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.
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.
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.