Voices from the Fields

Kelli Yakabu

Voices from the Fields: Holehole bushi of the Hawaiian Plantations and the Slave Songs of the South

As a fifth generation Japanese American, I have always felt disconnected to my ancestors who first arrived in Hawaii. As I do not live in Hawaii and thus do not live close to my grandparents and older relatives, any family history before my parents is a mystery. Also, the story of my family’s arrival and the years working on the plantations in Hawaii is rarely spoken about and clearly reflects sensitive and painful memories. However, my grandma recently sent me a documentary about the holehole bushi called Canefield Songs: Holehole Bushi. This documentary focuses on the development of the holehole bushi, a song genre that comes from traditional Japanese folk songs and poetry with lyrics adapted and composed by the Japanese immigrant laborers on the plantations in Hawaii in the late 19th and early 20th century. “Holehole” is a Hawaiian word for the withered and dying leaves of the sugar cane and “Bushi” is the Japanese word for “tune” or “melody” (Canefield Songs). This documentary was a way for me to learn about my ancestors and what they went through because these songs are specifically composed and sung by the Japanese immigrants. I was also shocked that I was able to see a lot of similarities between these songs and the African American slave songs.

I specifically chose this documentary because it highlighted the fact that the holehole bushi are not just songs about work. Rather, they are about everything the plantation workers, specifically the women, experienced: work, relationships, hopes for the future, prostitution, hatred towards the white bosses and overseers, and other topics. I thought this was interesting because they are like the African American slave songs. Both types of songs revealed, through music, what life was like from someone at the bottom of society. My grandma, who grew up in the McGerrow camp on Maui, is not even sure where a lot of the artifacts from our plantation past are or if they have even survived. While personal history is difficult to come by just as it is for African Americans whose roots date back to slavery, these songs serve as a primary document. They reveal and describe the experiences and conditions of some, but not all, of the Japanese immigrants and the African American slaves. The biggest connection I drew between both types of songs was how they were used as a means of resistance: music was a way to retain a connection to their homeland and to humanize each other despite their situations. I find it fascinating how music can be such an expressive tool for a group of people who struggle to have a voice in their society.

This documentary was co-produced by PBS Hawaii and the University of Hawaii West O’ahu and is part of “The Canefield Songs Project.” It was premiered on PBS Hawaii in September of this year. This project seeks to preserve and protect the legacy of holehole bushi as part of Hawaii’s plantation history (UH West O’ahu). The director/producer is Joy Chong-Stannard and the executive producer/writer is Chris Conybeare. They have collaborated in the past, producing a documentary on the holehole bushi featuring Harry Urata and Franklin Odo in 1984 (Odo xiii). Franklin Odo worked as the historical advisor on this documentary and also wrote the book, Voices From the Canefields, which this documentary is partly based on (UH West O’ahu). His inspiration comes from his involvement with Harry Urata who preserved the holehole bushi and taped interviews with aging immigrants (Odo x). Thanks to this documentary, these tapes have been digitized and saved from deterioration due to its age. It represents the renewed interest in the holehole bushi due to their themes and haunting sadness. More recently they can be heard in tea houses and night clubs in Japan, music festivals in Japan and Hawaii, and at Bon Festivals, festivals to honor the spirits of ancestors, in Hawaii (UH West O’ahu). Just like the slave songs, holehole bushi is an oral tradition; without preservation, recordings, or future generations picking it up, they can be lost forever. African American slave songs were only recorded after the abolition of slavery; it took much longer for the holehole bushi to be recorded even after many of the first generation immigrants left the plantations (Dixon 12).

The existence and longevity of the holehole bushi reflect the large Japanese population on the plantations. From 1885-1924, more than 200,000 Japanese immigrants arrived in Hawaii, quickly becoming the majority of sugar workers. These songs are significant to the early Japanese immigration period because it reveals the hardships and struggles many of these immigrants faced when they arrived (Canefield Songs). Holehole work was considered women’s work; thus, many of the songs were originally composed and sung by women. Through holehole bushi they were able to resist the race, class, and gender oppression that was aimed at them. They went against the Japanese expectations of chastity and obedience as some of these women sang about selling their bodies for money (Odo xxiii). The lyrics provide a unique perspective from the women plantations workers and were able to be passed down orally. Similarly, the songs from slavery both revealed what life was like for them (both men and women) during slavery as well as representing a mode of resistance. With the evolution of racial slavery and the Slave Codes in 1705, to be black meant to be property, to be in bondage. The Slave Codes limited the lives of slaves and prevented them from rising above slavery as it restricted rights such as education and testifying in court. Slavery as a total institution rigidly controlled the daily lives of slaves and made resistance difficult. To deal with the psychological effects of slavery, music became a means of cultural resistance (Pittman, Slavery & Slave Resistance). African Americans were able to express their struggles, their hopes, and their life through these songs just like the Japanese immigrants.

