- Special Projects
Growing up in Kakaako in the 1920s and ’30s, Fujio Matsuda was an avid reader.
A child of immigrants from Japan, he spoke only Japanese at home and pored over Japanese magazines and novels.
When Matsuda read “The Call of the Wild” by Jack London, he didn’t realize it was a Japanese translation of an English book.
“So when I later ran across the book and I thumbed through it, I said, ‘oh, they translated this into English,'” he recalled in a 1998 interview with Center for Oral History at the University of Hawaii, where Matsuda was president for 10 years.
Despite his love for reading, Matsuda never visited Honolulu’s library during his childhood.
“I had to go to school to learn English,” said Matsuda, who turns 95 years old this month. “Later on, when I was older, I went to the library, but I don’t recall any public libraries having publications in Japanese.”
It is a piece of history that, until recently, had gone unexamined: In the early 1900s, the library in Honolulu made no meaningful effort to stock its shelves with Japanese language materials.
The library excluded Japanese readers at a time when Japanese people in Hawaii exceeded 40% of the population, according to research by Andrew Wertheimer and Noriko Asato, professors in the Library & Information Science Program at the University of Hawaii.
While local Japanese were allowed to become library members, the researchers found that the library rejected requests to serve them.
“Now we say intellectual freedom is part of the professional ethics of librarianship, but at that time in Hawaii, it certainly wasn’t,” Wertheimer said.
The library never explained its reasoning, but the researchers believe it is based on the era’s racist stereotypes about Asian immigrants – that they were transient or not able to assimilate to American ways in what was then a United States territory.
Another theory is that the library’s keepers believed it should be a “beacon of English-language Protestant conformity,” the researchers said. The library’s trustees, appointed by the governor, did not include people of color in its first several decades.
When the library essentially shut them out, Japanese people found their own solutions.
In the years before World War II, they opened their own stores to carry books and magazines that reflected their language and culture. At one point, there were 41 Japanese booksellers in Honolulu, the researchers found. Some were full-on bookstores, and some were general stores and pharmacies that also sold books.
“Since the libraries weren’t providing this kind of service at that time, especially to the immigrant generation, the bookstores became the community centers,” said Wertheimer, who co-authored the article “Library Exclusion and the Rise of Japanese Bookstores in Prewar Honolulu” with Asato.
Hakubundo, which opened on Beretania Street in 1910, is the only merchant of its kind still in operation. Today it sells stationery and other Japanese goods as well as books.
Matsuda remembers it as a very small bookstore that “had nothing but Japanese books.” He treated it as his own library because he was too poor to buy anything, he said, but the owner was nice enough to let him linger.
“I liked to read so I picked something up there, and I’d just sit on the floor and start reading,” he said. “They never kicked me out.”
For the first several decades after the Honolulu Library and Reading Room opened in 1879, the private institution made clear that its focus was to serve Honolulu’s European American population.
The Reading Room, which became the Library of Hawaii in 1909, acquired books in Russian, Greek, French and Latin but very few in Japanese, according to Wertheimer. Somehow the library was never able to find the money.
“They were requested to provide material in Japanese, and they said no, we don’t have a budget for it,” Wertheimer said.
The researchers identified the names of five Japanese people who joined the library early on, but those individuals – members of the elite class – canceled their $1.50-per-month membership within a few months. Wertheimer and Asato suspect they did not feel welcomed by the institution.
“People see the world in their native language,” said Asato, who is Japanese. “They naturally wanted to read in Japanese.”
In 1916, some titles were purchased from a Japanese book distributor, but very little was spent on them. Of the library’s over 50,000 items in 1922, the world language selections included 411 items in French, 219 items in German and 41 items in Spanish. Records suggest there were fewer than two dozen titles in Japanese and only four items in Hawaiian.
In 1936, the library finally allowed some Japanese books but only on the condition that the Japanese community donate the books and pay for a custodian to oversee them.
On two occasions, according to the researchers, the library threatened to close the so-called “Oriental Collection” if the community stopped funding the salary of the employee who managed it.
“Racism, obviously, was the key thing,” Wertheimer said. “Tied to that was the idea that English was superior.”
The library’s refusal to embrace the ethnic Japanese community fits into the larger anti-Japanese sentiment during that time period, said Jonathan Okamura, an ethnic studies professor at UH and fourth-generation Japanese American.
“In the 1920s, there was an effort to shut down Japanese language schools because of the belief they taught loyalty to the Japanese emperor,” he said. “There were various measures to keep the Japanese in subordinate positions.”
Notably, the U.S. Immigration Act of 1924 barred people from Japan from emigrating to the United States.
“The door slammed shut,” said Dennis Ogawa, a professor of American studies at UH.
