For nearly one hundred years, cash crop production of sugar cane, pineapple, coffee, and other products dominated Hawai'i's economy as eventually over eighty plantations sprung up throughout the Islands following the arrival of foreigners. The emergence of "King Sugar" in Hawai'i initiated great social changes with the arrival of immigrant workers from China, Korea, Puerto Rico, and Japan. Long hours and harsh working conditions on many plantations, however, often created a contentious relationship between workers who sought greater autonomy and increased pay and owners who desired the maximization of their profits. While the Big Five, a collection of plantation conglomerates, was the driving force behind Hawai'i's economy for many years, World War II ushered in the growing influence of the military and the tourism industry that eventually replaced commercialized agriculture.
The Creation of a Plantation Economy
In 1835, William Hooper of Boston arrived in Kōloa on the island of Kaua'i to establish the first plantation in Hawai'i. Faced with unfamiliar weather conditions, native workers who seemed resistant to work, and intense isolation, Hooper left Kōloa four years later. Despite his failure, Hooper's venture initiated great changes as it opened the way for the development of a corporate-dominated sugar economy and a paternalistic racial and class hierarchy in the Islands. After Hooper's departure, four events in Hawai'i would lead to the enthronement of "King Sugar": the Great Mahele of 1848, which destroyed the traditional system of land ownership in Hawai'i enabling foreigners to own land; the Gold Rush that created a new market for food products shipped from Hawai'i; the American Civil War that increased the price of sugar eightfold, making sugar production in Hawai'i economically profitable; and finally the Reciprocity Treaty that enabled Hawai'i to export sugar, duty free, to the United States.  However, as the plantations flourished, the need for labor increased given its short supply. Measles, smallpox, and venereal disease had significantly reduced the indigenous population, and by 1860, only approximately twenty-two percent (66,984) of the original 1778 Hawai'i population remained. The number of native Hawaiians available to work as laborers would have been insufficient even if they had been inclined to work in the sugar industry, which they were not. 
Utilization of Japanese Labor
After early efforts to utilize Chinese workers proved unsuccessful, members of the Bureau of Immigration in Hawai'i increasingly looked to Japan as the solution to the worker shortages and worker difficulties in the Islands. Despite an early unsuccessful start in 1868, during the government-sponsored immigration period between 1885 to 1894, twenty-six ships carrying Japanese immigrants landed in Honolulu, bringing approximately 29,000 Japanese to Hawai'i's shores.  Many arrived looking for work, expecting to return to Japan after their labor contract expired, dreaming of wealth and easy riches. However, life on the plantations was debilitating even to those used to field work.
Laborers worked from sunup to sundown for minimal pay; during the half-hour lunch break before noon, Japanese laborers ate their lunches of rice and daikon (Japanese radish) with some salted salmon, dried fish, or broiled codfish in the fields. Lacking a proper diet for the harsh plantation environment, Japanese workers were susceptible to beri-beri and other diseases. Many workers detested the harsh labor and substandard living conditions they were forced to endure, and their anger toward and resistance against authorities increased as well as self-destructive behaviors. Often, living quarters on many Hawaiian plantations were unfit for habitation. Laborers working ten to twelve hours a day in cane fields or mills returned exhausted at twilight to dismal, termite-ridden bunkhouses. Conditions varied from plantation to plantation but, typically, workers huddled together in barracks that accommodated anywhere from six to forty men, and rough, one-by-twelve wooden planks served as beds. Overcrowding particularly characterized the plantations along the Hāmākua coast, where as many as one hundred Japanese were cramped together in a single barrack. According to one observer, these conditions were "detrimental to morals as well as comfort."  Married men were usually furnished with small rooms for their families, but sometimes bachelors shared these quarters. Privacy was a luxury enjoyed by few and the community bath and boarding house often functioned as gathering places for the early Japanese community. The decline of traditional values and communal control coupled with a disproportionate sex ratio led many to commit "immoral acts" as "they were free from communal punishment."  The vast majority of the Japanese laborers were described as "ignorant and excitable," with "little knowledge of the ordinary decencies and proprieties of life," possessing a "heathenish recklessness of conduct" that was manifested in a number of ways. 
