That Time Hawaii Tried to Join the Japanese Empire

ShaneMyersPhoto/iStock via Getty Images
ShaneMyersPhoto/iStock via Getty Images

Wandering around Hawaii, you might sometimes feel as if you’ve teleported, unaware, to a different archipelago across the Pacific. Cat figurines beckon from shop windows. Sashimi and bento boxes abound. Signs feature subtitles inscrutable to an English speaker. Hawaii’s ties with Japan are strong.

But they could have been much stronger, if 19th-century Hawaiian monarch King Kalākaua had gotten his way. In 1881, the island’s penultimate monarch hatched a secret plan to form a political alliance with Japan. Had his gambit succeeded, Hawaii would have fallen under the protection of Emperor Meiji's East Asian empire—keeping it out of the clutches of American imperialists bent on turning Hawaii into a U.S. state.

Though you might not know it today, Hawaii's relationship with Japan didn't begin on the best note. The first Japanese emigrants to relocate to Hawaii—other than a handful of hapless sailors—were about 150 sugar laborers in 1868. However, deceptive contracts and poor working conditions drove almost a third of those laborers to return home, and as a result, Japan ended up banning further emigration to Hawaii. The rocky start to formal labor relations between the two countries didn’t bode well for Hawaii, where a century of exposure to European diseases had already left the population a fraction of what it once was. If the island kingdom was to survive, culturally and economically, it would need an influx of new workers.

About a decade later, Hawaiian king David Kalākaua, who had been nurturing a serious case of wanderlust, decided that the labor shortage was important enough for him to leave his kingdom for the better part of a year. His council agreed, and on January 20, 1881, he set off on an around-the-world trip—a first for any world leader. He invited two friends from his school days to join him: Hawaii Attorney General William Nevins Armstrong, who would serve as commissioner of immigration, and Charles Hastings Judd, Kalākaua's private secretary, to manage logistics. A chef rounded out their party of four.

Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

After 10 days in California, the band steamed toward Japan. As a small group from a modest country, they had planned to keep a low profile, but the Japanese government insisted on giving them a royal welcome. Kalākaua and his crew enjoyed two weeks of sightseeing, fine dining, and diplomatic discussions related to trade and immigration.

While most negotiating took place as an ensemble, at some point, Kalākaua slipped away from his companions for a private audience with Emperor Meiji. Taking the emperor by surprise, he proposed an alliance that could have changed the course of Hawaiian, Japanese, and American history.

A marriage between his 5-year-old niece, Princess Victoria Ka'iulani, and the 15-year-old Japanese Prince Higashifushimi Yorihito, Kalākaua argued, would bring the two nations closer together. Kalākaua also suggested that the two leaders form a political union as well as a matrimonial one. Since Japan was the larger and more powerful country, Kalākaua suggested that Meiji lead his proposed Union and Federation of the Asiatic Nations and Sovereigns as its “promoter and chief.”

Kalākaua didn’t leave a written record of the trip, so exactly what kind of relationship he imagined Hawaii might have with Japan in his proposed federation remains unclear. But even if the details of the king’s plan are fuzzy, the potential implications weren't lost on his retinue. “Had the scheme been accepted by the emperor,” Armstrong later wrote in his account of the trip, “it would have tended to make Hawaii a Japanese colony."

Kalākaua kept his motivations for proposing this joining of the two nations from his entourage, but Armstrong later speculated the king had a “vague fear that the United States might in the near future absorb his kingdom.” The U.S. hadn’t taken any overt steps toward annexation yet, but American traders living in Hawaii yearned to stop paying taxes on international imports and exports—nearly all of which came from or went to the States—and so they favored becoming part of the U.S. Kalākaua, undoubtedly aware of their agitations, may very well have desired protection under Japan’s sphere of influence.

The Japanese emperor and prince took Kalākaua’s suggestions into consideration, but politely rejected both in later letters. Higashifushimi wrote that he was “very reluctantly compelled to decline” because of a previous engagement. And while Meiji expressed admiration for the federation idea, he wrote that he faced too many domestic challenges to take on an international leadership role. Armstrong, for his part, speculated that the emperor was also afraid of stepping on America’s toes by cozying up to such a close trading partner.

If Meiji had chosen differently, the next few decades, and the following century, could have played out very differently for Japan, Hawaii, and the United States. Armstrong, for one, immediately recognized how much the “unexpected and romantic incident” could have bent the arc of the kingdom’s history—and the world's. And Europe's reigning superpowers would not have been pleased. Japanese control of Hawaii would have been "a movement distasteful to all of the Great Powers,” Armstrong wrote.

