Robert Walker Irwin
by Philbert Ono, Updated Jan. 9, 2017
|A young Robert Walker Irwin|
|Robert Walker Irwin in later years|
In Japan, he is called the Father of Japanese Immigration to Hawaiʻi, along with King David Kalakaua who encouraged Japanese immigration to Hawaiʻi. Irwin also had a summer home in Ikaho, a hot spring town in Gunma Prefecture. Part of the house is preserved and open to the public alongside a small museum. This is Ikaho's Hawaiʻi connection and reason for its sister-city ties with the Big Island of Hawaiʻi since 1997.
Irwin hailed from a very distinguished family lineage, on both his mother's and father's sides. Through his mother, Sophia Arabella Bache of Philadelphia, he was a direct descendant of Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. His mother was a fourth-generation direct descendant, descending from Benjamin Franklin's daughter Sarah (1743-1808) who married a Richard Bache.
Irwin was born on Jan. 4, 1844 in Copenhagen, Denmark as the third son (and one of six children) of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania native William Wallace Irwin (1803-1856) who was the United States Chargé d’Affaires to Denmark from March 3, 1843, to June 12, 1847. William was also the mayor of Pittsburgh in 1840-41, and elected as a Whig to the Twenty-seventh Congress (March 4, 1841-March 3, 1843) representing Pennsylvania. William was a descendant of a Scottish king (Malcolm II).
The family moved to Philadelphia in 1850 when Robert was 6 years old. His older brother Richard found Robert (while still in high school) a job at the Pacific Mail Steamship Company. Robert headed the company's San Francisco office and was later assigned to head the Yokohama office. At age 22, Robert arrived Japan on Jan. 6, 1866. In 1865, the company had been awarded a contract by the US government for monthly mail service between San Francisco and Hong Kong via Hawaiʻi and Japan. The company started operating trans-Pacific steamship service between San Francisco, Hong Kong, and Yokohama from 1867.
The company later built (in 1874 in Chester, PA) and operated the City of Tokio, the steamship which would bring the first Japanese immigrants to Hawaiʻi in 1885 under the Kanyaku Imin program. (A few months after that historic voyage, the ship in foggy weather ran aground on some rocks near Yokohama in June 1885 and was soon destroyed by a typhoon.)
Irwin later worked for other employers such as trading company Mitsui Bussan when it was founded in 1876. He also invested in companies in Japan and Taiwan. His involvement with Mitsui was through his personal friendship with Count Inoue Kaoru (井上 馨) and Masuda Takashi (益田 孝) who both founded trading company Mitsui Bussan (Mitsui & Co. and its forerunner company) which later became the core company of the Mitsui Zaibatsu conglomerate. Count Inoue Kaoru was a major figure in the Meiji government and Japan's Foreign Minister during 1879-1887. In this capacity, Inoue served as the main man in the Japanese government handling the Japanese immigration opposite Irwin. Irwin was thus well-connected in both business and government in Japan.
In 1880, Irwin was appointed as the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi's Consul-General in Japan. In March 1881, during a trip to Japan, Hawaiʻi's King David Kalakaua promoted Irwin to Hawaiian Minister to Japan. Interestingly, Irwin was not from Hawaiʻi and had never lived there even though he was Hawaiʻi's top representative to Japan.
Irwin married a Japanese woman, Takechi Iki (武智イキ), on March 15, 1882. Her Takechi family were descendants of Minamoto no Yoshinaka (Kiso Yoshinaka), a 12th-century samurai general. The marriage was arranged by Foreign Minister Inoue Kaoru who searched for and found the bride for his good friend. International marriages in those days were still very rare in Japan, and it took a year of paperwork before the marriage was processed. They became Japan's first Japanese and American mixed-marriage couple sanctioned by the Japanese government.
In Nov. 1883, their first child and eldest daughter, Sophia Arabella "Bella" Irwin (Nov. 24, 1883–June 12, 1957) was born in Tokyo. She was followed by five more children: three daughters Mary (Sept. 6, 1885–April 5, 1930), Marion, and Agnes; and two sons Robert Jr. (June 14, 1887–Oct. 9, 1971), and Richard Akira (May 18, 1890–April 16, 1928). Even while living in Japan for many years, Irwin could hardly speak Japanese and always had an interpreter. He spoke to his wife in broken English and broken Japanese. To his children (who were educated in both Japan and the US), he spoke English. Being a successful businessman, married to a Japanese, and well-liked in Japan, Irwin was well-positioned to help negotiate, plan, and manage the government-sponsored Japanese immigration to Hawaiʻi.
