Alan T. Murakami
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
The Sansei in Hawai‘i leave a mixed legacy in their diminishing historic wake. The authors in this series make me marvel at their contributions to the social fabric of this island ‘äina. They have forged new fabric in the form of literature, art and poetry, and have changed mindsets about the value of AJA contributions to the justice and patriotism of what some refer to as “the greatest generation.”
This Sansei legacy, formed in the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, has left the country — and Hawai‘i, in particular — vastly different from the soft comfort of Sansei childhoods of the late 1940s and 1950s. For the most part, my parents’ generation understood that loyalty to country superseded the simultaneous internment and discrimination of their parents.
For Sansei, however, this narrative gave way to their own generation’s solidifying opposition to an unjust war and the drafting of some, even while some among their contemporaries dutifully entered the military. In that tumult known as the Vietnam War era, political division challenged the old order of patriotism, authority, order and justice.
My own innocence ran deep. My childhood neighborhood revolved around a multiethnic kumiai, a neighborhood association that I have found only in certain rural island communities where surrounding social ties wove a network of support for each other. I can’t remember a Christmas without Santa at a kumiai party, or a summer without a kumiai picnic with sack races and pencils for prizes. In Hilo, I had rarely seen an African American and I was unaware of who might be Jewish.
In this social safety net, we grew up with family expectations to succeed where our parents could not and armed with higher education that would open doors to us in business, science, law and other professions that were largely closed to them. My own father Shigeo never got past high school. He barely graduated, as time demands helping my grandfather on long trucking hauls between Hilo and points north and south took him away from his classes more days than he attended in his senior year. Initially an apprentice carpenter, he later worked as a civil servant for Hawai‘i County as a building inspector. My mother Michie, the eldest of nine children, started working at an early age. She was only able to complete up to the ninth grade. She labored as a waitress and did maid work for the Puna plantation manager’s family, then worked in retail sales before the advent of the big box phenomenon.
After high school, my socially conservative youth in Hilo was challenged in collegiate protests in California against an unjust war. Although I was partially sheltered from the 1960s in a Jesuit institution, it was not long before the full impact of the looming draft made the Vietnam War the dominant event for the Sansei. As a sophomore, I wept for one of my best friends in high school, Terrance Ogata, who died in a helicopter gunship over Laos. His name is etched in the Vietnam War Memorial at the State Capitol in Honolulu.
Caught in that vise of division, young men were forced to confront choices that few must face today.
After graduating, I ended up serving in Germany — I did not have to ship out to Vietnam. America was tiring of the war and longing for it to end. The war did not take the same toll on me by the accident of my 2-S deferment during college. I live with the guilt that the delay favored me. I wondered how those who had worked the system like me viewed the legacy they left during this turbulent time.
Upon returning to Hawai’i, I learned for the first time about President Franklin Roosevelt’s issuance of Executive Order 9066 during World War II. Although most in Hawai’i escaped the fate of internment, the stories of those families who did not entered my growing sense that my innocent childhood in Hilo was clouded by ignorance. Law school confirmed my suspicion, as I learned how much of the contemporary civil rights movement enveloping America had escaped my attention, leaving me with little doubt of where my career path would lead. As my own contemporaries pushed for jobs in private firms and courthouses, I sought out those whom the profession was leaving behind and who had no attorneys to help them.
My decision to do legal work that addressed issues of Hawaiian rights puzzled my family and friends. After all, Hawai’i is a “melting pot” that is the envy of the world, no? I was leaving behind the notion that success simply meant a career track to push career boundaries past the Nisei and Issei generations.
Careers were open to Sansei in the state political environment, forged by the Democratic Party’s “revolution” in 1954. The Sansei had come of age in ways only dreamt of by their parents and grandparents and which only few had attained. Relatively insulated from the injustices faced by similar AJA families on the continent, Hawai’i’s AJA community had found, and would continue to find, widespread mainstream successes in banking, development, finance, engineering and real estate to a degree their parents had only sporadically enjoyed.
Ironically, I often found myself siding against AJAs of my own generation and older who were on the other side of the courtroom from me. Hawaiians faced challenges in perpetuating their unique cultural heritage rooted in a justice system that clearly enshrined those rights in our state constitution. Their adversaries often found refuge in, and hired, AJA professionals who earned degrees from the same pathway I had taken to advance my education. The career choices they had made to basically overcome some of the disadvantages faced by my parents’ generation now helped to defend the status quo my clients were intent on challenging.
I nevertheless find comfort in the Sansei and Yonsei, whose own work complements the work I pursue. Their actions in respect of the host culture are admirable. However limited, these contributions are a testament to the mixed legacy this Sansei generation is leaving our island community.
The material success of our Sansei generation has been built on irony, if not a fundamental erosion of the justice legacy left by our forebears, who struggled for equal treatment so their children would not suffer from the abuses of others during the plantation era. The economy that replaced the sugar plantations afforded opportunities for the Sansei to benefit economically in ways that our parents could only hope. In fulfilling those visions, however, some Sansei have forgotten the plight of others suffering from economic forces perpetuating the mistreatment of others.
These forces ignore or refuse to account for their impacts on the preservation of a native cultural heritage and societal legacy unique to Hawai’i. For nearly two centuries, we have lived together largely harmoniously, if not imperfectly, in a unique island environment that much of the world envies. Filling the economic roles available to Sansei has often been at the cost of that heritage, whether unconscious or deliberate. Those who ignored that impact left us with a conflict and disruption that fuels the current unrest, especially amongst advocates for preserving Hawaiian traditions and culture. As members of this island environment, we have a duty to preserve our unique aloha spirit so that all can truly prosper together.
Alan T. Murakami was born and raised in Hilo and is a past president of the Honolulu Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League. For the past three decades, he has practiced law with a focus on defending Hawaiian rights before various courts and administrative agencies.