King Kalākaua and his aides in Japan in 1881. Front row, left to right: Prince Higashifushimi, King Kalākaua, and Japanese finance minister Sano Tsunetami. Back row, left to right: Charles Hastings Judd, Japanese Finance Ministry official Tokunō Ryōsuke, and William Nevins Armstrong.Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Kalākaua continued his circumnavigation, going on to visit China, Thailand, England, and a dozen other countries (including a stop in New York for a demonstration of electricity by Thomas Edison) before returning to Hawaii after 10 months abroad. While his bolder moves to poke the West in the eye with a Japanese alliance had fallen short, the main drive for his trip—alleviating the kingdom's labor shortage—ultimately proved a success. Thousands of Portuguese and Chinese emigrants moved to Hawaii the following year.

As for the Japanese, after years of negotiation, Japan lifted its ban on emigration to Hawaii in the mid 1880s. A guarantee of a higher minimum wage—$9 a month for men and $6 for women, up from $4 (about $240 and $160 a month today, respectively, up from $105)—and other benefits led to almost 1000 Japanese men, women, and children coming to Hawaii in February 1885. Almost 1000 more arrived later that year.

By 1900, booming immigration made the Japanese the largest ethnic group on the island chain, with more than 60,000 people representing almost 40 percent of the population. Hawaii had roughly doubled in size since Kalākaua's world tour.

Sadly for Kalākaua, by then his “vague fears” of U.S. imperialism had already come to pass. A group of wealthy, mostly white businessmen and landowners weakened, and eventually overthrew, Hawaii’s constitutional government, leading to annexation by the U.S. in 1898.

But that doesn't mean Kalākaua's trip didn't change the course of Hawaiian history. The king’s political maneuvering may have failed to build a protective alliance with Japan, but it bolstered his islands’ population and laid the groundwork for a cultural diversity that continues today.

11 Masks That Will Keep You Safe and Stylish

Design Safe/Designer Face Covers/Its All Goods
Design Safe/Designer Face Covers/Its All Goods

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The breathable, stretchy fabric in these 3D masks makes them a comfortable option for daily use.

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10 Fascinating Facts About Herman Melville

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Born in New York City to a wealthy and socially connected family, Herman Melville (1819-1891) chose a life as exciting as that of his Moby-Dick narrator Ishmael. He spent years at sea on whaling ships and traveled to far-flung places, but also struggled to make it as a novelist while supporting a large extended family. To celebrate his birthday on August 1, we’re diving into Melville’s adventures and fishing for some surprising facts.

1. Herman Melville's mother changed the spelling of their last name.

Despite his family’s wealth and pedigree—his mother Maria Gansevoort descended from one of the first Dutch families in New York, and his father Allan Melvill came from old Boston stock—young Herman had an unstable, unhappy childhood. Allan declared bankruptcy in 1830 and died two years later, leaving Maria with eight children under the age of 17 and a pile of debt from loans and Allan’s unsuccessful businesses. Soon afterward, Maria added an "e" to their surname—perhaps to hide from collection agencies, although scholars are not sure exactly why. "It always seemed to me an unlikely way to avoid creditors in the early 19th century," Will Garrison, executive director of the Berkshire Historical Society, tells Mental Floss.

2. Herman Melville struggled to find employment.

Thanks to a national financial crisis in 1837, Melville had difficulty finding a permanent job, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. He served as a bank clerk, teacher, land surveyor, and crew member on a packet ship before signing on, in 1841, to the whaler Acushnet of New Bedford, Massachusetts, then the whaling capital of the world. He served aboard a few different whalers and rose to the role of harpooner. His adventures at sea planted the seeds for Melville’s interrogation of man, morality, and nature in Moby-Dick. In that novel, Melville (in the voice of Ishmael) says, "A whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard."

3. Herman Melville jumped ship in the middle of a three-year voyage. 

Melville and the Acushnet’s captain didn’t get along, so when the ship reached the Marquesas Islands, Melville and a friend, Richard Tobias Greene, hid in the forests until the ship departed. They spent a month living with the Pacific Islanders. Melville was impressed with their sophistication and peacefulness; most Europeans believed that Polynesians were cannibals. He also found reason to criticize European attempts to "civilize" the islanders by converting them to Christianity. Melville drew on his South Pacific experiences in his first two novels, which became runaway bestsellers: Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847).

4. Herman Melville was inspired by a mountain.

Herman Melville's home, Arrowhead, in Pittsfield, MassachusettsDaderot/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Melville moved to Arrowhead, his charming mustard-colored home in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, with his wife Elizabeth and their son in 1850, after he achieved fame as a popular adventure novelist. In the upstairs study, he set up his writing desk so he could look out the north-facing window, which perfectly framed the summit of Mount Greylock, Massachusetts’s tallest mountain. Gazing at the peak on a sunny day, Melville was struck by how much the horizontal apex looked "like a sperm whale rising in the distance." He arranged his desk so he would see the summit when he happened to glance up from his work. In that room, in early 1851, Melville completed his manuscript of Moby-Dick.