Kanyaku Imin 官約移民
|During the Japan leg of his world tour in 1881, King David Kalakaua (center) and his suite pose with Japanese officials. Japanese immigration to Hawaiʻi was a major topic of discussion. In the front row, left to right: Prince and Lieutenant General Higashi-fushimi Yoshiaki (1846-1903) of the Imperial Army (later Prince and General Komatsu Akihito, Kalakaua, and Count Count Sano Tsunetami (1823-1902), a Ministry of Finance official and later the founder of the Japan Red Cross. In the back row is Colonel Charles H. Judd, Tokuno Ryosuke (1825-1883, Ministry of Finance official who was the first chief of the Printing Bureau to print money), and William N. Armstrong|
|Count Inoue Kaoru (1836-1915), Japan's Minister of Foreign Affairs during 1879-87.|
Immigration to Hawaiʻi started in earnest from 1876 when immigrants from various countries in Asia (India and China), the South Pacific islands, Portuguese islands (Madeira and Azores), and even Europe (Norway and Germany) were brought to Hawaiʻi. The most numerous were the Chinese. They came to be too numerous with too many men and far too few women. Their large numbers caused various social problems and anti-Chinese sentiments, and restrictions were eventually placed on Chinese immigration. This created a labor shortage again.
Hawaiʻi then looked to Japan. Japanese immigrants had been on Hawaiʻi's mind for years. As early as June 19, 1868, 153 Japanese immigrants, called Gannen-mono (元年者) (First-Year People, since it was the first year of the Meiji Era), came to Hawaiʻi as private (not sanctioned by the government) contract laborers. They were sent by American businessman Eugene Van Reed. They were hardworking and well-behaved, giving the Japanese a good reputation as a source of immigrants to serve as laborers and help repopulate the kingdom. But they were treated poorly by the sugar planters, and the Japanese government became concerned.
The Japanese government was slow in responding to Hawaiʻi's immigration proposals due to its own domestic problems and concerns over their citizens being mistreated. The immigration issue later hinged on Japan's success in first revising unfair treaties with other Western powers. The Hawaiian government could not wait that long and kept negotiating and sending envoys to Japan.
In March 1881 when King Kalakaua visited Japan during his world tour, he struck up a personal friendship with Emperor Meiji. He even proposed that his beloved six-year-old niece Princess Kaiulani be betrothed to a Japanese prince (Prince Higashifushimi Yorihito) who had impressed the king. (The proposal was later politely declined.) The subject of immigration was also brought up. The king expressed that the Hawaiian government wanted to increase its population by inviting immigrants from other countries. And that any Japanese who desired to settle in Hawaiʻi would be permitted to do so.
In Nov. 1882, the highly-regarded former Maui governor John M. Kapena, a native Hawaiian, was sent to Tokyo instructed to emphasize racial affinity between Hawaii and Japan and to encourage Japanese immigration. At a dinner in Tokyo, he gave an amazing speech:
His Majesty (Kalakaua) believes that the Japanese and Hawaiians spring from one cognate race and this enchances his love for you. He hopes that our people will more and more be brought closer together in a common brotherhood. Hawaii holds out her loving hand and heart to Japan and desires that Your People may come and cast in their lots with ours and repeople our Island Home — with a race which is sent to us by His Imperial Majesty, Your government and people may blend with ours and produce a new and vigorous nation making our land the garden spot of the Eastern Pacific, as your beautiful and glorious county is of the Western. (From The Hawaiian Kingdom 1874-1893, by Ralph Kuykendall)
Kapena also met with Foreign Affairs Minister Inoue Kaoru and stated terms and conditions (including wages) proposed by the Hawaiian government for Japanese immigrants. Kapena duly impressed the Japanese, but Japan still was not ready to allow immigration to Hawaii.
In March 1883, Irwin was appointed Special Commissioner for Japanese immigration and was entrusted to continue immigration negotiations with Japan. To help Irwin, another native Hawaiian, Colonel Curtis Piehi Iaukea, was sent to Japan in April 1884 as envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary. Iaukea met with Irwin, Foreign Minister Inoue, and even the emperor. He stated Hawaiʻi's proposed terms and conditions for immigration. Although Inoue declined to conclude an immigration treaty at this time, he told Iaukea that Japan would not block any immigration to Hawaiʻi. This tacit approval finally put Hawaiʻi's Japanese immigration plans in motion.
It so happened that Japan was facing a major economic recession due to the Satsuma Rebellion in 1877 and crop failures and discontent among farmers in Japan. Giving them the option of going to Hawaii might relieve some of the domestic stress.
On Jan. 27, 1885, the first group of 943 Japanese immigrants under the Kanyaku Imin program ("Kan" means government [官], "yaku" means contract [約], and "Imin" is immigration [移民]) departed Yokohama and arrived Honolulu on Feb. 8, 1885 aboard the Pacific Mail Steamship City of Tokio. They were 676 men, 159 women, and 108 children who had free passage, expenses paid by the Hawaiian government. Their monthly wage was $9 for the men, and $6 for the women. They would also receive a food allowance, free housing, and free medical care. They were to work 10 hours a day and 26 days per month. It was a three-year contract with the Hawaiian government.
