Harry Minoru Urata’s internment experience and thoughts are captured in “A Resilient Spirit: The Voice of Hawai‘i’s Internees.”
Harry Minoru Urata’s internment experience and thoughts are captured in “A Resilient Spirit: The Voice of Hawai‘i’s Internees.”

Hawai‘i’s Internment Experience Comes to Life in New JCCH Publication

Kevin Y. Kawamoto
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

Editor’s note: Next Tuesday, Feb. 19, will mark 77 years since President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, uprooting and imprisoning more than 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast of the U.S. mainland and, in lesser numbers, Hawai‘i.

In 1980, Congress established the federal Commission on the Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians to study the internment and take testimony from those who had lived through the internment. The CWRIC was also charged with recommending actions for Congress to take to redress the wrong. The commission concluded that there was no military necessity for the internment and that “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership” had prompted the 1942 internment order.

Across the country, “Day of Remembrance” programs are being held to renew the call for vigilance from repeating history, as Muslims and other racial and religious minorities in America find themselves increasingly targeted for discrimination.

Thanks to concerted efforts to educate the public about the wartime injustice, there is now heightened knowledge of what happened to Americans of Japanese ancestry on the U.S. continent. Not as widely known, however, is the Hawai‘i experience. The recent publication of “A Resilient Spirit: The Voice of Hawai‘i’s Internees” by retired educators Claire Sato and Violet Harada and the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i aims to change that.

The book is reviewed by Hawai‘i Herald contributing writer Kevin Kawamoto.

Imagine being a young adult in school, learning about American democracy from your teacher, when you are suddenly summoned to the principal’s office and confronted by FBI agents who arrest you on the spot and take you away without allowing you to even collect your belongings from the classroom. Or, imagine being awakened in the safe surroundings and comfort of your home late one night and being arrested in front of your family by government authorities without being told where they are taking you, the reason you are being arrested or how long you will be away.

If this doesn’t sound like something that could happen in the United States, a country founded on the principles of individual rights and the rule of law, think again, because some version of this story happened to more than 1,400 people of Japanese ancestry in Hawai‘i after martial law was declared within hours of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and in the months of war hysteria that followed. After too many decades of obscurity, these stories are now seeing the light of day, thanks to researchers who are ensuring that this period in Hawai‘i’s history — and the stories of those who experienced it — are not forgotten.

Few organizations have done more to help educate the public about the internment of Hawai‘i’s Japanese during World War II than the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i. A new book published by JCCH further illuminates this subject through photographs, drawings, official documents, poems and narratives — including the compelling first-person accounts of individuals who were imprisoned by the U.S. government because of their race and their presumed threat to national security, a presumption that the government has long since admitted was flawed and for which it apologized and redressed in 1988.

Claire Sato and Violet Harada, both retired educators, served as compilers, writers and editors of “A Resilient Spirit: The Voice of Hawai‘i’s Internees.” Sato retired as a school librarian, and Harada is a professor emeritus in the Library and Information Science Program at the University of Hawai‘i. They spent three years working on the book, which they described as a “labor of love.”

At the book’s launch event at the JCCH last year, Sato recalled traveling in Japan with Harada and her husband Wayne when the idea for the book was born.

“On the shinkansen from Kyöto to Tökyö, I started to tell Vi (Violet) some of the stories that I had heard from [JCCH volunteer] Jane Kurahara in the Resource Center. Jane would tell me these stories that reflected the strength and resilience of those who were interned at Sand Island and Honouliuli,” Sato shared. “I told Vi that I wish that somehow these stories could be told so that others could hear them and not have it only stored in the Resource Center so people would have to go through many, many pages to ferret any story.” She said she wanted the larger world community to know about the internees’ strength and resilience in the face of adversity.

“Let’s write a book,” Harada quickly responded.

The authors, compilers and editors — Violet “Vi” Harada (left) and Claire Sato. (Photos courtesy Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii)
The authors, compilers and editors — Violet “Vi” Harada (left) and Claire Sato. (Photos courtesy Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii)

The following spring, the pair pitched their idea for the book to then-JCCH president and executive director Carole Hayashino, who gave the publication the green light.

“A Resilient Spirit” tells Hawai‘i’s unique internment story in a handsomely designed 100-page volume packed with well-researched information and lots of variety in content and presentation for readers to absorb and ponder. The book is clearly written and engages the reader with surprising historical facts, numerous photographs of rare artifacts and an underlying goal of allowing history to be told by those who lived it.

