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.

King Kalākaua seated with his aides standing next to him
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.

An official portrait of King Kalākaua and his aides with Japanese officials.
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.

Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?

iStock/bonchan
iStock/bonchan

The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

12 Thought-Provoking Gifts for History Buffs

The Unemployed Philosophers Guild / LEGO / Amazon
The Unemployed Philosophers Guild / LEGO / Amazon

If you're looking for a gift for the person who can't get enough history in their life, we think you'll find something on this list. From an atlas of the United States's National Parks to a book that will allow one to record their own family genealogy, these presents will both enlighten and entertain even the history buffs who already own every Theodore Roosevelt biography and Titanic exposé.

1. Atlas of the National Parks; $59

National Parks atlas
National Geographic / Amazon

This stunning atlas from National Geographic invites armchair explorers into all 61 national parks, from Gates of the Arctic to Dry Tortugas, American Samoa to Acadia. Each entry features a brand-new map and information about the park’s character, covering archaeology, geology, human history, wildlife, and more. All of which are illustrated with amazing photographs. You can order it now, and according to Amazon, the book will be in stock December 24.

Buy It: Amazon

2. Homesick Library Candle; $30

Library candle
UncommonGoods

Remind your favorite history buff of that book project they've been working on for many years with a library scent that doesn’t evoke mildewed paper and anxiety. Homesick’s hand-poured soy wax candle features spicy notes of orange, nutmeg, sandalwood, and amber.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

3. Spectacular Women Ornaments; $22 Each

Spectacular women ornaments
UncommonGoods

Your giftee will need to make some space on the Christmas tree for these ornaments depicting amazing women in history. Artist Gulnara Kydyrmyshova and her team of textile artisans in Kyrgyzstan make each ornament by hand from local wool. You can choose Florence Nightingale, Jane Austen, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, or all four.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

4. Homemade Gin Kit; $50

Gin making kit
UncommonGoods

Just in time for holiday parties, this DIY gin-making kit includes two elegant bottles, stoppers, a selection of dried herbs and spices, and mixing tools. The giftee supplies the vodka, which acts like a blank slate, to be flavored with juniper berries, coriander seeds, rosemary, rose hips, and more.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

5. Genealogy Organizer Book; $9

Genealogy organizer book
Amazon

Here’s a genealogy gift for the holidays that doesn’t require handing over genetic data to private corporations! This handy book includes organizational charts for tracing one’s family tree back five generations. Plus, there are fill-in family group pages and sheets to record personal memories.

Buy It: Amazon

6. Great Lakes 3D Wood Nautical Chart; $178

Great Lakes 3D nautical chart
Amazon

Up to eight layers of wood are used to demonstrate the depths of each of the five Great Lakes in this unusual topographical map, which also depicts the major rivers and towns of the region. If these lakes don’t float your boat, 3D maps of Cape Cod, the Hawaiian Islands, Puget Sound, the Chesapeake Bay, and other waterways are available.

Buy It: Amazon

7. Black Lives 1900: W.E.B. Du Bois at the Paris Exposition; $35

W.E.B. Du Bois art book
Amazon

With colorful, hand-drawn infographics, civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois illustrated the progress and challenges of African Americans in the South at the beginning of the 20th century. This beautiful volume pairs his maps and charts, which were displayed at the 1900 Paris Exposition, with contemporary photographs of black people and communities.

Buy It: Amazon

8. Three Mini Notebooks; $15

Three map notebooks
Amazon

An explorer should always have a pen and paper at the ready. Make your giftee’s travels memorable with this set of three pocket-sized notebooks, each bound with a vintage map design on the cover and blank, lined, or graph pages.

Buy It: Amazon

9. Penny-Farthing Watch; $40

Penny-farthing watch
Amazon

It’s been said that bicycles kickstarted the women’s equality movement by giving ladies the means to explore their world. Celebrate that history by giving your fave cycling enthusiast this cute watch, which depicts a penny-farthing, the Victorian precursor to modern bikes. The leather band and analog face complete the watch’s old-timey look.

Buy It: Amazon

10. Shakespearean Insults Mug; $14

Shakespearean insults mug
New York Public Library Shop

This 14-ounce ceramic mug includes 30 Elizabethan insults that you can feel free to use any morning pre-coffee—but you may need to reassure you gift recipient that you’re not actually calling them a “canker-blossom” or a “lump of foul deformity” when they open the box.

Buy It: New York Public Library Shop

11. LEGO White House; $222

LEGO White House
LEGO / Amazon

This LEGO set is based on the White House design by James Hoban, which was selected by George Washington back on July 16, 1792. And now, with over 500 pieces, you can recreate your own version of this iconic building. And when you're done, the set also includes a booklet highlighting interesting facts about the White House.

Buy It: Amazon

12. A History of New York in 27 Buildings; $20

NYC buildings book
Amazon

Stories behind such famous NYC icons as the Flatiron Building or the Empire State Building are well known. Those skyline staples appear in this book, but author Sam Roberts also dives deeper into other notable buildings that changed the course of the city’s history—like the Tweed Courthouse, the Marble Palace, and the Coney Island Boardwalk. (For a similar approach to urban history, see the new book The Seine: The River That Made Paris).

Buy It: Amazon

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER