FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - February 25, 2010


Chris Komai - - 213-830-5648



New Exhibit Showcases Material from Barbara Kawakami Collection on Issei Clothing

The Japanese American National Museum will premiere its latest exhibition, Textured Lives: Japanese Immigrant Clothing from the Plantations of Hawai`i, representing the beautiful and historically important textiles and clothing collected and documented by scholar and author Barbara Kawakami, on Saturday, February 27, and running through May 30, 2010.

This exhibition is part of the National Museum’s 25th Anniversary celebration, marking its incorporation in 1985. The National Museum will celebrate this milestone with several events and programs throughout the year, highlighted by its 2010 Annual Gala Dinner, "25 Years & Beyond: Celebrating the Spirit of Our Community", set for the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza Hotel on Saturday, April 10, 2010.

The earliest immigrants from Japan, known as Issei, first arrived in Hawai`i as early as 1868, but major migration began in 1885 to supply labor to the sugarcane plantations. Many of these newcomers brought little in the way of possessions, so their garments were among their only material goods from their homeland. The Japanese women, in particular, refashioned even their traditional kimono for the arduous work conditions on the plantations, but also expressed in their new handmade apparel their culture and identity.

Kawakami, who was raised on an Oahu sugar plantation and had a successful career as a dressmaker, became the foremost expert on this subject after enrolling in college at the age of 53. She eventually discovered that the history of the Japanese immigrant generation and their plantation clothing was a neglected subject. She has diligently researched it ever since, traveling even to Japan to find samples of the early Issei clothing.

"I soon found my research was taking me on an exciting journey from the Japanese villages to the Hawaiian plantations—a journey that has not only taught me a great deal about the clothing worn by the Issei but also helped me to understand their struggle to survive and the relationship between their old traditions and the new plantation culture," Kawakami wrote.

After spending almost 30 years tracking down the rare existing plantation-era clothing and textiles as well as collecting the stories of the people who made and wore them, Kawakami donated her own personal collection to the Japanese American National Museum in 2004. The collection included over 260 different examples of plantation outfits, traditional Japanese wedding kimono, and different footwear, including zori and geta familiar to Japan and the adaptive blue denim tabi for work. While many pieces are older than 90 years old, most of the material is in remarkable condition. From the Barbara Kawakami Collection and her book, Japanese Immigrant Clothing in Hawaii 1885-1941, the exhibition, Textured Lives, has been created.

"We are honored to have material from the Barbara Kawakami Collection displayed in our exhibition, Textured Lives," said National Museum President and CEO Akemi Kikumura Yano. "Her work in researching a vital chapter in the history of the Japanese in the United States is invaluable. It is likely that much of this information would have been lost without Barbara Kawakami. It is appropriate that this exhibition is installed as we celebrate the National Museum’s 25th Anniversary. Our National Museum’s first major exhibition highlighted the story of the Issei immigrant generation. We all owe Barbara a great debt for preserving this part of the Issei story."

Textured Lives will present much of Kawakami’s collection as well as insight into the lives of this pioneering generation. Through their clothing, Kawakami was able to uncover how the Issei dealt with their practical approach to working on a plantation by assembling clothing that protected them from the hot sun, razor-sharp sugarcane leaves and the bites and stings from centipedes and scorpions. Kawakami observed that Issei women balanced their desire to maintain their cultural identity with these practical concerns and refashioned their kasuri fabric work outfits that were distinct from other workers while protective in design.

Kawakami also emphasized the differences in the newcomers from the larger islands of Japan and those from Okinawa. A kimono from Okinawa, for example, would have sleeves that were open the length of the sleeve since the Okinawan tropical climate would create a desire for more ventilation. They were also shorter, exposing the ankles, for the same reason.

The exhibition will examine the difficulties for the newcomers in dealing with the harsh life on the plantations, but their strong desire to marry and start families in Hawai`i. It will demonstrate how the Issei adapted their clothing for their new lives and how the Japanese took ideas and styles from the other workers from Puerto Rico and China, among others. The exhibition will touch on the major cultural questions, including how they carried on their traditions of marriage and funerals so far away from Japan. Finally, it will relate how the birth of their children, the American-born Nisei, also required ingenuity and constant work to provide them with adequate clothing.

Major support for Textured Lives was generously provided by The Hiroaki, Elaine & Lawrence Kono Foundation. Additional support was provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Nippon Foundation, Aratani Foundation, and the members of the Japanese American National Museum. Media sponsors are LA 18, the Los Angeles Downtown News and the Rafu Shimpo.

"The Kono Foundation is gratified that the work of Barbara Kawakami will be on display at the Japanese American National Museum in this new exhibition, Textured Lives," stated Margaret Oda, a member of the Board of Directors for the Kono Foundation, and Chairman Emeritus for the National Museum. "Barbara’s groundbreaking research on the Issei and their lives on the plantations is crucial to understanding the Nikkei experience. The Kono Foundation is proud to play a role in making Barbara’s work available to visitors to the Japanese American National Museum."

An exclusive reception is planned for Saturday, February 27, 2010, for upper level donors and members. Barbara Kawakami will provide a special tour of the new exhibition. The reception will feature ukulele master Harry Ohta, Jr., and singer Allison Arakawa. Ohta, a teacher, composer, recording artist, entertainer, and producer, has spent his professional career sharing the beauty of the music of Hawai`i. Arakawa began learning traditional Japanese songs under the guidance of Harry Urata when she was four and sings a variety of styles, including Enka. Reception sponsors include Hakutsuru Sake and Kirin., along with Aloha Café.


Barbara Kawakami was born in 1921 in Okkogamura, Kumamoto, Japan, in a farmhouse that has belonged to her family for more than 350 years. "All of my siblings were born in Hawaii," Kawakami explained, "but I was born in Japan: my mother was pregnant with me when my parents decided to return to Japan in 1921, the year after the big strike at the sugar plantations in Waipahu, Aiea, Ewa, Kahuku, Waialua, and Waimanalo."

Barbara thought her formal education ended after the eighth grade, partly because her mother did not believe girls needed any more schooling, but should learn to sew, cook and clean in preparation for marriage. Barbara married when she was 22, but also attended Kiester’s Tailoring College in Honolulu and was a successful dressmaker for 38 years. In the postwar, Barbara began attending adult education classes in preparation to earn her American citizenship (which she did in 1955). While her sons were off in college, they encouraged her to pursue her education and she worked to earn her high school diploma equivalency, which she accomplished in 1959.

When her youngest son matriculated to college in Oregon in 1974, she enrolled in Leeward Community College at the age of 53. That led to her transferring to the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and in her senior year, Barbara began researching the clothing worn by the Issei immigrants on the plantations. Her dedication to this field was solidified after looking at photos of the Issei. "Something happened to me as I looked through the endless collections of photographs," she recalled.

Her pursuit led her back to Japan and her family, but also included over 250 interviews with surviving Issei. Because of her ability to speak Japanese and her own experiences growing up on a plantation, Kawakami was successful at eliciting the personal stories of the Issei, especially the women. Her research was the basis for her book, Japanese Immigrant Clothing in Hawai`i 1995-1924 (University of Hawai`i Press, 1993). Her book and other related material is available through the Japanese American National Museum’s Store online at

Recognized as the foremost expert on Japanese immigrant clothing, Kawakami has served as a consultant to Hawaii Public Television, Waipahu Cultural Garden Park, Bishop Museum and the Japanese American National Museum.