Jonathan Okamura: The Story Of Koreans In Hawaii Paints A Picture Of An Unbalanced Economy - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Jonathan Y. Okamura

Jonathan Okamura is professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii Manoa, where he worked for most of his 35-year academic career, 20 years of which were with the Department of Ethnic Studies. He continues to research, write and lecture on problems and issues concerning race and racism. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach him by email at

After post-1965 immigration, Koreans fell from the middle class and have yet to return as Hawaii has come to rely too much on tourism

This year the Korean community has been commemorating the 120th anniversary of their immigration to Hawaii, most recently by unveiling a memorial plaque at Oahu Cemetery in Nuuanu this month. 

Koreans had done quite well and attained middle-class status after arriving in the islands as plantation laborers. However, the coming of newer immigrants beginning in the 1970s resulted in their overall socioeconomic status sliding as they took on service sector jobs related to the tourism-based economy.  

Korean immigration to Hawaii began in 1903 and lasted just two years because Japan, which controlled Korea at that time, ended the plantation labor recruitment of 6,500 primarily young men. The arrival of 1,000 picture brides the following decade enabled the small Korean population to increase, resulting in a larger second generation.

Taking advantage of public education, including the University of Hawaii, the second and third generations of Koreans achieved considerable socioeconomic mobility, much like Chinese and Japanese had before them.

Another group of Korean immigrants came to Hawaii following passage of the 1965 Immigration Act, which allowed Koreans to petition for their close relatives to join them in the U.S. Korean women who had married American servicemen after the Korean War and had settled in Hawaii were able to sponsor the immigration of their parents and siblings to the islands.

At the peak in the 1970s, more than 1,000 Koreans immigrated annually to Hawaii, but that number has decreased to a few hundred each year because of the economic development of South Korea and the greater employment opportunities in the continental U.S.

This second immigration of Koreans has contributed to a decline in their socioeconomic status, which is a unique experience among Hawaii’s ethnic groups. Like other post-1965 immigrants to the state, such as Filipinos, many Koreans ended up in service work, which at 40% became the largest occupational category for Korean women.

Demolition at the corner of Rycroft Street and Keeaumoku Street the old site of Sorabol Korean restaurant.
Hostess bars on Keeaumoku Street were referred to demeaningly as “Korean bars.” Now, the neighborhood has changed and Koreans run many of the restaurants neaby. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Some Korean immigrant women found employment in hostess bars, resulting in the demeaning term “Korean bar” to describe such establishments and in the racist stereotyping of young Korean women as bar hostesses. In the 1970s, Keeaumoku Street was especially associated with hostess bars, such that the term “Koreamoku” emerged to refer to the street and its supposedly predominantly Korean women workers.

Other expressions of anti-Korean racism were directed to public school students. In the same decade, I recall the beatings and other harassment of Korean immigrant students, particularly at McKinley High School.

Other Korean immigrants worked in the tourist industry. Some women were employed as hotel housekeepers in Waikiki, although that is much less the case at present, while others were sales workers in businesses catering to tourists. Many Korean immigrant men were self-employed as taxi drivers, which has continued to the present, and some women also are engaged in such work. 

A Socioeconomic Decline

The substantial numbers of Korean immigrants in service and sales work quickly resulted in a downturn in the previous middle-class status of Koreans. I’m not blaming Korean immigrants for this predicament because it is ultimately due to Hawaii’s overdependence on tourism and the primarily low-paying jobs it creates.

As a result, since the 1980s, Koreans hold what I refer to as an “intermediate” socioeconomic position in Hawaii between the dominant and subordinate groups. They no longer share the same relatively high status as whites, Chinese and Japanese, but they are not a primarily working class group like Native Hawaiians, Filipinos and Samoans. 

U.S. Census Bureau data for 2011-2015 (the most recent available) demonstrate the situation of the approximately 50,000 Koreans in Hawaii, about 3.5% of the state population. Due to declining immigration since the 1980s, most Koreans (54%) were born in Hawaii.

Indicative of their intermediate position, they generally occupy the middle range of the educational, income and occupational status orders. In terms of educational attainment, 31% of Koreans 25 years and older have a bachelor’s degree or higher, the same as for Hawaii as a whole. 

As for median household income, Koreans ($57,500) are significantly below the figure for Hawaii households ($69,500), which reflects their midrange and diverse occupational status. Korean men are well represented in professional and administrative positions, while a significant proportion of Korean women are still found in service and sales work.

I spoke with Professor Mary Kunmi Yu Danico, a scholar in Korean American studies, about the Korean community in Hawaii. She returned this year to the University of Hawaii Manoa to become the director of the Center for Oral History after 25 years at California Polytechnic State University, Pomona. She earned her doctorate in sociology in 1998 based on her study of “1.5” generation Koreans — those who immigrated at a young age and were raised in Hawaii.

