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Celebrating over 125 years of Historical Connections and Intercultural Exchanges between Hawai'i and Japan

Kalakaua's 1881 Journey to Japan

King David Kalakaua (1836-1891) is well known today as a patron and revivalist of Hawaiian culture and arts, including the hula, chanting, and oral narratives. Less well known is his global vision, accompanied by his efforts to establish international relationships between his kingdom and foreign governments. During his reign as monarch (1874-1891), he worked to maintain the independence of Hawai'i by learning as much as he could about how other nations developed and remained strong in a competitive global environment. He was the first monarch in history to travel around the world.

One of the nations Kalakaua visited in his 1881 world tour was Japan. He saw in Japan an island nation that was modernizing and able to remain independent despite the proximity of larger nations like China and Russia. He was impressed by Japan’s military forces and technology adapted from  the West and conceived of the idea of an alliance with Japan for the protection of his kingdom against foreign powers. He proposed a future marriage between the five-year old Princess Ka’iulani and Prince Komatsu of the Japanese royal family.

Although the royal family had already arranged a marriage for the prince, Kalakaua continued to build ties with the Japanese. He started Hawai’i’s first study abroad program and sent young Hawaiian scholars to Japan (and China, Britain, Scotland, Italy, and America). The two students he sent to Japan were James Haku’ole and Isaac Harbotttle, brothers, 11 and 10 years old, who grew up in Kipahulu Maui. They arrived in Japan in 1882 to study the Japanese language and culture at the Nobles School (Kuwazoku Gakko), with the aim of using their knowledge to aid in international affairs and the establishment of an immigrant worker program. This program was established in 1885 and led to the immigration of Japanese workers to Hawai’i.

In1887, however, a group of haole businessmen, with support from a contingent of US Marines, took control of the government of Hawai’i and presented Kalakaua with a new constitution restricting his powers. The students in the king’s study abroad program were summoned home the next year. Kalakaua died in 1891 while on a rest trip to San Francisco, California. Two years later, in 1893, the haole faction forced the abdication of Kalakaua’s sister, Lili’uokalani, who had succeeded him as the ruling monarch and who had drafted a new constitution aimed at restoring the Hawaiian monarchy’s power and authority to govern the kingdom.

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