Irwin accompanied this first group of Japanese. The immigrants received a grand welcome in Honolulu under the direction of King Kalakaua. The Royal Hawaiian Band played, and policemen served as tour guides. A few days later on Feb. 11, 1885, the Japanese immigrants returned the gracious welcome by demonstrating kendo fencing, fireman's acrobatics on an upright ladder, and the intriguing sport of sumo which Irwin explained to the King and the rest of the audience. They even wore makeshift kesho mawashi ceremonial aprons (made of blankets) and performed the ring-entering ceremony. The event was capped by drinking and offering barrels of sahke to the audience. The sake was apparently brought aboard together with the immigrants, arranged by Irwin or the King.
Irwin did all he could to make the Japanese immigration a success. He sought to educate Hawaiian officials and sugar plantation agents and owners about the Japanese immigrants. He made a list of excellent suggestions for managing the Japanese laborers. This memo was circulated among the Board of Immigration and the plantation employers. And in Japan, he kept the Japanese government and people informed about the situation in Hawaiʻi. (Unfortunately, some plantations were still excessively harsh on the immigrants, prompting some of the laborers to stop working within a month.)
|Bilingual (English on left, Japanese on right) Kanyaku Imin labor contract signed by R.W. Irwin as Hawaii's Special Agent and Special Commissioner of the Board of Immigration and an immigrant named Saka Shoshichi in Jan. 1885 (facsimile exhibited at the Japanese Overseas Migration Museum in Yokohama).|
|''City of Tokio'' steamship (picture exhibited at the Japanese Overseas Migration Museum in Yokohama)|
Irwin went back to Japan and returned to Hawaiʻi a few months later with the second shipload of Japanese immigrants arriving Honolulu on June 17, 1885 on the Yamashiro Maru (山城丸). They were 930 men, 34 women, and 14 children.
On Jan. 28, 1886, after Japan was rest assured that its citizens in Hawaii would be treated fairly, a formal immigration treaty between Japan and Hawaii was finally signed by Japan in Tokyo. The treaty stipulated that all Japanese immigrants would go to Hawaiʻi under a contract not exceeding three years, signed at Yokohama by the Special Agent (Irwin) of Hawaiʻi's Board of Immigration, the immigrant concerned, and subject to approval by the Governor of Kanagawa.
The Hawaiian government would be held responsible for the employer's treatment of the immigrants and the faithful execution of the contract. The Hawaiian government would also provide free transportation* from Yokohama to Honolulu on first-class passenger steamships and provide an adequate number of interpreters, inspectors, and Japanese physicians. The treaty would be valid for five years. (*This proved to be too expensive, so from the fourth shipload, the immigrants were made to bear part of the transportation cost, usually paid in monthly installments after they started working.)
On the Japanese side, the treaty conditions and negotiations were handled by Foreign Affairs Minister Inoue Kaoru who was already a personal friend of Irwin. He allowed Irwin to send a third shipload of Japanese immigrants who arrived Honolulu on Feb. 14, 1886 on the City of Peking (sister ship of the City of Tokio) operated by the Pacific Mail Steamship Co. Irwin was also on board with the immigration treaty for ratification by the Hawaiian government.
The door was thus opened wide for large-scale Japanese immigration to Hawaii sponsored by the governments of Japan and Hawaii. Immigrants from Yamaguchi and Hiroshima Prefectures developed an excellent reputation as laborers and more of them were recruited than anywhere else in Japan. The Kanyaku Imin immigration lasted from Feb. 8, 1885 to June 27, 1894. Although there were several interruptions due to arguments by the two governments over the terms and conditions, a total of twenty-six shiploads of immigrants brought around 29,000 Japanese men, women, and children during this period. For Irwin, it was a lucrative venture as he reportedly received a $5 commission for each adult male immigrant he recruited.
Over 7,000 Kanyaku Imin immigrants eventually returned to Japan by the end of 1894, still leaving over 20,000 Japanese in Hawaiʻi. This was 20 percent of Hawaiʻi's population. However, this was only the beginning. The bulk of Japanese immigration (including Okinawan immigration starting in 1900) occurred after this period through private channels up until 1924 when the U.S. Congress prohibited further immigration from Japan. By 1910, 40% of Hawaiʻi's population was Japanese, numbering almost 80,000. By 1924, over 200,000 Japanese immigrants had arrived in Hawaiʻi. It was a spectacularly successful effort to repopulate Hawaiʻi. If you have ancestors who were Japanese immigrants to Hawaiʻi, find out what year they arrived in Hawaiʻi. Then you will know if they were part of the Gannen-mono (1868), Kanyaku Imin (1885-June 1894), or a private immigration scheme (July 1894-1924).
In 1952, the McCarran-Walter Act allowed immigration from Japan again. It also made the Issei eligible for naturalization.
|Preserved summer residence of Robert W. Irwin in Ikaho, Gunma|
|Inside the summer residence of Robert W. Irwin in Ikaho. More photos of the museum here.|
Eldest daughter Bella Irwin (1883-1957) loved Ikaho and was popular there. Whenever she went for a walk, the neighborhood kids would follow her around. Eventually she invited them to the summer residence where she showed them picture books from abroad and offered sweets. It later became a teacher-student relationship as she started teaching the kids (and later adults) at the Ikaho residence. Upon the approval of her parents, she started a Christian Sunday School in Ikaho in 1904. To enhance her qualifications as a teacher, she later went to study preschool education in the US. However, Christian Sunday Schools were being persecuted in Japan, forcing Bella to close her Sunday School in Ikaho. She went to Tokyo where she established the forerunner of the Irwin Gakuen nursery teacher training school and kindergarten in 1916 in Kojimachi.
