A Painting for the Emperor

Japanese Labourers on Sugar Plantations in Hawai’i
8 Feb 2018 - 31 May 2018 | Johann Jacobs Museum

In 1885, the King of Hawai‘i commissioned a large oil painting as a gift for the Emperor of Japan–but the painting never reached the Imperial Household. This exhibition displays the painting for the first time outside of Japan, reconstructing its historical context and the lives of its protagonists. The painting serves as a window onto the late-nineteenth century world of the Asia-Pacific region, a world that was transformed by the emergence of Meiji Japan as an international power.

In 2018, the 150th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration, we look back on Japan’s entanglement with the Pacific through its labourers, its commodities and the image it wanted to project overseas. A Painting for the Emperor invites you to cross oceans and genres of art, and to consider more generally practices of framing and unframing in the narration of history.

To link the historical material and the present-day, we have asked three contemporary artists to interpret this material using the means at their disposal.Japanese artist Aiko Tezuka isolates touching details from historical photographs by Eduard Arning; Tiffany Chung (Vietnam/USA) uses a montage process to combine old maps of Hawai’i; finally, Jürgen Stollhans (Germany) draws the bridge that Japanese new arrivals in Hawai’i had to cross after disembarking the ship.

The exhibition A Painting for the Emperor was produced in cooperation with Prof. Dr. Martin Dusinberre (Chair of Global History, Zurich University) and Prof. Dr. Hans B. Thomsen (Chair of East Asian Art History, Zurich University) as well as Christina Wild, David Möller, Miwa Negoro and Helena Jaskov.


Title image: Joseph Dwight Strong, Japanese Laborers on the Sugar Plantation, Spreckelsville/Maui, 1885, Oil on Canvas, Collection of Mitsui Sugar Co., Ltd. in Japan.



A Walk through the Exhibition

The Painting

— The frame is the problem, truth be told. It’s too grand, too weighty: 59 kilograms, in fact. Like the painting, it comes from Hawai’i – from the King Brothers’ shop, whose gold frames were themselves described as works of art. But this one feels overbearing. It reeks of its royal commission, the King of Hawai’i making a gift to the Emperor of Japan.

Joseph Dwight Strong, Japanese Laborers on the Sugar Plantation, Spreckelsville/Maui, 1885. Oil on Canvas, Courtesy Collection of Mitsui Sugar Co., Ltd. in Japan.

— Shouldn’t we have started our global history with the people in the painting?

— Or with the painter – this is an art museum, after all! Joseph D. Strong, an American trained in Munich and in California; famous for his naturalistic landscapes of America’s western frontier; first came to Hawai’i on an assignment from the Spreckels family in 1882; commissioned in the spring of 1885 to paint Japanese working on Hawaiian sugar plantations.

— In other words, the painting is a public relations commission. The arrival of almost one thousand Japanese, in February 1885, marks the first mass migration from Japan in more than 250 years. But the king wants the Meiji government to send even more labourers across the Pacific. That’s why the main Honolulu newspaper – owned by Hawai’i’s Foreign Minister – calls Strong’s painting a “fine representation” of a hard-working plantation scene.

— Was the Meiji Emperor pleased with his gift?

— The Meiji Emperor never received his gift. Did his courtiers think he would be embarrassed by his compatriot exposing her breasts? Or that Strong should not have painted a Japanese child with a Chinese-style haircut? Did Strong in fact undermine the image of the Japanese by painting them to look more like Pacific Islanders or Native Hawaiians? There’s a lot going on in this painting, depending on how you want to frame it.


Aiko Tezuka “Do you remember me – I was about to forget”, 2018

— When we move, how do we remember home? In her installation, “Do you remember me – I was about to forget”, Aiko Tezuka considers memory and oblivion in light of Japanese emigration to Hawai’i. Framing the lake and the Uetliberg through an embroidered reworking of Eduard Arning’s photographs from Honolulu, Tezuka asks how our familiar landscapes may change through the gauze of history. The delicacy of the organza and the roughness of the stitching remind us of the fragile threads of the past. There is a story behind the Strong painting – of bitterness as well as sweetness, of home to be found in new places.

Of whose land do we speak?

— When the first Japanese crossed the Honolulu harbour walkway, they began a new life in the Kingdom of Hawai’i, an independent nation. But “kingdom”, “independence”, and “nation” were concepts derived from Western political discourse. They marked a way of thinking about the non-European world which continues to limit our imagination today.

