Shedding light on Hawai‘i internees history

PUHI — Kaua‘i Community College and the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i welcomed Dennis Ogawa, Ph.D. to introduce an exhibit currently showing at the school’s library.

Ogawa is chair of the American Studies department at UH Manoa and the author of two best-selling books on the history of Japanese-Americans in Hawai‘i.

In clear and simple terms, Ogawa described the year preceeding the attack on Pearl Harbor which led to what has been termed one of the most tragic and appalling moments in our nation’s history: the internment of 124,000 Japanese-Americans, 1,400 of whom were Hawaiian residents. This chapter of America’s path to racial equality is one of extreme schizophrenia as Americans fought across the Atlantic to liberate Nazi concentration camps while, in the islands of the Pacific, cultural and social leaders of Japanese ancestry were probed, picked-up and stolen from their families and community.

The exhibit “Dark Clouds Over Paradise: The Hawai‘i Internees Story” is a work-in-progress of archival photographs, documents and personal accounts. Ogawa described the tensions that rose in Hawai‘i as war with Japan loomed on the horizon. Gen. Short, commander of Hawai‘i’s military organization, responded to concerns that Hawaiians of Japanese ancestry could be a weakness in America’s defense plan.

Community probes were established and lists of religious and social leaders were compiled. In November of 1940, Gen. Short summarized that first and second generation Japanese-Americans were not as threatening as the kibei, second generational youth that had been educated in Japan rather than America.

“The issei and nissei had loyality to America through business, education and the hopes of a continued future here and were thus seen as passively loyal to Japan,” Ogawa said. “The kibei, in contrast, were thought to be actively disloyal to America if it came down to it as they had been recently exposed to Japanese culture through their education.”

While the military estimated they knew only 10 percent of the population’s politics and loyalties, 90 percent was unknown at the time of mass internment.

“Rumors in the community, in the media and in the air fed the negative perceptions of Japanese-Americans,” Ogawa said. The exaggerated paranoia of the “enemy face” translated into a warped sense of patriotism that required hatred and exclusion.

Illustrative with many primary source narratives, Ogawa recounted a racially motivated accusation that began in the Honolulu Advertiser when a Japanese-American owned fabric store placed their yearly sale advertisement. “The cost of the discounted fabric read $1.15 per yard. The military later accused the business owner of sending secret messages through their price as 1 plus 1 plus 5 equaled 7, indicating Dec. 7 as the attack date on Pearl Harbor.”

“Dark Clouds” sheds light on a shameful time that shaped Japanese-American identity.

“Overnight, the Japanese-American became truly American; 2,700 last name changes occurred after the war, conversion from Buddhism to Christianity sky-rocketed,” Ogawa said. “Japanese women wore jade to appear Chinese.”

The transformations of cultural identity were made concrete when family objects such as samurai swords and Japanese dolls were discarded. “These objects held continuity and history in the family unit; suddenly gone, there was a deep cultural void,” Ogawa said. This psychological trauma was directly related to the loss of cultural artifacts that represented the long history of immigration from Japan to Hawai‘i.

Ogawa closed his talk by linking these histories to the present.

“We must keep remembering and telling this history. Lessons learned from World War II must never be repeated.”

In the light of post 9/11 and racial profiling in the war on terror, the reminder is timely.

• Keya Keita, lifestyle writer, can be reached at 245-3681 or


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