From Brocade to Bansai! The wealth of the Japanese diaspora, 1885-1940

When the first mass migration of Japanese to Hawai‘i began in 1885, government officials urged the migrants eventually to return to their hometowns flaunting their wealth—or “dressed in brocade,” in the idiom of the time. The burgeoning Japanese diaspora community in Hawai‘i, and in the Americas, was categorized exactly as that—as made up of “migrants” (imin) primarily driven by economic motives. This was in stark contrast to “colonizers” (shokumin), whom officials considered to be working for the higher needs of the nation. Yet as much recent research has shown, this bureaucratic division between “migrants” and “colonizers” did not reflect the historical realities of the late-nineteenth century, nor was it recognized by the actors themselves. (Despite this, it has continued to inform most historiographical debates about the relationship between Japanese migration and colonialism.) Moreover, by the mid-1930s, the Japanese state had changed its tune, and began to claim the first emigrants to Hawai‘i as “pioneers” of a Japanese expansionism which had begun in the Pacific and reached its apogee with the colonization of Manchuria. In this sense, the “wealth” of Japanese transpacific migration encompassed the individual, the hometown, the nation, and the broader project of imperial expansion. This paper will thread through these different levels of analysis in order to offer an actor-based perspective on riches and belonging from the beginning to the zenith of Japanese imperialism.