“a weapon in Japan’s strategy to take over Hawaii.” The Bureau cited the

Japanese Federation of Labor as an example of the frightening unity and

teamwork of the Japanese (pp. 220-221). The author correctly doubts that the

Japanese translator at the trial had

a sufficient command of English to produce intelligible translations for the

all-English speaking jurors. At one point prosecutor Heen is described as

objecting to a witness’ testimony on the grounds of “hospitality” rather than

hostility (p. 210). Numerous errors of Hawaiian sugar industry detail detract

from the authority of the narrative. For example, Waikiki is described as an

“uninhabited swamp”

until developed by Gov. McCarthy (p. 234). Likewise, people in Hawaii are

incorrectly described as being unable to afford white sugar because of the

high prices prevalent in 1920-1922.

The work concludes with a detailed examination of Hiram Johnson’s immigration

bill in 1923-1924 and the efforts of the Hawaii Emergency Labor Commission to

deflect the exclusion of Japanese. The chapter is entitled

“The Japanese Exclusion Act.” For a Japanese audience, the focus makes sense.

The desperate efforts of the Commission to win an exemption for Chinese

workers, the opposition of organized labor and the widespread anti-Asian

sentiment of the Pacific Coast were too much for the limited political

influence of the Hawaiian planters. However, the book does considerable

violence to an understanding of the basic issues. Although the author quotes

extensively from Reinecke’s

Feigned Necessity, the clear focus of Reinecke’s work on the labor

aspects of the situation is lost. A large part of Duus’s effort is taken up in

a minute examination of the spokesman for the Japanese Federation of Labor,

Noboru Tsutsumi. This obscures

the fact that the Federation was organized by plantation unions,

coming together only at the executive board level. Inexperience and poor

communication complicated and hindered their efforts. Despite this, the local

unions raised significant amounts of money. The fact that a majority of

Hawaii’s plantations continued production unabated and had a loss sharing

agreement through the HSPA and their insurance policy, the workers faced a

difficult barrier. The industry made extensive changes in their organization

as a result of the strike. The HSPA emerged as the dominant factor in

plantation policy, shifting the center of power from the managers to the

agency. An extensive social welfare program was initiated to alleviate some of

the worst features of plantation life. In that sense, the strike succeeded,

despite the appearance of defeat.

Edward D. Beechert is the author several books and articles on Hawaiian labor

history including Working in Hawaii-: A Labor History (1986);

“Mechanization and the Plantation Labor Supply” in S. Eakin and J. Tarver:

One World, One Institution: The Plantation (1989): and Honolulu:

Crossroads of the Pacific (1991). He is the editor (with Brij Lal and

Douglas Munro) of Plantation Workers: Resistance and Accommodation (


Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII