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Diversity in Hawaii

Image Symbolizing Hawaii's Cultural Diversity

The Hawaiian Islands comprise a unique archipelago of cultural diversity. Being located remotely in the vast Pacific Ocean, with the Asian and North American continents on either side, it is no marvel that Hawaii’s population is a blend of many cultures. The United States of America is fondly referred to as a “melting pot,” but the state of Hawaii best exemplifies this with the widest variety of races and ethnicities. According to the 2010 United States Census, of the residents in Hawaii, 38.6% were of Asian descent, 24.7% were Caucasian, 10% were either native Hawaiians or Pacific Islander, 8.9% were Hispanic and roughly 1.6% were of African descent. The diverse population of Hawaii can be attributed to its rich history of immigration.


The influence of Asian culture on Hawaii dates back to the rise of the sugar industry when many Chinese immigrants moved to Hawaii in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and worked on the plantations. The earliest Chinese immigrants came from the impoverished Guangdong province in Southern China, primarily speaking Cantonese. By the mid 1800’s there were nearly 50,000 Chinese immigrants who had made the Hawaiian Islands their home. These people continued to stay in Hawaii after their work contracts had expired, excelling in small business ownership in areas such as Chinatown in Honolulu. Because the majority of Chinese immigrants were male workers in the sugar industry, they often married into other ethnic groups, including native Hawaiians.

The Japanese also immigrated to Hawaii to work on the sugar, pineapple and coffee plantations since the early 1800s, though from 1869 to 1885 moving to the islands were banned since the government of Japan did not want their citizens be degraded to the role of foreign laborers. However, when the anti-immigration law was lifted, Japanese citizens began to settle in large numbers into Hawaii. Initially, as with the Chinese immigrants, they tried to stay in touch with their heritage by sending their children to Japanese language schools and by continuing many of their cultural and religious practices of their home country. At its peak in 1920, over 40% of Hawaii’s residents were of Japanese ancestry. Because there were so many Americans of Japanese ancestry living in Hawaii during World War II it made it impossible to intern them in relocation camps in massive numbers like were their counterparts living on the US mainland.

Of the laborers in the sugar industry, the Filipinos contributed the highest number of plantation workers. Over 120,000 Filipino immigrants arrived to the Hawaiian Islands between the years of 1907-1931 from the Illocos Norte region of Luzon, speaking the Illocano dialect as opposed to the national language of Tagalog. Today, there are still significant numbers of Filipinos immigrating to Hawaii from all over the Philippine islands archipelago. And as such, Filipinos have exceeded the Japanese population in Hawaii and have become the largest single ethnicity representing 25% of Hawaii’s population as of the year 2010.

Thousands of Koreans also immigrated to the islands from 1896-1910. Though the Korean immigration to Hawaii has been continuous, the first large groups of Koreans started immigrating from 1901 to 1905, bringing a total of 7,226 people to the islands. Of these, many were recruited to work on the sugar plantations. From 1911 to 1924, the Korean workers requested “picture brides” and the unions that arose from the 800 Korean women who arrived in Hawaii helped strengthen the Korean presence in the islands. Over time, the population of Koreans grew and the state of Hawaii now has a higher concentration of Korean-American residents than any other state.

Europe and North America

The 18th and 19th centuries saw a great increase of European ships in Hawaiian harbors. This western influence brought strategic warfare and weapons to the Hawaiian Kingdom. They also helped break the back of the kapu system (which practiced cruelly unreasonable laws and human sacrifices). Protestant missionaries came from New England in 1819 and their arrival had a profound influence on Hawaii and its people. Numerous missionaries followed in the subsequent decades, from both Europe and North America, helping establish schools, building houses and churches, providing basic medical care for those in need as well as ministering to outcasts on Kalaupapa on the island of Molokai with Hansen’s disease. The missionaries were even successful in converting Hawaiian royalty to Christianity. Today, Hawaii’s most prominent private schools and churches were originally founded and or influenced by the Protestant and Catholic missionaries that first came to Hawaii, which in turn, also had a significant upon Hawaii’s leaders that attended such schools and institutions.

American businessmen who moved to Hawaii became the principal driver of immigration, which sparked the large number of immigration by many other ethnic groups into Hawaii, when they crated the sugar, pineapple and coffee plantations in the late 1800s. They needed a source of foreign laborers as there were not enough people in local labor pool during that time to support those industries. Today, Caucasians from Europe or North America represent a quarter of Hawaii’s population today.

The Portuguese immigrants arrived in Hawaii primarily from the Portuguese islands of Madeira and the Azores. Between the years of 1878 to 1911 upwards of 16,000 Portuguese plantation contract workers were employed. The Portuguese population in Hawaii continued to expand, and blend with other cultures. Currently, there are believed to be over 48,000 people with Portuguese ancestry living in Hawaii.

Pacific Islands

In the Aloha State today, there are almost 300,000 that claim to have some degree of Hawaiian heritage. The original ancient Hawaiians can also be technically considered immigrants too as their ancestors descended from Polynesia, principally from the islands of the Marquesas and Tahiti, making the lengthy and arduous journey on sailing canoes across the Pacific Ocean to the Hawaiian Islands beginning in the 3rd century. It has been estimated at the time when the first Westerners first explored the islands there were between 250,000 to 800,000 native Hawaiians. As they were never exposed to them before, Native Hawaiians were particularly susceptible to diseases brought in by the white explorers and their numbers dramatically declined as a result. Because the numbers of native Hawaiian was so impacted by such diseases, it compelled the owners of the plantations to seek laborers from foreign countries. As the Hawaiians are the original settlers of the islands, Hawaii’s unique cultural base, for all people of Hawaii, including for all other immigrant groups to the islands, whether they be from Asia, Europe, Latin America or other parts of the Pacific, has been largely influenced by this ethnic group’s rich history and traditions.

Another one of the fastest-growing populations in Hawaii, are Pacific Islanders hailing from Fiji, Guam, Tahiti and Samoa. Other than Hawaiians, Samoans are the largest group of Polynesians to have come to Hawaii. They grew steadily in numbers, by the 1970’s, there were over 13,000 Samoan residents, the majority of which lived on Oahu. Currently, of the estimated 28,000 Samoan people living in Hawaii.

Latin America

A significant contribution to the Latin American culture in Hawaii came from Puerto Rican immigrants. Plantation workers began arriving as early as 1900 and intermarried into other ethnic groups. Today, there are nearly 30,000 Puerto Rican or Hawaiian-Puerto Ricans on the islands. Those with Puerto Rican roots make up the majority of Hawaii’s Hispanic population, which is reportedly on the rise.
A recent study conducted by the United States Census Bureau, proved that people of Hispanic descent are growing in number in the state of Hawaii. Since the year 2000, almost 40,000 Latino people have immigrated to Hawaii, increasing the percentage of the population to nearly 9%.

Melting Pot

Though diseases, plantation industries and religious journeys greatly contributed to the immigration of the late 1800’s to the mid 1900’s, people are moving to Hawaii for other reasons now.  As people from various backgrounds and cultures continue to assimilate with each other in the Aloha State, as has been the case for well over a hundred years now, what emerges as a result of this grand assimilation is the unique culture of Hawaii. People who visit Hawaii frequently eventually learn that the true beauty of Hawaii is not so much its pristine beaches and its verdant landscape; but the real beauty of Hawaii lies within this wonderful mix of cultures and peoples.


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