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Event today at ‘Imiloa honors first Japanese immigrants

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Catherine West Dale displays a photo of her Gannenmono ancestors, including her great-great-grandfather Matsugoro Kuwada Wednesday.
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Catherine West Dale holds a photo of her Gannenmono ancestor Matsugoro Kuwada Wednesday in her Keaukaha home.

It’s been 150 years since the Gannenmono arrived in Hawaii.

Art Taniguchi, honorary consul general of Japan in Hilo, said the Gannenmono were the first organized Japanese immigrants to arrive in Hawaii.

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Approximately 150 people came by ship to primarily work in the sugar plantations.

“They were the trailblazers, and when you think about it, when you look at the Japanese influence here, they were the first ones that really came,” he said.

Among the original 150 was Matsugoro Kuwada.

Sitting in the kitchen of her Keaukaha home a century and a half later, his great-great-granddaughter Catherine West Dale had a stack of papers on the table in front of her — snippets from her family tree and past articles about the Gannenmono.

“I have a great interest in my genealogy, and I have a very wide variety of ancestors from all over the world, one being from Japan, which is very interesting in and of itself,” she said.

“My parents and my grandparents and my great-grandparents have instilled this in us as kids and taught us about our ancestors. So I was always aware of Kuwada and the fact that he came from Japan on the first ship to Hawaii, the first ship of contracted laborers.”

In a book about the Gannenmono, Dale opened to a picture of Kuwada, bearded and seated with his family, which included his Hawaiian wife and daughter, Kimi Matsu, Dale’s great-grandmother.

As a child, Dale knew her great-grandmother, but Matsu was “elderly then” and Dale said she didn’t get the chance to have one-on-one conversations with her about their heritage.

“This (is the) kind of history that would be talked about and shared and celebrated,” she said.

“And again, with the large Japanese cultural presence in Hilo and the whole state, there would be times over the years when my grandfather would be called upon to represent Japanese culture.”

Her grandfather, Thomas “Lofty” Cook, was the chairman of the county Board of Supervisors from 1959 to 1962. He was the son of Matsu and grandson of Kuwada.

According to Taniguchi, Cook helped establish the sister city relationship with Izu Oshima, Japan.

To celebrate the cultural connection between Hawaii and Japan, the Hawaii Japanese Center’s Gannenmono committee will host an event at 6 p.m. today at ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center.

Crew members from Polynesian voyaging canoe Hokule‘a’s 2007 journey to Japan will share stories and photos from that trip.

There are “seven crew members from that voyage that reside on our island,” said Taniguchi, who chairs the committee.

It’s a chance to hear the local crew members share their experiences “and actually get to know kind of the relationship between Japan and Hawaii,” he said.

Dale, who attended Gannenmono celebrations in Honolulu this summer, said it’s important to “connect to our past and celebrate these people — this man who got on a ship and came across the ocean in 1868, not even knowing what to expect when he got here, to go to a new land and labor hard to make a good life for himself and then his eventual family, then for us to learn from that and hold those values up and to carry on for our children and their children.

“It’s good to know where you come from,” she continued. “It helps you in figuring out where to go, or where not to go.”

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Friday’s event is free, and as of Thursday morning, Taniguchi said it was still scheduled despite heavy rainfall caused by Hurricane Lane.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.