While the holehole bushi are from the late 19th and early 20th century and the African American songs come out of the antebellum south, both groups utilized music as a way to hold onto their roots when physical return was out of the question. Both the Japanese and African Americans music came from melodies and rhythms of their homelands yet the lyrics were changed to reflect their new circumstances. This was one way music is a form of resistance: they were able to hold onto their roots and remind themselves of where they came from despite daily degradation from owners and overseers. For the Japanese, the holehole bushi can be traced back to the folk traditions of rural Japan. Most of the immigrants came from rural backgrounds where these traditional rural songs were often sung (Odo xxi). In the documentary, Katsue Asakura, an elderly issei (first generation) who grew up on the plantations, sings a song that demonstrates the difficulties of the diaspora she and other immigrants experienced:

Hawaii, Hawaii

I saw as in a dream.

Now my tears are flowing

In the cane fields.

(Canefield Songs)

While the song she sings retains the same melody from Japan, the lyrics have been changed to reflect life in Hawaii. The women workers experienced many hardships and wanted to go back to Japan; however, they did not have enough money because they were not paid enough. During a strike in 1920, Yasu Sato recounts how some white people would laugh at them because the banner they held showed how little they were being paid ($15/month) (Canefield Songs). As seen in the song, many Japanese immigrants saw Hawaii as a place of opportunity, as a place where they can make a better living for themselves. However, once they arrived, they realize how the racial hierarchy prevented them from saving money and moving up in society. Asakura admits that she cried a lot in the canefields just as the song says, but it was not just because of the incredibly hard work. Rather, it was also because she would think of Japan and how, if she had stayed there, she would have children (Canefield Songs). Because she could not afford to go back, she had to rely on the other Japanese immigrants and the holehole bushi with its familiar, Japanese melody to provide some comfort. This relates to how music was also a way for them to humanize each other: by rooting holehole bushi in Japanese melodies, it allows immigrants to remember their roots and who they are even when life has become so hard.

The slave songs of the South can also be traced back to Africa. Before the 19th century, recognizable African harmonies and rhythms were able to draw African Americans together despite language barriers. Furthermore, African Americans retained their African musical roots even more by using drums, an instrument that is familiar among different African societies. However, white people outlawed drums as they were afraid of its ability to communicate secret messages that could lead to African American solidarity and empowerment. South Carolina even enacted the Negro Code of 1740 which banned loud instruments “which may call together, or give sign or notice to one another of their wicked designs and purposes” (Wood 86). Despite white people’s attempts to erase this part of African American identity, the slaves resisted. Just like the Japanese, they brought together their African heritage and melodies (their roots) with stories of their own difficult circumstances (their own personal life in America) – the slave songs became a fusion of both Africa and America. They also retain other important practices of African musical culture including the importance of the spoken word, verbal improvisation, and group participation. This is why the “call and response” form is common (“Sorrow Songs”). Pre-19th century African Americans, like the Japanese, were not able to return to Africa. Rather, they had to cherish the musical traditions they brought along with them. By holding onto these traditions, they were able to retain part of their African identity and a connection to a lost past.

While both the Japanese and African Americans were degraded and devalued by their overseers and owners, they looked to music to humanize one another. In the documentary, Katsue Asakura also sings a song she remembers about love:

Here in Hawaii

We count our lives by the clock

But you are the only one

I can count on.

(Canefield Songs)

Despite being only 4 short lines, it creates a story and evokes powerful images of life in Hawaii. The song points out, in the second line, how they did not have the power to control their own lives; rather, their work times were set by the plantation owners. Asakura explains that she worked from 6am – 4pm, six and a half days a week (Canefield Songs). While the Japanese immigrants were not slaves like African Americans, both of their daily lives were dictated by the plantation overseers. This line also reveals that their life revolved around the plantation and around work. However, the last two lines address the woman’s lover (as these songs were often sung by women). In these lines it is clear that close relationships were very important to the Japanese immigrants and provided a way to deal with the hard labor. It reminded them of their self-worth and value. While the plantation workers rarely interacted directly with the plantation owners, they were constantly in contact with the luna, or field overseers (Odo 58). They would sometimes experience humiliating and brutal interactions with the luna involving whippings and violence, and women would sometimes experience harassment (Odo 60, 61). This song also humanizes the woman’s lover, a form of resistance to the degrading treatment by the luna. Rather than staying quiet about it, they would sing these songs to humanize each other. Because of the racial hierarchy that white people set up in Hawaii with the Japanese and other ethnic groups at the bottom, these types of love songs were important to help them deal with the dehumanizing work and interactions on the plantations.