Historical Map “Maui, Hawaiian Islands”, 1906 [1885]. David Rumsey Map Collection. Courtesy of Cartography Associates.

— As do these maps. They show different forms of land “ownership” in Hawai’i. By the late-nineteenth century, ali’i land (the land of the chiefs) has been superimposed with sugar plantation names and enclosed by red lines. But even the older, Native Hawaiian map has been produced according to the principles of Western mapmaking. This is a world of land claimed and reclaimed – and of histories claimed and reclaimed, too.— And of what sea do we speak? Of the vast ocean with an isolated archipelago at its heart? Or of extraordinary ancient connections, of the Pacific as a sea of islands?

Tiffany Chung “Ewa Plantation Community Cemetery’s ledger book: from faraway lands to dust we return”. Acrylic, oil and ink on vellum and paper, 2018.

— In Tiffany Chung’s map, the land is ordered into ditches, fields, and the cemetery plots of the Portuguese and Japanese and Filippino labourers who once worked on the Ewa plantation. (Ms. Haruno Tazawa, whose trunk and work jacket are on display, also worked at Ewa.) The plots record the workers’ names and their bango, the impersonal number they were assigned upon arrival in Hawai’i: “nephew of 7226”, “brother of 3261”, “child of 4820”, and so on. But colour bleeds from this order. In the words of the artist, “The dominating green typically symbolises how nature takes over certain historical but forgotten towns/areas/buildings. White colour creeps into the marked lots, again symbolising the death/mourning of lives once lived, of people who contributed to the development of the sugar industry.”

— To some viewers, the pointillist colours are perhaps reminiscent of lichen growing on old gravestones. In their songs, the Japanese punned on the phrase, “kibi no koe”, meaning both “voices of the canefields” and “canefield fertilizer”. Those who stayed in Hawai’i, they implied, would end up fertilizing the fields after their death. Chung’s work provokes us to ask, what is left on this land after the workers – and the plantations – disappear?

Picture Brides

— The women were only wives in the eyes of the bureaucrats. At first, they came in small numbers. They worked alongside their husbands and raised their children in the fields. Later, the women came unaccompanied and in their thousands, brides-to-be on the basis of a picture sent across the oceans. Their dreams were bound up in the boxes they brought, bamboo trunks marked with their port of embarkation. The ceremonial kimonos that the “picture brides” would wear took pride of place in the trunks.

Courtesy of the Japanese American National Museum, Los Angeles, USA.

– The kimono we display has a simple, origami-crane design. It expresses hope – and stands in stark contrast to the worn kasuri jackets and denim leg protectors of the women’s everyday lives.

Courtesy of the Japanese American National Museum, Los Angeles, USA.

— It seems almost absurd for us to display these leggings in a temperature regulated museum. They were rough, outdoor wear, designed to combat the sharp edges of the sugarcane leaves, for day after day of labour in the unremitting heat. In fact, you can see the line of the sun where the denim has faded. And where the denim became most worn, the women sewed extra zigzag lines to provide greater durability. The lines are patterned but random, aesthetic but functional. They speak to the challenge of finding a thread through this complex history.

I had no idea that my father and my aunt had made the decision that since I was so eager to come to Hawai’i, they might as well arrange to have me become [my cousin’s] picture bride! […] When I came to the immigration station in Honolulu on August 16, 1918, I thought, ‘My, I’ve never seen his picture! How will I recognize him?’ […] So we all stood in a line. Other picture brides had photos of their muko-san [husbands] clutched in their hands. Then the men slowly filed in, all anxious and concerned, trying to match the hanayome [bride] photo in their hands. The young brides stood behind their kori [trunks], studying each face, wondering which one would be her husband. I stood behind my yanagigori [trunk], too, waiting, wondering.

From an interview with Ayako Kikugawa in 1987. Quoted from Barbara F. Kawakami: Picture Bride Stories, University of Hawai’i Press 2016.

All pieces from the Barbara Kawakami Collection are depicted online.

Constructor’s model of the “Yamashiro-Maru” and “Omi-Maru”, Sir W.G. Armstrong, Mitchell & Co., Newcastle on Tyne 1884. Courtesy of the Wellesley Old Boys, UK.
The Ship

— A model of the Yamashiro-maru: a steamship built in Great Britain and owned by a new shipping company in Japan. Ships like these carried the claim of the Japanese as a civilized, Westernizing people.

