Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Ninety years after the execution hanging of Myles Fukunaga, a young Japanese American man who killed the son of a Hawaiian Trust Company executive, the story continues to resonate among Hawai‘i residents who have learned about the case and questioned the judicial system’s rush to judgment of an individual who was clearly mentally ill.
For those unfamiliar with the case or in need of a refresher, Denshö online encyclopedia has called the Myles Fukunaga case “one of the most divisive incidents relating to Japanese Americans in Hawai‘i in the years before World War II.”
Fukunaga, by all accounts an intelligent and promising Nisei youth, was the son of Japanese immigrants who were struggling financially and had been threatened with eviction from their Honolulu home. Fukunaga plotted the kidnapping and murder of the 10-year-old son of Frederick Jamieson, a wealthy vice president of Hawaiian Trust Company. Fukunaga admitted to committing the crime in retaliation for the humiliation and ill-treatment his parents had suffered from Hawaiian Trust Company, which was responsible for collecting the rent for the home his parents rented.
Before the boy, Gill Jamieson, was even found dead, local authorities concluded the kidnapper was of Japanese ethnicity. Rising anti-Japanese hysteria was fanned by existing racial tensions and the Japanese American community in the territory feared for its safety. At the same time, many in the Japanese American community actively aided in the search for Gill Jamieson to demonstrate their collective condemnation of the kidnapping.
Fukunaga was eventually apprehended by local authorities and Gill Jamieson’s body was found. Trial and sentencing were accelerated and Fukunaga was quickly convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. Fukunaga’s court-appointed defense attorneys called no witnesses. While there is no doubt that Fukunaga committed the crime, many in the Japanese American community objected to the way the trial was handled, arguing that Caucasians who had murdered victims of Japanese ancestry were not treated similarly. More troubling was the fact that Fukunaga’s mental status did not appear to be a consideration at his trial or sentencing.
Beginning Friday, Oct. 19, and running through the following Saturday, Oct. 27, a docudrama featuring students in Taurie Kinoshita’s Theatre 260 class at Windward Community College will present “A Walking Shadow” in Palikü Theatre. The play revi-
sits the Fukunaga case and Myles Fukunaga’s “horrifying descent into madness, his unspeakable crime and the ultimate injustice of his trial and death sentence.” Written and directed by Kinoshita using transcripts from Fukunaga’s interviews, “A Walking Shadow” will explore “the consequences of racism, lack of representation and the plight of those afflicted with mental illness.”
The cast members include students Chase Jusseaume, Alaka‘i Cunningham, Raymond Zach Thompson, Daphnei Hussein, Juvy Lucina, Noah Schuetz and Spencer McCarrey. To put the play into context, each performance will be preceded by a talk on mental illness that will start 15 minutes before the show.
The story is told from Fukunaga’s perspective. According to the play’s press release, it “will take the audience into the mind of someone who is troublingly sick.”
Kinoshita is an award-winning director, playwright and educator who teaches history, acting and dramatic production at Windward Community College. She has directed plays in London, New York and Honolulu and holds a master’s degree in fine arts in directing (Western theatre) and a bachelor’s degree in theatre from the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa. She recently shared her thoughts on “A Walking Shadow” with The Hawai‘i Herald.
KK: This is a heavy subject for live theater. What interested you in the Myles Fukunaga case and why did you think it would translate well to theater?
TK: I am a huge lover of history. Also, since we can always predict the future by understanding the past, learning our own history is crucial. When I heard about this case, I knew I wanted to address it because it touches on so many important topics: discrimination (especially against immigrants), legal injustice, the death penalty and, most importantly, mental illness.
Theatre is the best way to address the topic of mental illness: Mental illness is as real as physical illness. Onstage in our production, there are two actors who embody Myles’ illness — they control him and tell him what to speak and do. These two characters (called King) cannot be seen by anyone else onstage. Yet, they are as real to the audience as they are to Myles. Thus, our play is able to clearly illustrate the reality of mental illness and how people who are insane cannot be held responsible for their actions.
Theatre is quality over quantity: Millions of people will see a film; comparatively, very few will see the typical play. Theatre, therefore, can and must be specific; also, theatre must respond to meet the needs of its precise community. People are so inundated with escapist entertainment — I think theatre has a responsibility to enlighten and make people think.
I have trouble understanding why Broadway theatre musicals are still being almost exclusively staged in Hawai‘i — they do not speak to their specific audience.
The fact that this was a local story that can speak directly to our community, that still has universal and timeless messages and can strive to enlighten are all reasons I wanted to stage it.
KK: You had access to the transcripts of interviews. What did you learn about Myles’ mental health from reading them?