5. Herman Melville fictionalized an actual whaling disaster.

While on the Acushnet, Melville had learned about an infamous shipwreck from the son of one of its survivors. In November 1820, a massive sperm whale had attacked and sunk the whaleship Essex of Nantucket in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Its crew, stranded in three small boats with little food or water, chose to drift more than 4000 miles to South America instead of 1200 miles to the Marquesas Islands—where Melville had enjoyed his idyll—because they thought they’d be eaten by the natives. Ironically, some of the castaways ended up eating their dead shipmates to survive.

Melville used the disaster to form the climax of Moby-Dick, in which the Pequod of Nantucket is destroyed by the white whale. Melville visited Nantucket for the first time only after the novel was published. He personally interviewed the Essex’s captain, George Pollard, who had survived the terrible ordeal and become the town’s night watchman. Later, Melville wrote, "To the islanders he was a nobody—to me, the most impressive man, tho’ wholly unassuming, even humble—that I ever encountered."

6. Moby-Dick was a flop.

Readers who were expecting another rip-roarin’ adventure like his earlier novels Typee or Redburn were sorely disappointed when Melville’s masterpiece was published in November 1851. The British edition of Moby-Dick, or The Whale received some positive reviews in London newspapers, but American reviewers were shocked at its obscure literary symbolism and complexity. “There is no method in his madness; and we must needs pronounce the chief feature of the volume [the character of Captain Ahab] a perfect failure, and the work itself inartistic,” wrote the New York Albion. The reviewer added that the novel's style was like "having oil, mustard, vinegar, and pepper served up as a dish, in place of being scientifically administered sauce-wise."

7. Herman Melville was very fond of his chimney.

Arrowhead became the locus of Melville’s family life and work. Eventually, he and Lizzie, their two sons and two daughters, his mother Maria, and his sisters Augusta, Helen, and Fanny all lived in the cozy farmhouse. For a couple of years, Nathaniel Hawthorne was such a frequent guest that he had his own small bedroom off Melville’s study. After Moby-Dick, Melville wrote the novels Pierre and The Confidence-Man, his collection of works called The Piazza Tales, short stories including “Bartleby the Scrivener,” and many other pieces there. Melville grew very attached to the house, especially to the massive central chimney, which he immortalized in his 1856 short story “I and My Chimney.” Yet his financial struggles after Moby-Dick failed to find an audience led Melville to sell Arrowhead to his brother Allan in 1863. As an homage, Allan painted a few lines from “I and My Chimney” on the chimney's stonework, which are still visible today.

8. Herman Melville finally got a day job.

Melville’s chronic money woes prompted a return to New York City, into a brick townhouse at 104 East 26th Street in Manhattan, where the family benefited from being back in the bustle of civilization. Melville finally found regular employment as a district inspector for the U.S. Customs Service and maintained an office at 470 West Street. At the same time, he mostly abandoned writing short stories and novels in favor of poetry. In between inspections he wrote Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land, based on his visit to the Middle East in 1857. Because of its length—at more than 18,000 lines, it's the longest poem in American literature—and unconventional approach to its subject, Melville once called it "eminently adapted for unpopularity."

9. Herman Melville's last major work was discovered by accident.

The centennial of Melville’s birth renewed interest in his novels and poems, most of which were long out of print by then. Raymond Weaver, a literature professor at Columbia University working on the first major biography of Melville, collaborated with Eleanor Melville Metcalf, Melville’s granddaughter and literary executor, who gave him access to the author’s papers. In 1919, while poking through letters and notes, Weaver discovered the unfinished manuscript of Billy Budd in a tin breadbox. Melville had started to write the short story about a tragic sailor in 1888 but, by his death in 1891, had not completed it. Weaver edited and published the story in 1924, but initially considered the tale "not distinguished." Other scholars asserted that Billy Budd was Melville’s final masterpiece.

10. You can see Herman Melville's personal collection of knick-knacks.

Just a short drive from Arrowhead, the Berkshire Athenaeum in Pittsfield holds the world’s largest collection of Melvilliana in its Melville Memorial Room. Along with first editions of Melville’s work and a full library of books about him, there are priceless objects owned by or associated with the author. Fans can geek out over the earliest known portrait of Melville, painted in 1848; carved wooden canoe paddles that he collected in Polynesia; his walking stick; his favorite inkstand, quills, and other desktop tchotchkes; a collection of scrimshaw, maps, and prints; and Elizabeth Melville’s writing desk. There's a section of the first successful transatlantic cable, which Melville valued as a prized souvenir, and even the actual breadbox in which Billy Budd had been hiding.