Many Were Victims of “Friendly Fire”

Allan Beekman
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
(Reprinted from Dec. 6, 1991)

A disproportionate number of the civilian casualties of the Pearl Harbor attack were Nikkei, with some of the most striking casualties somehow related to Hawaii Chuo Gakuin, the oldest Japanese language school on O‘ahu, and, at the time, the center of Nikkei activity on the island.

The school was located on Nu‘uanu Avenue, just mauka of Vineyard Boulevard (present site of Foster Botanical Gardens). In 1941, the area was considered the center of Honolulu, hence its English name, Japanese Central Institute. Many a meeting was held in Chuo Gakuin’s big auditorium, as were many important and historic events. The most dramatic of those events occurred on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941.

In a program partially intended to discourage juvenile delinquency, Chuo Gakuin conducted Sunday morning classes for students with no religious affiliation. Classes were limited to the first seven grades.

On an ordinary Sunday there might have been as many as 150 students gathered for the special class. There would have been other students as well, not attending the class, but gathered in the yard, playing ball. There might have been a group of students from the upper school working on the next year’s annual. Teachers, off for the day, might drop by, tending to unfinished business.

Things were routine that Sunday morning, except for the tension among the students, which they had never exhibited before. The second wave of Japanese planes had begun their attack at about 8:45 a.m., while the children were still in the yard. They had observed the activity in the direction of Pearl Harbor caused by the first wave of attacking planes, which struck at 7:58. They had seen the smoke rising from the stricken ships and heard shells explode. Even from the auditorium, where the children were assembled, they could hear the gunfire and the explosions coming from Pearl Harbor.

Photo of a monument on the grounds of Foster Botanical Gardens honors the memory of the children killed at Chuo Gakuin on Dec. 7, 1941.
A monument on the grounds of Foster Botanical Gardens honors the memory of the children killed at Chuo Gakuin on Dec. 7, 1941.

Among the teachers in attendance were Take Okawa, who was normally in charge since she was the senior teacher, Hiroshi Honda and Mr. Nakagawa. To the teachers, the outside disturbances were not out of the ordinary. Just the day before, the American military had conducted maneuvers over Honolulu with the planes flying so close to the school’s rooftop that school officials had feared they might crash into it.

The military activities of the preceding day had not included the smoke and explosions coming from Pearl Harbor, however. The situation being out of the ordinary, unusual measures seemed necessary to cope with it. Take Okawa decided to try a weekday routine.

“Close your eyes,” she instructed. The children closed their eyes. Instead of accepting the order as an opportunity for calm reflection and self-examination, however, they evidently interpreted it as a means for distracting them from the activities outside. Most immediately reopened their eyes and gazed with shock and dismay at the teacher.

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