Holehole bushi


Yuko ka Meriken yō (Shall I go on to America)
Kaero ka Nihon (Or return to Japan)
Koko ga shian no (This is my dilemma)

Hawai koku (Here in Hawai'i)

Holehole bushi are folk songs from Japanese immigrants who worked on Hawai'i's sugar plantations during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They are uniquely direct voices from women and men who formed the base of Japanese American communities in Hawai'i. Bushi is the Japanese word for melody or tune. Holehole is Hawaiian for the dead or dying leaves of the sugar cane. One of the major jobs on the plantations was stripping these leave so more energy could be diverted to the stalks, creating more juice for sugar, and simultaneously using the leaves as fertilizer. This was back-breaking work but considered less arduous than cutting or carrying the cane; as a result, holehole work was often assigned to women. The lyrics were spontaneously composed to reflect new work, new lives, and new challenges for immigrant workers thousands of miles from home. Passed on from generation to generation, holehole bushi are still sung in Hawai'i and have gained a foothold in Japan.

Hawai, Hawai, to yō (Hawai`i, Hawai`i)
Yume mite kita ga (I came chasing a dream)
Nagasu namida wa (Now my tears flow)

Kibi no naka (In the canefield)

About 200,000 Japanese left Japan for Hawai'i, most to work on the rapidly growing sugar industry, between the 1880s and the 1920s, when the United States totally excluded immigrants from Asia and the Pacific. This large diaspora was matched by immigration to the United States mainland and Brazil; fewer Japanese left for Canada and Peru. By 1900, the Japanese population, about 40% of the total, was the largest ethnic group in Hawai'i.

Sugar plantations were commercially viable beginning in the 1840s in Hawai'i; a major boost came when the Civil War in 1861-65 cut off supplies of sugar from the American South. Sugar plantations, as capitalist agriculture, required large numbers of cheap labor and planters originally relied on Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, and the Chinese. But there was a growing demand for workers and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 eventually cut off a critical supply. These conditions encouraged planters and the Hawaiian Kingdom to turn to Japan. Plantations generally created separate camps for the different ethnic groups as well as for the hierarchically stratified workforce. There were over 70 plantations in the Islands at the height of the sugar boom. While the camps were separated and planters deliberately kept groups apart to discourage organized labor solidarity, other social forces encouraged the formation of a "local" community comprised of the various ethnic working groups, including the Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Korean, Puerto Rican, Portuguese and Native Hawaiian. These integrating forces included public schools, sports, festivals, and labor organizing.

Some of the holehole bushi reflect these contrary movements but most reflect work and life within the Japanese community. The immigrants probably spontaneously composed and sang thousands of lyrics but only a few dozen survived the plantation era. Some early songs celebrated the joys of successful harvest and companionship or family; many more lamented oppressive conditions of work in the fields, the desperate loneliness of years away from village and family, the anxiety of supporting families back in their home villages, of anger at the discrimination they faced. By 1910, these songs had migrated to urban teahouses where men drank at their leisure, entertained by local geisha, and sang a variety of popular Japanese songs, including holehole bushi.

Folk songs were extremely popular in rural Japan and were an integral part of the "cultural baggage" immigrants brought to Hawai'i. The holehole bushi melody appears closest to rice-threshing songs from the Hiroshima region—a genealogy which makes sense because more immigrants came from Hiroshima than any other prefecture. The songs are made up of four lines, longer than haiku but shorter than tanka, the traditional forms of poetry in Japan. Holehole bushi follow the classic poetic style in terms of number of syllables in each line: 7,7,7,5. Most important, these lyrics are direct expressions from the immigrants, themselves. Most of the written documentation about plantation work and life come from men who were the officials, journalists, and writers. But the holehole bushi include many examples which clearly provide women's perspectives:

Asu wa Sande ja yo (Tomorrow is Sunday)
Asobi ni oide (Come for a visit)
Kane wa hanawai (My husband will be watering the cane)

Wash'ya uchi ni (I'll be home alone)

Every observer "knew" that this genre would die with the immigrants who composed and sang holehole bushi. The last of this Issei generation disappeared well before the turn of the twenty-first century. And yet, a quick glance, today, YouTube reveals a vibrant mix of singers performing holehole bushi. The major reason for this "renaissance" of the songs was the pioneering preservation work of Harry Minoru Urata (1910-2009), a music teacher in Honolulu who taught the songs to hundreds of students. Most important, beginning in the 1960s, he traveled the islands to tape interviews with immigrants still alive and recorded holehole bushi as they had sung them while on the plantations. His collection has been donated to the Smithsonian Institution Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

Harry Urata taught holehole bushi and recorded the songs because of his respect for the Issei, the immigrant pioneers in Hawai'i. And the songs had an uncanny ability to stay alive; retired plantation workers continued to sing them for their own pleasure; in 1960, The Hawaii Times, a Japanese language daily in Honolulu solicited old and new holehole bushi in a contest and hundreds of entries were submitted. In 1994, Urata persuaded Kayo Hatta to base her film script on stories around the holehole bushi; Picture Bride became an award-winning feature at Cannes and Sundance. Then, in 2000, Japanese television powerhouse NHK held its popular singing contest in Honolulu. Urata convinced his student, Allison Arakawa, to enter and sing holehole bushi. She resisted, feeling that peasant folksongs would not fare well in such a sophisticated setting. To everyone's surprise, she won the grand prize and NHK even included the song in a hugely popular morning drama series the next year. Today, there are dozens of videos available, including manga versions, which feature holehole bushi. These are truly the folksongs that refused to die.

Authored by Franklin Odo, University of Hawai'i at Manoa (ret.)

For More Information

Chinen, Karleen. "Hole Hole Bushi: Voices from the Canefields." The Hawaii Herald, May 4, 1984, 6.

Hole Hole Bushi: Song of the Cane Fields. Produced by Chris Conybeare with the assistance of Franklin Odo. 30 min. KHET-TV, 1984. Part of "Rice and Roses" series on immigrant life on the plantations.

Odo, Franklin. "Voices from the Canefields: Japanese Immigrant Folk Songs from Hawaii Sugar Plantations." New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming, 2012.