University of Hawaii Manoa Center for Korean Studies building.
University of Hawaii Manoa Center for Korean Studies building. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Danico notes that while there are fewer hostess bars, there are more Korean barbecue restaurants and other businesses, which reflects the significant proportion of family businesses owned and operated by Koreans. She observes that those businesses have increased in number and kind and have dispersed from the Keeaumoku Avenue area to adjoining streets. 

As for the drop in the socioeconomic status of Koreans, Danico remarks, “Leaving Hawaii is often seen as making it for many millennials and Gen Z and their parents. It’s difficult to have social mobility with an economy that is driven primarily by tourism and the military.”

Comparing Korean communities in Hawaii and California, Danico comments that in the latter, “The stigma of being FOB (immigrant) has disappeared for Koreans as their status has increased due to the stereotype of Koreans as successful and affluent.” This model minority view of Koreans is not the case in Hawaii because of their overall lower than middle-class status.

Nonetheless, teaching at UH Manoa for several decades, I met many Korean students who did exemplify the successful stereotype. One of them, who wishes to remain anonymous, was born in Hawaii after her parents immigrated in 1977. Her father first worked in production at the Carnation Co. in Iwilei and later became a taxi driver, while her mother was employed as a cook at a Korean restaurant. 

My student attended public schools in Honolulu and entered UH Manoa after being awarded a prestigious scholarship. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 2000 and later received an MBA degree. 

She currently holds a managerial position with one of the larger corporations in Hawaii. Unfortunately, her educational and employment experience is not typical of the children of post-1965 Korean immigrants, although that of her parents does demonstrate the difficulties immigrants encountered and still do.  

Hawaii’s overdependence on tourism, which resulted in the socioeconomic decline of Koreans, is evident in Gov. Green’s recent lifting of travel restrictions to West Maui, except for Lahaina, starting on October 8. His decree starkly signals an immediate return to the tourist industry as the mainstay of the state economy. 

At least for the state administration, rebuilding Lahaina appears to mean restoring tourism rather than recreating a community that can provide for its residents without depending on outsiders.

Green earlier had approved $2.6 million of a $5 million request from the Hawaii Tourism Authority to respond to what it called the “tourism emergency” — rather than human catastrophe — brought on by the Lahaina wildfire. I fully understand that the people of Lahaina who lost everything, including their loved ones, urgently need jobs to support themselves, especially for housing. 

But I cannot fathom why the airlines and hotel and restaurant chains that bring and cater to tourists and are dependent on them for their corporate profits have not assumed the primary responsibility for addressing the huge downturn in West Maui tourism. Why should Hawaii taxpayers have to bail them out, as has repeatedly happened whenever tourism slumps have occurred?

Green’s declaration suggests that the jobs available to Asian, Pacific Islander and Latino immigrants, including Koreans, will continue to be directly or indirectly related to the tourist industry. From a broader perspective, a return to business as usual in West Maui means the perpetuation of ethnic inequality, which tourism maintains. 

It also means that Koreans will continue to face difficulty returning to their middle-class status, while Filipinos, Native Hawaiians and other minorities, who remain in the working class, will also lack meaningful opportunities to advance themselves. 

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About the Author

Jonathan Y. Okamura

Jonathan Okamura is professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii Manoa, where he worked for most of his 35-year academic career, 20 years of which were with the Department of Ethnic Studies. He continues to research, write and lecture on problems and issues concerning race and racism. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach him by email at

Latest Comments (0)

What this article misses are the intangible positive nature of the Korean community.They are hard working, family oriented, respectful and brings a vibrancy of ethnic diversity to Hawaii. They will prevail.For over 50 years (1970’s) the State has been trying to diversify the States economy from a plantation and agriculture based economy. To no avail. All economies requires capital to pivot and seek new industries and a rate of return. Tourism brought $$ to the Hawaii economy, now in the BILLIONS.Gov Cayetano had a grand idea, proposing that Hawaii become the Mayo Clinic of the pacific, creating excellent professional jobs and careers and complimenting the tourism industry and benefitting Hawaii residents (Who are aging quickly) No one else have fostered such a grand idea.

OBIKNOBI · 2 months ago

I’m not defining the socio-economic status of the Filipino community at all and it’s not my intent. But, let’s suppose as case 1, they too have achieved the same status as Koreans, so are they now in the same decline based on Professor Okamura’s assertions? Case 2, if they have not yet achieved middle class status, is it the tourism industry also to be blamed for this demise?

moilepo · 2 months ago

Mahalo to Jon Okamura for his positive, thought-provoking articles! I agree that Hawai’i needs to move away from dependence on tourism and the U.S. military for its economy—as it keeps the economic model of the plantation intact. We need a model caters to the majority of the people.

ronsan2224 · 2 months ago

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