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Hauʻoli Lā Hānau Barbara Kawakami

This month we honor historian Barbara Kawakami on the occasion of her 100th Birthday on August 24.

Barbara was born in Japan on August 24, 1921. Her parents moved to Hawaiʻi when she was 3 months old. She learned sewing and dressmaking trade from her mother and spent 38 years as a seamstress and dressmaker. At age 53, she entered college, earning a degree in BS in fashion design and marketing. Later she earned an MA in Asian Studies. As a writer, researcher and consultant she worked on projects too numerous to mention!

Barbara has spent a good part of her life making Hawaiʻi plantation and immigrant history accessible to the community. Her two books: Japanese Immigrant Clothing in Hawaii, 1885-1941 (1993) and Picture Bride Stories (2016) have been invaluable resources for students, educators, and the general public about Japanese immigrant life and culture.

When we met Barbara, Joy Chong-Stannard and I were then making a weekly TV Program for CLEAR called, Rice & Roses, airing on Hawaiʻi Public Television (now PBS Hawaiʻi).

The plantation era was ending and we were charged with documenting plantation and labor history, and telling stories about the people and cultures of the era.

Barbara was one of the significant people who helped us gain access to that history and to those stories. We included her as part of the production team for a number of episodes, including: Picture Brides (1986), Wedding Days, The Plantation Way (1987), Memory Lane (1987), Hole Hole Bushi: Songs of the Cane Field (1984), and Getting Somewheres (1998). She was in charge of wardrobe for our TV drama, Brothers Under the Skin (1989) and recounted her family’s life on the plantation in Canefield Songs: Holehole Bushi (2014).

Barbara introduced us to her world and the men and women she knew from her plantation days, often providing translation for those speaking old prefecture Dialects, mixed with pidgin. Her series of language interviews not only captured historic remembrances, but the language itself which is almost extinct. These interviews are under intense study by Japan’s National Institute for Language and Linguistics.

To honor Barbara, we are creating a special section to our Labor History website, dedicated to the interviews and stories she has helped us produce over the years. Go to

Barbara, the world has been a better place because you have devoted your life to helping all of us know and better understand our history.


Mahalo Nui Loa,

Chris Conybeare,

Executive Producer

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