In 1927, the Irwin summer home was sold to Noma Seiji (野間清治), the president of Kodansha, a major publishing house. It was used for training the company's young employees. The facility was later purchased by Gunma Prefecture in 1944, and finally owned by Ikaho town (now part of Shibukawa city) in 1985.
On Oct. 1, 1985, to mark the 100th anniversary of the Kanyaku Imin, the town of Ikaho in Gunma Prefecture designated Irwin's former summer residence as one of the town's Historical Places (伊香保町指定史跡) and proceeded to preserve the remaining part of the residence which was moved near the bottom of the Stone Steps. In return, Hawaii's Governor George Ariyoshi, a descendant of Japanese immigrants and America's first Japanese-American governor, sent a letter of appreciation to the town and people of Ikaho.
The summer residence or villa (called Hawaiʻi Koshi Bettei ハワイ公使別邸 or Robert W. Irwin Bettei ロバート・W・アルウィン別邸) opened to the public as a history museum of the Irwin family and Japanese immigration to Hawaiʻi (free admission). It was only a small section of the original summer home. In autumn 2013, the home was moved to its current (and original) location slightly up the Stone Steps in place of the Kanzanso inn that was torn down. For the move, the building was disassembled and repairs were made where necessary. The home was then reassembled with new exterior walls, floors, roof, etc.
In April 2014, a small, new museum called the "Guidance Facility" (ガイダンス施設) opened next to the Irwin summer home. Artifacts previously exhibited in the Irwin summer home were moved to the new museum. The new museum displays artifacts and exhibits related to the Irwin family and Robert Walker Irwin's role in the Japanese emigration to Hawaiʻi. Map here | Photos here. Address: Ikaho 29-5, Ikaho-cho, Shibukawa, Gunma Pref.
On Jan 22, 1997, citing its Hawaiʻi connection through the Irwin summer house, Ikaho established sister-city relations with the County of Hawaiʻi (island of Hawaiʻi). In the summer of that year, Ikaho started to hold the annual King Kalakaua "The Merrie Monarch" Hawaiian Festival featuring hula performances by numerous hula groups from various parts of Japan and Hawaiian workshops taught by a well-known kumu hula (recognized hula teacher) from Hawaiʻi.
The Ikaho hula festival is held for a few days in late July or early August before Japan's Obon summer break. All day long, Japanese hula dancers perform one after another on the outdoor main stage and on the Stone Steps. The main highlight is a nightly hula performance by the overall winner or one of the top winners of the Merrie Monarch Festival, the world's most prestigious and famous hula competition held in April in Hilo, Hawaiʻi. One of Hawaiʻi's top hula halaus (hula school or troupe) is thus invited to Ikaho every summer. Ikaho's hula festival is officially sanctioned by the Merrie Monarch Festival.
Among the many hula festivals in Japan, Ikaho's Hawaiian Festival is unique because it is organized by a municipal government (based on sister-city relations) instead of a private company. The Merrie Monarch refers to King David Kalakaua who revived hula dancing (suppressed by the missionaries) during his reign and liked to have fun.
- How to get to Ikaho by train. (From Tokyo, taking the bus from Buster Shinjuku bus terminal at JR Shinjuku Station takes about 2 hr. 40 min. and most convenient.)
- For other Japanese-American museums in Japan, see Japanese-American and Nikkei Museums in Japan.
Robert Walker Irwin Chronology
|Robert Walker Irwin and wife Iki|
- 1844 Jan. 7: Born in Copenhagen, Denmark.
- 1850: Moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA.
- 1866 Nov. 6: Arrives in Japan to staff the Japan branch of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company in Yokohama.
- 1869: Works for Walsh Hall & Co. (ウォルシュ・ホール商会), an American trading firm in Yokohama whose founders (Walsh brothers) produced paper in Japan (morphing into Mitsubishi Paper Mills). Works at the Nagasaki office.
- 1870: Returns to Yokohama from Nagasaki, still at Walsh Hall & Co.
- 1871 Sept. 14: Meets Inoue Kaoru.
- 1872 April: Visits Kyoto.
- 1873: Helps Count Inoue Kaoru establish the forerunner company (先収会社) of trading company Mitsui Bussan (Mitsui & Co.).
- 1874: David Kalakaua (1836-1891) is elected King of the Hawaiian Kingdom. He reigns until his death in 1891.
- 1875: Reciprocity Treaty between the U.S. and the Hawaiian Kingdom is signed and ratified to allow free access to the U.S. market for sugar and other products grown in Hawaii starting in September 1876. This led to major American investments in sugarcane plantations that soon needed more manual laborers.