Using the research and resources of JCCH and elsewhere (e.g., UH-Mänoa Center for Oral History), Sato and Harada did an admirable job of pulling together Hawai‘i’s own internment story, a related but distinct experience when compared to what happened to Americans of Japanese ancestry on the U.S. mainland during World War II. The well-selected narrative excerpts of former internees, taken in their entirety, create an almost intimate experience for the reader, similar to listening to a group of individuals share stories of personal pain, social alienation and, ultimately, survival and resilience. Although the Hawai‘i internees have died, their spirit is captured in the memories they left behind and thoughtfully selected by Sato and Harada for this meaningful volume.

One of the featured individuals, Harry Urata, recalled the day he was arrested by the FBI in Honolulu.

“As I recall, when I was in the class learning about democracy, listening to a teacher, the school principal came into the classroom to take me out,” Urata said. “As soon as we were in the principal’s office, one of the FBI agents thrust an arrest warrant to me and told me to read. When I scanned it, I saw a word ‘inimical’ in a paragraph at the beginning. It was a new word for me and I wanted to ask them its meaning. However, they did not give me any time — not even a chance to retrieve my belongings from my room. I was taken to the Immigration Office right away.”

“Inimical,” Urata later learned, meant “hostile.” It was a word he said he never forgot. Regarded as “hostile” to the United States, Urata was among the more than 2,300 people in Hawai‘i who were eventually interned by government authorities during World War II. (This number includes family members who voluntarily accompanied their loved ones to internment camps in order to avoid separation.) The vast majority of those apprehended were Japanese men whom authorities believed held some form of leadership or influential role in the local Japanese American community and were thus under “suspicion.” (A smaller number of women, such as Hawai‘i-born Haruko Takahashi, were also arrested. Takahashi had studied to be a Shinto priestess and made only one trip to Japan in the span of 33 years.)

Urata was born in Hawai‘i, but was taken to Japan when he was 6 years old. He returned to Hawai‘i in 1937, making him a kibei (a person of Japanese ancestry who was born in the United States, educated in Japan and then returned to the U.S. as a teen or young adult). He worked as a Japanese language school teacher and attended Mid-Pacific Institute part-time to improve his English skills.

In Urata’s biographical note in the book, the editors explain that he was arrested on April 22, 1943: “He was held at the Immigration Station, then interned at Sand Island, Honouliuli, and Tule Lake in California. He was released at the end of the war and returned to Hawai‘i in early 1946. Urata worked at the Hawaii Hochi as a translator, then at KULA radio station as an announcer. Eventually, Urata had his own orchestra and started a popular music studio in Honolulu where he taught piano and voice.”

Herald readers may recall a feature story about the book, “Voices from the Canefields: Folksongs from Japanese Immigrant Workers in Hawai‘i,” by historian and scholar Dr. Franklin Odo. Urata’s decades-long dedication to studying, collecting and recording the holehole bushi (immigrant field labor folk songs) in Hawai‘i provided the foundation for Odo’s groundbreaking research. Despite his unjust incarceration during the war, Urata redoubled his efforts to keep Japanese culture alive in Hawai‘i through his love of music after his release.

Before JCCH began delving into the history of internment in Hawai‘i, the topic existed largely in obscurity. There were even those who denied that Hawai‘i residents were interned at all, contrasting the Hawai‘i experience with that of the U.S. mainland. According to the National Archives website, 117,000 people of Japanese ancestry, most of whom were American citizens, were imprisoned as a result of Executive Order 9066, which was issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on Feb. 19, 1942. It gave the U.S. Secretary of War broad powers to relocate and imprison Americans and resident aliens of Japanese ancestry residing on the U.S. West Coast in inland internment camps.

Hawai‘i did not experience that sort of mass incarceration, which would have depleted the territory’s sizable population of working AJA adults and crippled its economy. Instead, the military government in Hawai‘i was more selective about whom to arrest and imprison. They tended to be Issei males whom the authorities suspected as having close ties to Japan due to their positions as Japanese language school teachers and principals, Buddhist and Shinto priests and even a few Issei Christian ministers, Japanese-language newspaper journalists, and business and community leaders.