Worker Resistance on the Plantations
On the plantations, workers were known to resort to violence as a way of protesting against harsh and unfair treatment. While most daily acts of violence and resistance went unrecorded, workers did not submissively accept ill treatment and often resorted to aggression, on collective as well as individual levels. Workers often engaged in violence against overseers; lunas were particular targets of worker violence as they imposed the will of the plantation owner and wielded fundamental control over their lives and bodies. Despite the penalties imposed by planters, fines, physical violence, verbal reprimands, arrests, and other methods proved inadequate in deterring violations by either party.
To protest harsh working conditions, workers also developed subtle day-to-day methods of resistance that were vexatious to plantation owners. Although workers did not control the means of production, they could control the pace and quality of their labor. Many workers were deliberately inefficient and sought to minimize their labor through recalcitrance, feigning illness, and work slowdowns. Workers also covertly smoked, gossiped, and rested when the watchful eyes of the luna were not upon them. They became skilled in the art of deception, appearing to be energetic while taking every opportunity to avoid real productivity.
To mitigate the daily drudgery of hard labor, many plantation workers also resorted to drugs, including opium, heroin, morphine, and alcohol. Although it is impossible to know the extent of alcohol and drug usage, many workers used these substances after work and on weekends as well as during their lunch breaks. In addition to drug use and drinking, workers often engaged in gambling in the camps through all hours of the night, to the consternation of plantation managers and lunas, who desired a rested and productive labor force. One plantation owner testified that the sixty to seventy Japanese he employed "are not so much addicted to drinking as to gambling," contributing to their inefficiency during the day and their sense of transiency and lawlessness as a predominantly bachelor labor force. 
Some workers, despite repeated beatings and imprisonment, attempted to run away from the plantations to gain their freedom, even if they were unable to rise out of the ranks of exploited laborers. Those who did not have the educational background and work experience to enable them to escape became increasingly recalcitrant and resistant to the lunas. Ha'alele Hana , or desertion from service, was particularly common during the nineteenth century. In 1892, authorities arrested 5,706 individuals for deserting their contract services on the plantations. Of these arrests, 5,387 were convicted. To control the problem of Ha'alele Hana, planters formed surveillance networks and an informal system of mutual assistance for the capture of deserters. Others offered rewards for the capture of runaways as "incentives" to identify deserters and report suspicious individuals or "wandering laborers" to the authorities.
Conducted on both individual and collective levels, resistance against planter dominance characterized the early history of Japanese in the Islands. Despite the dual system of justice and federal and local legislation designed to restrict the rights and movements of the Japanese, numerous laborers remained defiant. Many plantation owners frequently clashed with Japanese workers and conflict on the plantations became a source of anxiety for many whites. Consequently, the plantations became a "contested terrain"; while planters tried to extract as much labor as possible from their workers, laborers sought to acquire greater control over their work, personal autonomy, and economic freedom. 
Despite continuous problems with labor that resulted in major strikes in 1909 and 1920, plantations became the cornerstone of Hawai'i's economy prior to World War II. Following the annexation of Hawai'i, a group of family-owned corporations—Castle & Cooke, Alexander & Baldwin, C. Brewer & Co., American Factors (now Amfac) and Theo H. Davies & Co.—collectively known as the Big Five dominated the economic and political landscape of the Islands.
"In no part of the United States is a single industry so predominant as the sugar industry is in Hawaii," wrote Ray Stannard Baker. A 1905 study elaborated on this statement: "Directly or indirectly, all individuals in the Territory of Hawaii are ultimately dependent upon the sugar industry. The social, the economic and the political structure of the islands alike are built upon a foundation of sugar." Acting as agents for thirty-six of the thirty-eight major sugar plantations, the Big Five openly monopolized the sugar trade. Twenty-nine firms, producing seven out of every eight tons of sugar exported from the Islands, refined, marketed, and distributed their product through the Big Five's owned California and Hawaiian Sugar Company, whose refinery, the largest in the world, was located in San Francisco.