- 1876 July: Arranged a trip to the U.S. for Count Inoue Kaoru, his wife and daughter, and about twenty assistants and students to tour San Francisco, Nevada, Chicago, Niagara Falls, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in August to see the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. Irwin served as their guide in the U.S. Also starts working for Mitsui Bussan, a trading company established that year.
- 1877 April 22: Left for the UK to start up what was to become the London office of Mitsui & Co. to market Japanese products to Europe.
- 1878 Oct.: Leaves London and returns to Yokohama.
- 1879 Nov. 14: Becomes an advisor to Mitsui Bussan.
- 1880: Appointed as the Kingdom of Hawaii's Consul-General in Japan to succeed Harlan P. Lillibridge who resigned.
- 1881 March 4–16: Hawaii's King David Kalakaua visits Japan and meets Irwin.
- 1881 May 7: Irwin is appointed (promoted) Hawaiian Minister to Japan.
- 1881 May 7: Awarded the Knight Companion of the Royal Order of Kalakaua by King Kalakaua.
- 1882: Awarded the 4th Class, Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette (勲四等旭日小綬章) by the Japanese government.
- 1882 Sept. 18: Marries Takechi Iki (武智イキ) as arranged by Foreign Minister Inoue Kaoru as the first marriage between an American and Japanese approved by both governments.
- 1883 Mar. 10: Appointed by Hawaii as Special Commissioner for Japanese immigration.
- 1883: Becomes General Manager of Kyodo Unyu Kaisha (共同運輸会社), a shipping company which merged in 1885 to become Nippon Yusen (NYK Line).
- 1883 Nov.: First child and eldest daughter, Sophia Arabella "Bella" Irwin (1883-1957), born in Tokyo.
- 1884: Travels to Honolulu, Hawaii (with Colonel Curtis Piehi Iaukea) in May to discuss plans with the Hawaiian government to start the Japanese immigration. While in Hawaii, he is appointed as as Special Agent of the Hawaiian Board of Immigration and Commissioner for Japanese immigration. He returns to Japan by the end of Aug.
- 1885 Feb 8: The first group of Japanese immigrants under the Kanyaku Imin program arrives Honolulu aboard the Pacific Mail Steamship City of Tokio. Irwin accompanies this first group.
|Irwin's medals. The two medals on the left look Hawaiian, and the two on the right are from Japan: 1st Class, Grand Cordon of the Order of the Sacred Treasure (勲一等瑞宝大綬章) awarded in 1892; and 1st Class, Order of the Rising Sun with Paulownia Blossoms, Grand Cordon (勲一等旭日大綬章) awarded in 1925. Courtesy of Bob Irwin.|
|Medals donated by granddaughter Yukiko Irwin to the Japanese Overseas Migration Museum in Yokohama. On left is the Royal Order of Kamehameha I, Knights Grand Cross Star. Awarded by King Kalakaua for distinguished service to the king and the people of Hawaiʻi. The medal on the right is The Order of the Rising Sun.|
- 1885 Feb. 26: Appointed as the Kingdom of Hawaii's Chargé d'affaires and Consul-General to Japan. Also, awarded the Knight Commander of the Royal Order of Kalakaua by King Kalakaua.
- 1885 April 13: Awarded the 3rd Class, Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon (勲三等旭日中綬章) by the Japanese government.
- 1885 June 17: Irwin arrives Honolulu with the second group of 978 Japanese immigrants aboard the Yamashiro Maru.
- 1886 Feb. 14: The third group of Japanese immigrants arrive Honolulu on the City of Peking operated by the Pacific Mail Steamship Co. Irwin was also on board bringing the immigration treaty (signed by Japan on Jan. 28, 1886) for signing by the Hawaiian government.
- 1886 March 30: Awarded the Knights Commander of the Royal Order of Kamehameha I by King Kalakaua.
- 1886 Oct. 4: Awarded the 2nd Class, Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Star (勲二等旭日重光章) by the Japanese government.
- 1887–1894: Kan'yaku Imin immigration continues with a few shiploads every year.
- 1891 Jan. 20: King Kalakaua dies of an illness in San Francisco, CA. Succeeded by Liliʻuokalani.
- 1891: Under the name of Iki's niece Takechi Kiku, he purchases a summer home in Ikaho, Gunma Prefecture where he then spends every summer for the rest of his life. The summer home was previously a Japanese-style inn with a Japanese garden.
- 1892 Mar. 15: Awarded the 1st Class, Grand Cordon of the Order of the Sacred Treasure (勲一等瑞宝大綬章) by the Japanese government.
- 1893 Jan.: The Hawaiian Kingdom is overthrown by Americans and Queen Liliʻuokalani is deposed. A Provisional Government is established.
- 1893 Dec. 4: Irwin visits Honolulu.
- 1894 April 11: Irwin returns to Japan.
- 1894 July 4: The Republic of Hawaiʻi is proclaimed and Sanford B. Dole becomes President.