The passage of time, the lingering social stigmatization and the eagerness to get back to normal after World War II contributed to the stories of Hawai‘i’s wartime internment being relegated to an almost forgotten history. It was a 1998 telephone call to JCCH by a local television news station inquiring about the location of the Honouliuli internment camp in West O‘ahu that prompted JCCH to research the subject. The findings of that research have resulted in a variety of informational projects about Hawai‘i’s internment history.

“In 2002, a watershed moment occurred when a team of JCCH volunteers led by Jane Kurahara began an exploratory expedition in West O‘ahu,” wrote recently retired JCCH president Carole Hiyashino in the book’s foreword. That expedition found the remains of the Honouliuli site, “Hawai‘i’s largest and longest operating World War II civilian internment and POW camp.”

Today, Honouliuli may be the most well-known of the internment and detention sites, but further research has revealed that there were at least 13 sites located on the islands of Hawai‘i, Kaua‘i, Moloka‘i, Läna‘i and O‘ahu. At least four additional temporary sites have also been identified.

Perusing the pages of “A Resilient Spirit” is more like walking through a gallery of a historically significant time in Hawai‘i than it is like reading a book. Chapters are arranged like an educational exhibit, beginning with the Pearl Harbor bombing on Dec. 7, 1941, and progressing through a series of stages that takes the reader through what internees experienced in the hours, days, months and years that followed. While the editors do not overload the reader with excessive verbiage and analysis, there is the sense of a whole story with a beginning, a middle and an end. The final two chapters — Chapters 10 and 11 — are called “Bittersweet Reflections” and “Resilient Spirit,” respectively. As they do throughout the book, Sato and Harada select poignant passages for the reader to gain insight into Hawai‘i’s internment history.

This one is taken from a 1983 oral history interview with Myoshu Sasai. In it, Sasai describes a ship leaving Hilo on its way to Honolulu during World War II.

“It was a scary trip,” he begins. “Normally the ocean is pleasant, but in wartime, the ocean is scary. You don’t know what is in it. We slept on board that night. The following morning, we got out on the top deck to see the town of Hilo as we departed. It’s sad when you have to leave your family behind.”

Sasai said the internees were on the upper deck, while their Japanese American sons — who had volunteered for the U.S. Army — were below. “Both are being taken away, but their destinations are different.”

The contradiction of emotions during this time in history is understandable. An excerpt from Urata illustrates this well. He recalled seeing an Issei internee crying while reading a letter. Urata asked him why he was crying. The internee replied that he had just learned that his son was killed in action in Italy. “At that moment, I had a peculiar feeling,” Urata said. “I felt sympathy for him, and, at the same time, I was indignant at the government.”

Appropriately, Sato and Harada do not devote too much space to discussing the national internment experience, which has been widely documented. Rather, they provide just enough information about it to put the Hawai‘i experience into historical and social context.

The final chapter of the book is a brief two pages, with one of the pages featuring a photograph of two hands cupping some soil in which a seedling is emerging. The symbolism is powerful and reiterates the theme of resilience. The narrative portion of the chapter closes with an excerpt from Otokichi Muin Ozaki, who worked as a Japanese language teacher and for a Japanese language newspaper before being interned. He was also a poet. In all, Ozaki was interned at eight camps in Hawai‘i and on the U.S. mainland. At one of the camps, he noticed vegetables, including some bean plants, growing outdoors. He observed the plants growing a little by little over time, seemingly “with a determination to survive.” That plant provided inspiration and comfort to Ozaki.

“At times when I sank into despair and became edgy,” he recalled, “the plant’s climbing vines brightened my spirits and raised my hopes.”

While the percentage of Hawai‘i Issei and kibei who were interned during World War II is small when compared to those who were interned on the U.S. mainland, each person’s life, regardless of where they were living, was affected by this injustice and loss of personal freedom. In Hawai‘i, the full impaact that their internment had on families and the local Japanese American community may never be fully calculable. Despite stories of postwar survival and resilience, there were surely lingering emotional scars that haunted the internees over their lifetime. The effects of psychological trauma, which we know more about today than in the past, have not always been apparent or openly discussed.

“A Resilient Spirit” helps take the lid off of this painful past and does it in a way that is sensitive and honors the memories of people who, in their own ways, sacrificed much for their families, their communities and their country.

“A Resilient Spirit: The Voice of Hawai‘i’s Internees” sells for $25 — $23 for JCCH members — and can be purchased in the JCCH Gift Shop.

Kevin Y. Kawamoto is a longtime contributor to The Hawai‘i Herald.


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