Japanese American National Museum
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Kawakami, Barbara

1921 - 1921

Hawaii-based author, expert storyteller and scholar on Japanese immigrant clothing Barbara Kawakami (1921- ) was born in Okkogamura, Kumamoto, Japan. Her parents returned to Japan after the sugar plantation strike in 1921 when her mother was pregnant with her, but came back to Hawaii when she was three-months old, her father considering it a better place to raise and educate children. She grew up and lived on Oahu Sugar Plantation in Waipahu, Hawaii til she married at the age of twenty-two.

Like many nisei (Second-generation) children who grew up on a plantation Kawakami's education ended with the eighth grade out of economic necessity. She enrolled in a private sewing school and was a dressmaker for thirty-eight years, raising three college-educated children. Soon after attaining American citizenship in 1955, Kawakami became a high school graduate when she passed the General Equivalency Diploma (GED) exam in Honolulu. Kawakami went on to receive a B.S. in textile and clothing and a M.A. in Asian studies after the age of fifty.

During the course of her research on Japanese immigrants to Hawaii in her senior year at the University of Hawaii at Manoa Kawakami discovered the lack of information about clothing worn by immigrants on the plantations. She began conducting interviews in the summer of 1979 and collecting rare samples of clothing and photographs. Her plantation background served her well in creating a rapport with issei and others who had lived in a plantation setting.

Over roughly fifteen years, she managed to build the most significant collection of Issei immigration and plantation clothing in the world and to record over 250 interviews with the aging Issei, many of them picture brides, capturing their memories of the struggles of immigration and the harsh conditions of working and living on the plantation and linking their stories directly to the clothing they crafted and wore.



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