Philbert Ono

Philbert Ono was born in Hawaii to native Japanese parents and grew up with the Sansei generation. Now based in Tokyo, Japan and fluent in Japanese, he is a Japan travel writer, photographer, and translator active in promoting better understanding of Japan. He wrote the English pamphlet for Robert Walker Irwin’s Ikaho Villa. Also see his list of Nikkei museums in Japan.

Updated October 2020

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Robert Walker Irwin (1844–1925)

Part 5: Seeing Irwin

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Here are places where you can see exhibits, artifacts, documents, etc., related to Robert Walker Irwin.

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Hawaiian Minister’s Ikaho Villa, Shibukawa, Gunma Prefecture

Founded over 1,300 years ago, Ikaho is a famous hot spring town on the cool slope of Mt. Haruna. By the 19th century, it was a popular retreat for many dignitaries and celebrities including the Imperial family who had a villa there until 1945. Famous artists and novelists like Takehisa Yumeiji and Natsume Soseki were also Ikaho regulars.

Today, Ikaho is a relaxing hot spring for everyone. Ikaho’s …

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Robert Walker Irwin (1844–1925)

Part 4: World War II in Japan and Grandchildren

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Despite racial prejudice and government pressure to move to the US, Irwin's children and grandchildren remained in Japan during the war as Japanese citizens. As adults, the grandchildren eventually moved to the US.

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The war years

Robert Walker Irwin died of a stroke (noted as "apoplexy" on his death certificate) on January 5, 1925 while at home in Kojimachi, Tokyo. He was 81. His wife Iki died on August 17, 1940 at age 87. It was a blessing for Irwin and Iki to miss World War II. The heartbreak and hardships …

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Robert Walker Irwin (1844–1925)

Part 3: Biracial Children

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Irwin's children were biracial in Japan, highly unusual at the time. They didn't feel completely Japanese in Japan nor completely American in America. They faced both identity issues and racial prejudice. Most still opted to live in Japan permanently.

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International marriage and biracial children

Despite much privilege and wealth, Irwin and Iki’s personal lives and marriage had many ups and downs. Iki didn't like her husband's drinking and womanizing with geisha, a habit he apparently picked up from his association with high-powered Japanese friends. She resented having to do all the …

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Robert Walker Irwin (1844–1925)

Part 2: Father of Kanyaku Imin Emigration to Hawaiʻi

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Successfully negotiated by Irwin and his close friend Inouye Kaoru, Japan's Foreign Minister, Kanyaku Imin was a government-contract immigration program that started the mass immigration of Japanese to Hawaiʻi from 1885.

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Kanyaku Imin Immigration

Irwin’s place in Hawaiian history started in 1880 when his friend Harlan P. Lillibridge resigned as the Kingdom of Hawai‘i’s Consul General in Japan and recommended Irwin to take his place. As Hawai‘i’s interim Consul General in Japan, Irwin’s job was not that busy until he started preparing for Hawaiian King David Kalakaua’s tour of Japan scheduled …

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Robert Walker Irwin (1844–1925)

Part 1: Hawaiian Minister to Japan

*Japanese names in this article follow the Japanese convention of the family name coming before the given name.

Irwin arrives in Yokohama in 1866 during a most tumultuous time in Japan’s history. He soon meets the two most important Japanese people in his personal and business life. One was his wife Iki whom he finally legally married after taking over 10 years to overcome family opposition and legal hurdles. Irwin and Iki became the world’s first American and Japanese nationals to marry.

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In June 1860 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 16-year-old Robert Walker Irwin was among the …

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