Approximately 180,000 Japanese people had already come to Hawaii before 1924, Ogawa said. When the Immigration Act took effect, about 39,000 remained, but they were not allowed to become U.S. citizens until 1952.
“There’s a certain DNA running through that group,” he said. “What you have there is a group that really is going to try to contribute and build a community in Hawaii.”
The demand for Japanese reading material in Honolulu during the early 20th century created an ecosystem of stores, distributors and writers who produced stories, haiku and limericks, according to Asato.
“A whole culture was born in this Japanese ethnic community,” she said.
The bookstores were a community gathering place where customers could socialize, request the ordering of their favorite magazines and seek help writing letters to Japan. They were one of the few “access points” where immigrants could receive information from and about their home country, the researchers wrote.
And the bookselling went beyond brick-and-mortar stores.
Wertheimer and Asato found records of immigrants peddling Japanese books to fellow immigrants in “Japanese quarters” or “Japanese camps” in sugar plantations dating back to 1892, according to their research.
Several records indicate the first man to do this carried a load of books over both shoulders and sold ezoshi, or picture books, for 20 to 30 cents and novels for 70 to 80 cents.
Hakubundo sent a merchant out with a cart of books to rent to people on and around Beretania Street where many Japanese stores were located and also through plantations, according to Asato. Borrowing one book from Hakubundo for one week cost 5 cents, she said.
Japanese immigrants in Hawaii read a wide range of material including Japanese literature, “shuyo” books on self-improvement, inspirational biographies of famous people and cookbooks.
Japanese magazines for women published headlines like “How to quickly change your husband’s bad mood” and “Secrets of finding a good husband for your daughter.” Another women’s magazine, Seito, created a “sensation” in Japanese society because of its Western feminism bent.
The researchers also found advertisements of books that suggest readers were eager to learn about American culture. Japanese-English dictionaries and titles such as “A Quick Mastery of English in Six Months” were among the most commonly advertised items.
Some works were locally produced and published. One well-known benshi, or storyteller, visited Japanese communities and plantations and wrote about people’s lives in Hawaii.
“Those bookstores/publishers preserved the ethnic community history which might have otherwise disappeared and dissolved into American history,” the researchers wrote.
Still, inclusion in the library was important to Japanese residents, according to Wertheimer. The collection donated in 1936 represented one of the first partnerships between the Japanese community and the local government.
“By having their own dedicated collection, they were really trying to show their pride but also civic participation,” he said. “They hoped this Japanese collection, which also had works in English about Japan, would also have this bridging function and basically show: We are here.”
When World War II started, Hawaii had one of the largest Japanese ethnic communities outside of the Japanese Empire, but Japanese bookselling ended abruptly.
Honolulu’s 41 booksellers were barred from importing Japanese goods and were forced to close their operations. Among them was Morishige Shosekiten, a bookstore that had opened in 1900 on Beretania Street and had operated for 40 years. At the time, it was the oldest Japanese bookstore, according to an article in the Nippu Jiji, one of Honolulu’s daily Japanese newspapers.
Hakubundo’s last shipment of books from Japan was in 1941, according to the researchers. At some point it reopened. The store’s manager did not respond to an interview request.
If the Japanese people were angry about being excluded from the library in the years before the war, they didn’t show it, according to Asato.
“They didn’t have so much high expectations for any type of government organization to provide any service to them,” she said. “Instead, they tried to serve themselves.”
Today, library branches in Hawaii have shelves full of Japanese language material, but Wertheimer said they came too late. Over 100 years have passed since the arrival of the first generation of Japanese immigrants who really needed those books, and modern technology means people are less reliant on libraries and bookstores.
The state librarian did not respond to an interview request. Whether the institution will ever acknowledge its past treatment of local Japanese, Wertheimer said he doesn’t know. But he’s hopeful that the younger librarians and archivists feel driven to be more inclusive of all languages and cultures.
“I don’t know if there would ever be a truth and reconciliation kind of thing, but I think a lot of people are more aware now,” he said.
“A lot of the graduates of our program are all fired up about diversity. I think it’s good for us to keep raising these questions.”
If you or someone you know has memories of Japanese bookstores in Hawaii or written materials from that era, UH professors Andrew Wertheimer and Noriko Asato would like to hear from you. Email email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
It’s a critical time for our community as we all try to navigate unprecedented disruptions to our daily lives.
We want you to know that our nonprofit newsroom’s team of reporters, editors and support staff are committed to providing you with accurate and in-depth information on Hawaii’s important issues, including developments on how our island state is coping with this global pandemic.
Help ensure that our newsroom remains strong during this period when fact-based, trustworthy information is more important than ever. Please consider supporting Civil Beat by making a tax-deductible gift.