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Three— The Oahu Strike Begins: Honolulu: 1919–1920
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The Rice Riots of 1918

In the latter half of 1917, in response to rising prices, demands for wage increases were heard once again in the Hawaiian sugar plantations. In 1918 a declaration demanding wage increases was issued by the joint youth organization on five plantations in the Hamakua area of the island of Hawaii. The consciousness of the young cane field workers was fired by the activities of mainland laborers roused by the Russian revo-


lution. Yet what made the greatest impact on these youths was the rice riots in their homeland.

During the wartime boom, prices in Japan rose and rice prices soared. The Terauchi cabinet proclaimed a policy of restraint on cornering the market, export prohibition, and control over rice imports, but the situation was out of control. Stockpiling of rice for the military in anticipation of the Siberian intervention caused the price of rice to rise even further. The rice riots began on August 3, the day after the Siberian intervention was announced. Fishermen's wives in the village of Uozu, Toyama prefecture, protested the shipment of rice out of the prefecture to Osaka. Protest demonstrations quickly spread throughout the country. The Honolulu Consulate General issued a notice that "due to the rice famine in Japan, imported Japanese rice should only be sold to Japanese." When he spoke to immigrant workers, Bunji Suzuki of the Yuaikai[*] was surprised to find that they were eating high-quality Japanese rice from Yamaguchi and Kumamoto prefectures. No matter how strained their budgets, they wanted Japanese rice on their tables. It was not surprising that they reacted with panic when they heard that the supply would be depleted two months after the consulate's warning.

In Hawaii the price of rice jumped to twice what it had been the previous year. When it was revealed that the four large trading companies with headquarters in Japan had been hoarding rice in Hawaii, rumors flew that the four shops were going to be "wrecked." Not only rice prices, but the prices of other indispensable imported Japanese foods—soy sauce, miso, dried fish, pickled ume plums, pickled daikon radishes—had risen sharply in the half year after Noboru Tsutsumi had arrived in Hawaii. One Japanese-language newspaper called for "the overthrow of the pickled daikon millionaires."

News of the rice riots had as much impact on the Japanese in Hawaii as the Russian revolution had on Japanese leftists like Sen Katayama in New York. A few, believing that revolution was afoot in Japan, immediately prepared to return home. The riots affected Japanese of all social classes. What finally brought together the Japanese laborers working in the cane fields was the impact of the protest by fishermen's wives and tenant farmers in Japan, who like themselves were at the bottom of society.

The time was ripe for action, but it was Noboru Tsutsumi who put the anxious feelings of the Japanese immigrant laborers into words and who encouraged them to organize. The cane field workers lived in camps on the plantations, bought items necessary for their daily lives from


the stores operated by the plantation companies, and deducted those charges from their wages. It was a life in which food, clothing, and shelter were all controlled by the company. Tsutsumi summarized the awakening consciousness of the workers: "When the company behaves in such an autocratic manner controlling production, livelihood, and society, the workers' spiritual life is never calm. This is because human beings have in themselves a constant desire for freedom. Even in the face of uncertainty, they do not like interference and restriction by others." The immigrants, he said, were about to "become self-aware of their position in society" under the stimulus of the "trends in the labor world."

Tsutsumi put words in the mouths of the workers:

To live in society as a human being. These times compel me to realize that I am a laborer. The sunlight of democracy shines and labor groups are blossoming. I'm the same as other human beings, so I would like to pluck the beautiful flowers of real society. . . . There were at least a few who realized this and many more who were about to come to this realization.

If the company cannot survive because the price of sugar is low, we could understand the need to help each other and would put up with eating rice gruel. But at a time when the price of sugar is going from $60 a ton to $80, then to $100, to $150, and to more than $200, our bosses are full of idle talk that they are flush, have money left over, are getting large dividends; and they're lording it over us by living in grand houses and riding around in big cars.

It's not as if we had drawn our fortune from the gods that we would ho[*] hana [do hoeing work] all our lives from the time we come bawling into this world. We must do something to be able to bear it. If we stay quiet, no matter how many years go by we will stay sunk like a hammer in the river and we will not be able to raise our heads in pride. Brothers, let's think about this. Laborers threatened by economic distress are forced to consider their present circumstances and the future of their descendants.

The single word pau [finished; fired] ruins the foothold gained over several decades, forcing a household to keep from uttering it. The bosses are trying to oppress us by treating us as they treated government contract immigrants or ignorant laborers in the past. This is unacceptable to progressive thinking youths and laborers who are in touch with current trends. And yet, in the struggle between employer and employee, we are weak as individuals.

Using the plain words spoken by cane field workers, Tsutsumi captured their attention, and he eventually won their admiration and absolute trust as well.

Through his eloquence, Tsutsumi played the role of standard-bearer for the cane field workers. Liberated from the constraining social structure of Japan and his status as adopted son-in-law, he was feeling more


freedom than when he rode horses across the Kyoto Imperial University campus. The struggles of the workers gave his life a goal.

The year 1919, after the rice riots had subsided in Japan, saw unprecedented labor struggles throughout the United States; 3,630 strikes were carried out by some 4.16 million workers. This was twice as many strikes as in 1916. The biggest reason for the strikes was the economic hardship that accompanied the increased cost of living. In February 1919 a shipyard strike in Seattle turned into a general strike, crippling the entire city's services. After that was settled, a San Francisco Stevedores' Association strike in May sparked other strikes in Los Angeles, San Diego, and other ports on the West Coast. Streetcar strikes occurred in Denver, Chicago, and Nashville; and in September telephone operators and police struck in Boston. At year's end there was a great steel strike by 370,000 steel workers in fifty cities in ten states, centered in Pittsburgh. Federal troops and state militia engaged in bloody clashes with the workers.

The news of these strikes was reported in detail in Hawaii's Japanese-language newspapers. Since Hawaii was dependent on the mainland for many necessary goods, strikes on the West Coast delayed shipments for months and had a great impact on daily life. In 1919 there were eight small-scale strikes in Hawaii.[2] Two were longshoremen's strikes; the others involved telephone operators, machinists, lumber workers, and golf caddies. Japanese carpenters and plasterers also protested wage cuts proposed by the Japanese Contractors' Association, but this dispute did not turn into a major one.

In April 1919 the Japanese-language newspapers, led by Tsutsumi, began to discuss the cane field workers' demand for wage increases. The Hawaiian territorial government, however, did not show much interest in the issue. The workers' discontent was overshadowed by a series of local celebrations: in July, the centennial of the death of King Kamehameha; and in August, the opening of the U.S. Navy dry dock at Pearl Harbor on Oahu. The cane field workers' movement for increased wages and improved working conditions was gradually taking shape against the background of these festivities.

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