- 1894 July 7: Irwin accepts an appointment as the Republic of Hawaiʻi's Minister Resident (在日弁理公使) in Japan.
- 1894 June 28: Japanese immigration to Hawaii under the Kanyaku Imin government contract ends with the arrival of the 26th shipload of immigrants. The program brought a total of 29,339 Japanese immigrants to Hawaii. Japanese immigration continues in the private sector until 1924.
- 1896 Feb. 16: Meets with Ernest Satow to discuss Korea.
- 1898 Aug. 12: Hawaii is annexed to the U.S.
- 1898 Oct. 4: Irwin and wife Iki have an audience with Emperor Meiji.
- 1900: Together with Masuda Takashi 益田孝, establishes the Taiwan Sugar Company (台湾製糖株式会社) (later merges with Mitsui Sugar Co.) and becomes an advisor.
- 1904: Eldest daughter Bella starts a Christian Sunday School at the Ikaho summer home.
- 1905 June: Travels to New York and meets with Viscount Takahashi Korekiyo.
- 1914 Nov. 4: Resigns as advisor to the Taiwan Sugar Company.
- 1916: Eldest daughter Bella founds the Irwin Gakuen school and kindergarten (アルウィン学園) in Kojimachi, Tokyo.
- 1925 Jan. 5: Dies of an illness at age 81. Buried at Aoyama Cemetery in Tokyo. Awarded the 1st Class, Order of the Rising Sun with Paulownia Blossoms, Grand Cordon (勲一等旭日大綬章) by the Japanese government.
- 1927: The Irwin summer home is sold to Noma Seiji (野間清治), the president of Kodansha, a major publishing house. It is used for training young employees. The facility is later purchased by Gunma Prefecture in 1944, and finally owned by Ikaho town (now part of Shibukawa city) in 1985.
- 1928 April 16: Second son Richard (b. May 18, 1890) dies at age 38.
- 1930 April 5: Second daughter Mary (b. Sept. 6, 1885) dies at age 44.
- 1940 Aug. 17: Wife Takechi Iki (b. Dec. 23, 1852) dies at age 87.
- 1957 June 12: Eldest child and daughter Sophia Arabella (b. Nov. 24, 1883) dies at age 73.
- 1971 Oct. 9: Eldest son Robert Walker Jr. (Ichiro) (b. June 14, 1887) dies at age 84.
- 1985 Oct. 1: For the 100th anniversary of the Kanyaku Imin, the town of Ikaho in Gunma Prefecture designates Irwin's former summer residence as one of the town's Historical Places 伊香保町指定史跡 and proceeds to preserve the remaining part of the residence which is moved toward the bottom of the Stone Steps. Hawaii also celebrates the 100th anniversary with exhibitions and events.
- 1985: Grandson John Tsuneaki Irwin (son of Robert Walker Jr.) donates to the Diplomatic Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan (外交史料館) 237 English documents, 122 Japanese documents, and 10 French documents from Robert Walker Irwin's collection.
- 1997: Citing its Hawaii connection through the Irwin summer residence, Ikaho establishes sister-city relations with the County of Hawaii (island of Hawaii) on Jan. 22. Ikaho starts to hold the annual King Kalakaua "The Merrie Monarch" Hawaiian Festival from that summer. (Ikaho town later merged with the neighboring city of Shibukawa on Feb. 20, 2006, making Shibukawa the sister city to the County of Hawaii.)
- 2006 Feb 20: Ikaho town merges with the city of Shibukawa in Gunma Prefecture.
- 2012 July 26: Granddaughter Yukiko Irwin (1925–2014, daughter of Richard) donates two medals to the Japanese Overseas Migration Museum in Yokohama where they are on public display. One medal was awarded by King Kalakaua of Hawaii and the other was awarded by Emperor Meiji. (See photo.)
- 2013 autumn: After two years of disassembly and major renovations, the former Irwin summer residence is reassembled and relocated to its original location slightly up the Stone Steps. The roof, exterior walls, floor, etc., were restored with new materials. The building is Map here
- 2014 April: A "Guidance Facility" museum (ガイダンス施設) opens next to the relocated Irwin summer residence. The new museum displays artifacts and exhibits related to the Irwin family and Robert Walker Irwin's role in the Japanese emigration to Hawaiʻi. Artifacts previously exhibited in the Irwin summer residence are moved to the new museum. The second floor of the home is also opened to the public on weekends and national holidays.
Note: In Japanese, his name is written as ロバート・ウォーカー・アルウィン. However, you might see "Irwin" commonly written as アーウィン instead, which is more accurate pronunciation-wise, but apparently not the official spelling. "Robert" might also be rendered as ロベルト instead of ロバート. "Irwin" is archaically rendered as アルウィン on the Kanyaku Imin labor contracts and Bella's school is アルウィン学園. Old official Japanese documents also render his name as ロベルト ウオルカー アルウヰン.