TK: Myles was clearly mentally ill. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that he needed real help. For example, before his execution, he was asked to write to the youth of the future about his own mistakes. This letter is virtually incomprehensible (with excellent grammar). His mind was going from idea to idea too quickly for the reader to follow. His suicide attempts, his insistence on being perceived as sane and the statements of medical experts such as Dr. Thompson (a Navy psychiatrist who came out to speak in favor of Myles) all show Myles was severely ill.
KK: This story goes back 90 years. What do you think modern audiences can glean from revisiting this case so many decades later?
TK: Our central theme is agency: cultural and especially mental. Awareness for mental illness is just as important now. Sadly, there is still a stigma associated with it — and there should not be. People should feel just as free to seek help as they do if their leg is broken.
Cultural agency is also a theme because even now — after 90 years — we still see so few minorities portrayed in film and theatre in America. This lack of representation has tremendous repercussions. I am summarizing a line from the play, but it goes something like this: “The leader of every cavalry, the president in every movie, the head of every company was never shown as Japanese or Chinese or Filipino or any other race but white.”
The day anyone of any ethnicity can walk into a room and be treated with the same respect will be a great day. But we still have so far to go. And we must get our own stories out there.
KK: There’s no question that Myles killed Gill Jamieson. Despite this fact, what do you think was the injustice that Myles experienced from the territorial government at the time?
TK: The injustices Myles experienced were categorical, immense and shockingly terrible.
To begin with, his trial was an obscene mockery of our justice system: His attorneys did not attempt insanity or a lesser plea; they called no witnesses of their own; and they rested after 19 minutes.
During jury selection, people who had admitted to reading Myles’ confession in the papers (and being friends with the prosecutor and victim’s father) were allowed on the jury! Four preemptory challenges were left at the end of jury selection. The bias of the jury clearly demonstrates his attorneys were not interested in helping Myles (as was their legal duty).
With any insanity case, the law required a 10-day psychiatric evaluation. Myles was given 90 minutes with three doctors (two of whom admitted that they had little experience with psychiatry). One of these doctors had been the medical examiner who did the autopsy; another one of these doctors (they were not psychiatrists or specialists) said that “suicide is normal behavior”! Myles was 19 years old. According to Hawai‘i territorial law, he was a minor. Yet he was executed. Just the fact that he was a minor and sentenced to death shows there was a rush to execute him.
Many people think (now and then) that he was rushed to an unfair death because he had broken the status quo of white supremacy (he was a minority who killed a white person). They could not let this crime go unpunished, lest it happen again.
By contrast, the same year Myles was executed at 19, despite being obviously mentally ill, two Japanese cab drivers were killed in separate incidents. In the first incident (in which a cab driver was set on fire), the perpetrators were only sentenced to 20 years. In the second, separate incident in which a cab driver was bludgeoned to death by a white person, the white person was eventually pardoned and did not serve 20 years. Yet, despite these two horrific crimes, it was Myles — a 19-year-old minor — who was given the death penalty.
Another thing I learned was that The Hawai‘i Herald and Hawaii Hochi have always been on the right side of history. It was the Hawaii Hochi that raised the money for Myles’ appeals attorney, Robert Murakami, a Hawai‘i legal legend who always fought for justice. Of course, because Myles had threatened the establishment (Caucasian power), all the appeals were rejected. However, it was very heartening and beautiful to learn that there were people trying to help see justice done.
Myles was the victim of discrimination and racial inequity and sentenced unfairly to death at a too-young age. As the Hawaii Hochi itself pointed out in one of its petitions, life imprisonment would have been just as effective at protecting society.
Since other people who murdered were set free, why was Myles not? It can only be because of his being Japanese. This is why cultural agency is also a theme of our play: that Myles was controlled by voices (his mental illness) and then controlled by society (not given a fair chance at anything).
Due to adult situations and themes, the play is recommended for ages 16 and older.
Kevin Kawamoto is a longtime contributor to The Hawai‘i Herald.
“A WALKING SHADOW” — SHOW DATES AND TIMES
Location: Palikü Theatre on the campus of Windward Community College
Oct. 19 and 20 (Friday and Saturday), 7:30 p.m. (after-show talk with cast on Saturday)
- Oct. 21 (Sunday), 4 p.m.
- Oct. 24 (Wednesday), 4 p.m.
- Oct. 25–27 (Thursday– Saturday), 7:30 p.m.
Tickets are $10 for students (14+ and college students with ID), seniors (65+) and military (with ID) and $15 for adults. They can be purchased online at https://www.windward.hawaii.edu/paliku/ or https://windward.hawaii.edu/theatre/events.php, or call (808) 779–3456 for more information.