Although sugar profits varied with market price, plantations often generated great wealth that became concentrated in the hands of a small number of affluent white families while the thousands of workers they employed often struggled to make ends meet. In 1925, sugar interests made $25 million dollars in profits on a $100 million dollar crop. The Hawaiian Agricultural Company made a 30 percent profit in 1915, 67 percent in 1920, and 17 percent in 1925. An even larger Big Five firm, Maui’s Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Company, that controlled 35,000 acres and housed 3,200 workers, regularly returned a 20 percent profit to its stockholders. From 1894 through 1923, Castle and Cooke profits amounted to over $12 million, out of which over $6 million was paid as dividends—average yearly dividends being a substantial 36.2 percent. 
Decline of the Plantations
Although plantation owners enjoyed decades of unfettered control and profits, World War II ultimately broke the monopoly enjoyed by the Big Five and ushered in dramatic social and economic changes for the people of Hawai'i. During World War II, the military forced the Big Five to relinquish much of their traditional power with the establishment of martial law. The end of the war also consolidated the military presence in Hawai'i, which became the center of United States expansion throughout the Pacific Basin. In the postwar period, sugar began to produce smaller profits, encouraging the expansion of American corporations into tourism and resort development. These changes, along with unprecedented opportunities for Nisei veterans who participated in the GI Bill , led many Japanese to enter into new areas of business and employment. Additionally, many Nisei became effective organizers in the emerging International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union (ILWU), which successfully brought workers of different nationalities together. In 1946 and 1949, the ILWU organized dock workers and all areas of sugar and pineapple production before calling major strikes that ended the era of almost total control by plantation managers and the emergence of new rights and opportunities for workers.
For More Information
The Alexander and Baldwin Sugar Museum. http://www.sugarmuseum.com/ .
Beechert, Edward D. Working in Hawaii: A Labor History . Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1985.
"Better Housing for Plantation Laborers." Friend , May 1899, 36.
Hawai'i's Plantation Village. http://www.hawaiiplantationvillage.org/ .
Hawaiian Sugar Planter's Association. Plantation Archives. University of Hawai'i at Manoa Library. http://www2.hawaii.edu/~speccoll/m_about.html .
"The Hilo Court." Daily Bulletin , May 27, 1890, 4.
Kent, Noel J. Hawaii: Islands Under the Influence . New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983.
Kodama-Nishimoto, Michi, Warren S. Nishimoto, and Cynthia A. Oshiro, eds. Hanahana: An Oral History Anthology of Hawaii's Working People . Honolulu: Ethnic Studies Oral History Project, University of Hawaii at Manoa, 1984.
Masuoka, Jitsuichi. "Changing Moral Bases of the Japanese Family in Hawaii". Sociology and Social Research 21, 2 (November–December 1936): 158-169.
Moriyama, Alan Takeo. "Imingaisha: Japanese Emigration Companies and Hawaii, 1894-1908." Ph.D. diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 1982.
Okihiro, Gary Y. Cane Fires: The Anti-Japanese Movement in Hawaii, 1865-1945 . Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.
"Peril from Heathen Japanese." Friend , May 1899, 34.
Takaki, Ronald. Pau Hana: Plantation Life and Labor in Hawaii . Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1983.
- Ronald Takaki, Pau Hana: Plantation Life and Labor in Hawaii (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1983), 19.
- Edward D. Beechert, Working in Hawaii: A Labor History (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1985), 60.
- Alan Takeo Moriyama, "Imingaisha: Japanese Emigration Companies and Hawaii, 1894-1908" (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Los Angeles 1982), 35.
- "Better Housing for Plantation Laborers," Friend , May 1899, 36.
- Jitsuichi Masuoka, "Changing Moral Bases of the Japanese Family in Hawaii" Sociology and Social Research 21, 2 (November–December 1936): 166.
- "Peril from Heathen Japanese," Friend , May 1899, 34.
- "The Hilo Court," Daily Bulletin , May 27, 1890, 4.
- Richard Edwards, Contested Terrain: The Transformation of the Workplace in the Twentieth Century (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1979).
- Noel J. Kent, Hawaii: Islands Under the Influence (New York: Monthly Review Press), 74-75.
Last updated June 19, 2020, 4:27 p.m..