About Irwin's siblings: Robert W. Irwin was one of six children of William Wallace Irwin. His older brother John Irwin (1832-1901) was a half brother born to William's previous wife. He became a Rear Admiral in the US Navy in 1891 and retired in 1894. Another elder brother, Richard Biddle, headed the London, UK office of Mitsui. His older sister Agnes Irwin (1841-1914) founded the Agnes Irwin School in 1869 in Philadelphia and was the first dean of Radcliffe College in 1894. The Agnes Irwin School still exists today as an all-girl, non-sectarian, day school for PreK-Grade 12. Perhaps Aunt Agnes was an influence on niece Bella who started a school of her own in Japan.
About Robert Walker Irwin's Children
|Left to right: Robert Jr., Bella, fourth daughter Agnes, Iki, second son Richard, Robert, third daughter Marion, and second daughter Mary.|
Oldest child and daughter Sophia Arabella "Bella" Irwin (Nov. 24, 1883–June 12, 1957) was born in Tokyo. She attended school in Japan until age 12, then went to school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Upon graduation, she returned to Japan in 1901. In 1904, Bella started a Christian Sunday School in Ikaho using part of the Irwins' summer villa. In 1906, she went back to Philadelphia to study preschool education. She returned to Japan in 1914 and prepared to open her new school. In 1916, she used her own assets to found the Gyokusei Nursery Teacher Training School (玉成保姆養成所, renamed as Gyokusei Hoiku Senmon Gakko 玉成保育専門学校 vocational school in 1977) and Gyokusei Kindergarten (玉成幼稚園) in Kojimachi, Tokyo. Bella was the school’s first principal for the first class of 11 nursery teacher trainees and 10 kindergarteners. In 1947, they reorganized as the Irwin Gakuen (アルウィン学園) in accordance with Japan’s education reforms with Bella serving as its first director and principal. In 1952, the school moved to its present location in Suginami Ward, Tokyo. In 2016, the Irwin Gakuen school celebrated its 100th anniversary. Bella never married and never had children of her own, but her legacy lives on in Japan.
Eldest son Robert Walker Irwin Jr. (June 14, 1887–Oct. 9, 1971) was born in Shiba, Tokyo. He studied at Princeton University in the U.S., then returned to Japan. He worked as an Auditor for the Taiwan Sugar Company from 1915 to 1939. He apparently inherited some of his father’s or family's prestige as he was invited to various official functions in Japan. During World War II, he became a Japanese citizen and adopted the Japanese name of Aruin Ichiro (有院 一郎). He married three times. His first wife was Fusako (1897–1925). He remarried in 1926 to Hidaka Tsuneko (日高常子 Aug. 13, 1898–Sept. 24, 1930) who bore him two sons, John (Tsuneaki) and Charles, both of whom eventually settled in the U.S. after obtaining American citizenship. Tsuneko was a niece of Makino Nobuaki, Japan's Foreign Minister and Imperial Household Minister. After the war, Robert Jr. lived a quiet life in relative obscurity. In an Asahi Shimbun newspaper article in the 1960s, he remarked that people should not be judged by their ancestors. Robert Jr. lived in Tokyo until age 84 when he died of old age at home in 1971. A Christian funeral was held at his home in Koganei, Tokyo on Oct. 11, 1971. Robert Jr.'s third wife Chiyo died at age 82 in 1991. In 1985, eldest son John donated to the Diplomatic Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan (外交史料館) 237 English documents, 122 Japanese documents, and 10 French documents that he had inherited from his grandfather. These documents (or their copies) should be available for public viewing at the Diplomatic Archives. In early Jan. 2017, John Tsuneaki Irwin passed away in California at age 90.
Second son Richard Akira Irwin (May 18, 1890–April 16, 1928) graduated from Princeton University and Harvard Law School. He became a lawyer and returned to Japan to work as the Vice President of Standard Oil company’s Far East operations. He married a Japanese woman named Watanabe Ichiko (whose father was Watanabe Kanae 渡部 鼎, a medical doctor and later politician) and had a son (Takeo 1922-1946) and daughter (Yukiko 1925-2014). Sadly, Richard died in 1928 when his children were still very young. Takeo and Yukiko were sent to be raised by Aunt Bella and grandmother Iki. During World War II, Takeo, along with most other Japanese college students, was drafted by the Japanese military. He died in Manchuria as a Japanese soldier.
Richard's daughter Yukiko Irwin (アーウィン 雪子) graduated from Tokyo Women’s Christian College in 1945 with a B.A. in Japanese Literature, studied shiatsu, and worked in Japan for a while before moving to the U.S. in 1953. She graduated from the Indiana University School of Social Welfare and eventually became a prominent and licensed shiatsu masseuse in New York. She even wrote an acclaimed 1976 book about shiatsu (Shiatzu: Japanese Finger Pressure for Energy, Sexual Vitality and Relief from Tension and Pain) and a 1988 book in Japanese about Benjamin Franklin (Franklin no Kajitsu フランクリンの果実). She always strived to be a bridge between Japan and America. She died in New York in 2014.
|Grave of Robert Walker Irwin and wife Iki at Aoyama Cemetery, Tokyo. (Gravestone has since been damaged by the March 2011 earthquake.)|
Robert Walker Irwin first caught my attention when I visited Ikaho, Gunma for the first time in Aug. 2003 during its annual Hawaiian Hula Festival. There was a "Hawaiian Minister's House" and I promptly visited it. The house displayed much information about the Irwin family and Japanese immigration to Hawaii. It also had an informative pamphlet in Japanese about Irwin and the immigration. Unfortunately, nothing was in English. That was too bad because the hula dancers, musicians, and others from Hawaii were visiting the house during the Ikaho hula festival. (They can't read Japanese.) I have offered this article to be photocopied and made available at the Irwin house.