More prosaically, in June-July 1885, the Yamashiro-maru also carried:

  • 989 Japanese to Hawai’i. Of which, 275 men and 1 woman sent to the Spreckelsville Plantation, Maui.
  • The King of Hawai’i, accompanying Japanese officials on a tour of Maui and Hawai’i Island.
  • A 15-year-old Takechi Tadamichi, the future president of Taiwan Sugar (later the Mitsui Sugar Co., Ltd.)
  • 1 oil painting, by Joseph D. Strong, from Hawai’i to Japan.

— And to do all this, it carried hundreds of tons of coal.

The Model of the Yamashiro-Maru was on display in the exhibition Omoshirogara – Japan’s Path to Modernity and is discussed by Prof. Dr. Martin Dusinberre (Chair of Global History, Zurich University) in the context of the Meiji restoration.


— His father transported coal on the Onga river, Kyushu – the southern Japanese island whose coal reserves were well-known in the mid-nineteenth century world. He himself first went down the mineshafts as a boy, becoming a miner when he was fifteen, in 1906. But history would never have recorded his name, Yamamoto Sakubei, were it not for the extraordinary paintings he began in the late-1950s. The collection, comprising almost 600 works of art, is part of UNESCO’s Memory of the World register.

Courtesy Yamamoto Family, Tagawa City Coal Mining Historical Museum, Japan.

— Without Yamamoto’s paintings, would we perhaps forget that sug-ar, steamships, migration, and even modern Japan itself were histories bound up with coal? Who writes these histories from below? And what is the relationship between the image and the text in our understanding of the past?

All paintings are depicted online on the websites of the Tagawa City Coal Mining Museum.

Jürgen Stollhans, Charcoal drawing on paper, based on a photograph of Japanese immigrants landing in Hawai’i, 1893.

I was probably the only picture bride who came with two large kori [trunks]. In one kori, I packed all my clothing, while the other kori included a large futon and a tanzen [cotton-padded kimono]. Fukushima is known as snow country and my mother, not knowing about Hawaii’s tropical climate, had included these items as part of my dowry.

From an interview with Haruno Tazawa in 1984. Quoted from Barbara F. Kawakami: Picture Bride Stories, University of Hawai’i Press 2016.

Courtesy of the Japanese American National Museum, Los Angeles, USA.

Eduard Arning

— A German doctor comes to Hawai’i in 1883 to treat leprosy. The disease is another gift of Western civilization to the Native Hawaiians, alongside smallpox and venereal disease. Dr. Arning is also an amateur photographer. When, in February 1885, the first group of labourers arrive from Japan, Arning comes to the Honolulu Immigration Station to take a series of glass-plate photographs. Also present is the American painter Joseph D. Strong.

Courtesy of the Hawaiian Historical Society.

— Arning constructed “the Japanese” for a European gaze. The people in his photographs are ethnographic objects, exoticised even in the daily acts of cooking, bathing and breast-feeding. But we do not have to follow Arning’s schema. We can cut and rearrange, remaining con- scious that a montage is also an act of framing.

— Either way, the Japanese are disembodied in these images. Perhaps we connect to their history less through photographs than through the material relics of their everyday lives – their work clothes, their rice straw sandals, the songs they sang on the plantations.

ハワイハワイとよう Hawai’i, Hawai’i
夢見て来たが I came, chasing a dream
流す涙は Now my tears flow
キビの中 In the cane field

心からとて A heartfelt decision
我が土地離れ To leave our family farm in Japan
今はマウイで Now, here on Maui
苦労する I suffer so

雨は降り出すよう A sudden downpour
洗濯は濡れる Drenches the laundry
背の子は泣く Baby on my back sobs –
マンマ焦げる And the rice just burned

横浜でるときゃ When I left Yokohama
涙で出たが I cried as we sailed away
今じゃ子もある But now I have children
孫もある And grandchildren, too

柳ごうりは That old willow trunk
今でも語る Can still tell stories
遠い昔の From so long ago
世の様を About that world


Texts by Martin Dusinberre and the “A Painting for the Emperor” research team.

Recommended citation: Dusinberre, Martin, and the “A Painting for the Emperor“ research team (2018): “Textual Introduction to the exhibition ’A Painting for the Emperor: Japanese Labourers on Sugar Plantations in Hawai’i’”, Johann Jacobs Museum, February 8 to May 31, 2018, http://johannjacobs.com/en/formate/a-painting-for-the-emperor/.