I was surprised when I heard this song in the documentary because I remember learning in class how important it was for African American slaves to humanize each other through things such as fictive kinship ties and music. Not only did slaves also have to deal with the violent and physical interactions with plantation owners and overseers (and to a worse extent), they also had to deal with families being broken up. Slaves were purchased as individuals and not as families because slavery is an economy that does contain any human or legal rights. If families could survive the Middle Passage together they were often separated on the auction block. Furthermore, many were forced to migrate because of slave sales, owner migration, or white inheritance practices. In the Upper South, 2/3 of slave sales were children and they were sold to distant markets, away from their parents (Pittman, Paradigms, Diasporas, & Constraints). These were methods used by white people to erase a slave’s past and family so that he could assimilate easier into slavery; without roots or family history/connections, it is easier to feel like you have little self-worth or purpose. Music, however, was used to remind them of who they are and to give them a sense of identity that had been taken away from them. In the film 12 Years A Slave, the slaves sing “Roll Jordan Roll” at a burial ceremony for another slave (12 Years A Slave). While this song originally had a Christian message, the slaves have subverted it to express their own struggles and their own desires. This demonstrates their own empowerment despite their constant state of dehumanization by the white owners. By coming together and singing for this man, it also demonstrates the respect they have for each other and the support they give each other despite lack of biological ties (“’12 Years A Slave'”). Because families were broken up so often, singing about biological family members can be painful; however, songs such as the one seen in 12 Years A Slave were used to bring slaves in the community together, to empower them, to humanize them.

The Japanese and African Americans were able, through music, to resist plantation owners and overseers’ attempts at dehumanization. For African Americans in particular, it was a way to prevent their identity from being completely wiped away. It is important to note that plantation life in Hawaii was not slavery; I am not attempting to draw exact connections between the Japanese and African American slaves. Rather, I thought it was fascinating how, despite coming out of two different time periods, music evolved into a form of resistance for these marginalized racial groups because it provided a connection to their roots and a reminder of who they are and where they came from. They also allow for self-expression of their own struggles. While I have heard slave songs growing up, this is the first time I have even heard of holehole bushi even though it is part of my family history. While slave songs have stuck with us and are a reminder of life under slavery, holehole bushi is just starting to be embraced. As the issei generation has nearly disappeared, it is now more important than ever to preserve these songs as they are oral traditions. The documentary demonstrates how new generations have created new arrangements of the holehole bushi, keeping the spirit of the songs alive (Canefield Songs). These songs, both Japanese and African American, are primary documents, windows into the lives of those who sung them, unmediated oral accounts from the perspectives of the oppressed.



Works Cited

12 Years a Slave. Dir. Steve McQueen. 20th Century Fox, 2014. Film.

“‘12 Years A Slave’ Is This Year’s Best Film About Music.” NPR. NPR. Web.

18 Nov. 2015.

Canefield Songs: Holehole Bushi. Dir. Joy Chong-Stannard. PBS Hawaii, 2015. Film.

Dixon, Melvin. Ride Out the Wilderness: Geography and Identity in Afro-American Literature. University of Illinois Press, 1987. Print.

Odo, Franklin. Voices from the Canefields: Folk Songs from Japanese Immigrant Workers in Hawai’i. New York: Oxford UP, 2013. Print.

Pittman, LaShawnDa (2015). Slavery & Slave Resistance [PowerPoint slides].

Pittman, LaShawnDa (2015). Paradigms, Diasporas, & Constraints [PowerPoint slides].

“Sorrow Songs.” American Passages: A Literary Survey. Annenberg Foundation. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.

UH West O’ahu. UH West Oʻahu Documentary About The Songs Of Japanese Immigrant Plantation Workers To Air On PBS Hawaii Sept. 17 Canefield Songs: Holehole Bushi Narrated By Jake Shimabukuro. 2015. Print.

Wood, Peter H. To Make Our World Anew: Strange New Land. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.


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