After visiting Ikaho, I tried to find more information about Robert Walker Irwin, and was disappointed that there was very little information despite the historical importance of this man. The most information I found about Irwin was at the Ikaho house and in the Hawaiian Kingdom history book by Ralph S. Kuykendall (see References below). A chapter in the book gives a good account of how the Japanese immigration was started and Irwin's role. But it does not delve into his life and dealings in Japan.
It's incredible to find a man who apparently never lived in Hawaii to have been entrusted with such an important task and be involved so deeply with Hawaii and its future history. Ironically, it seems that he is better recognized and written about in Japan than in Hawaii. The Japanese government bestowed its highest awards (Order of the Rising Sun, etc.) on him multiple times. The Hawaiian government also awarded him multiple medals. Irwin may have been long forgotten after the much larger mass immigration occurring after the Kanyaku Imin. Nevertheless, Irwin was wealthy, and he made a fortune from the immigration program by charging a commission for each adult male he delivered to Hawaii. He continued to have successful business pursuits even after his immigration work was done. He lived a comfortable and privileged life in Japan.
In spring 2008, I finally got around to writing this article about Robert Walker Irwin when I was hired again to work at Ikaho's hula festival that summer. I just wanted the people from Hawaii to know more about this man since there was so little information about him. I spent a few days piecing together all the information I could find about him in the few English and Japanese sources at hand.
I think Irwin deserves more recognition in the English-speaking world. So here's my contribution to that end. I attended the Ikaho Hawaiian Festival in Aug. 2008 and I gave copies of this article to the people from Hawaiʻi and to people at the Shibukawa City Hall and tourist bureau. It was very well received by all.
I'm happy to report that since 2008, I have come across more information about Robert Walker Irwin and his descendants and met a few heirs of his estate who have allowed me to examine documents, letters, medals, and other artifacts from Robert Walker Irwin. This article has therefore been updated accordingly.
|Taking advantage of its Hawaii connection via Irwin's summer home, Ikaho holds an annual Hawaiian Festival in early Aug. highlighted by top hula dancers from Hawaii. More photos of the hula show here.|
He was one of the key people helping to create a new breed called Japanese-Americans. His original goals of supplying laborers (Japanese later accounted for over 60% of sugar plantation workers) and repopulating Hawaii (by 1910, 40% of Hawaii's population was Japanese, numbering almost 80,000, the largest ethnic group) were spectacularly attained. I wish he had lived long enough to see how the Japanese eventually excelled in Hawaii and made huge advancements and contributions to these islands and to America itself.
Though I'm a Japanese-American from Hawaii, I'm not descended from Japanese immigrants. But I grew up with them and their descendants. How I wish I was old enough and curious enough to ask the issei generation about their immigration experiences. As a child, I can only remember them as being old and wrinkled, but kind and gentle. How I wish I could have thanked them for all their kindnesses as I grew up. And even the nisei generation who are now dying out, as parents, teachers, public servants, and guardians who took care of us directly, I thank them as well.
- Robert W. Irwin Bettei summer residence and pamphlet, Ikaho-cho Board of Education
- Guidance Facility, Ikaho
- Phila-Nipponica: A Historic Guide to Philadelphia & Japan, Second Edition, by the Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia, 2015
- The Hawaiian Kingdom Volume III 1874-1893, The Kalakaua Dynasty, by Ralph S. Kuykendall, University of Hawaii Press, 1967
- Kanyaku Imin, A Hundred Years of Japanese Life in Hawaii, Edited by Leonard Lueras, International Savings and Loan Association Ltd., 1985
- Shoal of Time: A History of the Hawaiian Islands by Gavan Daws, University of Hawaii Press, 1974
- ハワイ管約移民の父 R.W.アーウィン、by 松永秀夫、（株）講談社ビジネスパートナーズ、2011
- Around the World with a King, William N. Armstrong
- カラカウア王のニッポン仰天旅行記、ウィリアム・N. アームストロング (著), William N. Armstrong (原著), 荒俣 宏 (翻訳), 樋口 あやこ (翻訳)
- Cane Fires: The Anti-Japanese Movement in Hawaii, 1865-1945 By Gary Y. Okihiro, Temple University Press
- Japanese Overseas Migration Museum
- Irwin Gakuen Web site
- New York Times article archive
- Irwin summer residence by Shibukawa