Tom Coffman
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

Gail Okawa begins her book — her story, her study — by saying she was born in a blackout during World War II. When she was a high-school student in Honolulu, a neighbor let slip that a certain family memory was still in blackout. During the war, her maternal grandfather had been taken away for years and put in a concentration camp. Aghast, Okawa asked her parents if this could be true.

At the time, the internment of Issei community leaders in Hawai‘i was a muffled whisper, in contrast to the acclaim accorded the Nisei veteran war heroes. Unfortunately, yes, he had been taken away, her parents said, and the silence again descended. Okawa would remember him as a tall, quiet man who occasionally visited from his home on Maui — “a changed man,” in her parent’s words. When he passed away, the possibilities of his experience did also. Or so it seemed.

Dr. Gail Yukie Okawa grew up to be an English professor who taught at Youngstown State University in Ohio. On one of her trips home from Ohio, she found the proverbial trunk in the basement, which nagged at her, awakened her, and set her to deciphering its meaning. History deeply buried is dug up slowly, but now “Remembering Our Grandfathers’ Exile” (2020, Univ. of Hawai‘i Press) casts new light on the first-generation internment of Japanese aliens in Hawai‘i.

The result is less a book of history and more a multi-layered narrative. We look over her shoulder, studying her numerous discoveries, unlocking their previously undisclosed messages.

Tamasaku Watanabe had immigrated from Japan and became a Christian minister, called by his faith to share the gospel with the thousands of plantation workers who then populated the Hawaiian landscape. Grandfather was neither a Shinto priest nor a Buddhist priest. He did not write for the Japanese press, nor did he have commercial import/export ties to Japan. But when Christian identity sometimes insulated Japanese from arrest, why had it not protected him? Had he done something wrong, or at least something vaguely suspicious?

True to his calling, he helped people — people scattered widely in remote places in a time before cars were common. The Reverend explained government documents and sent birth notices to a family’s home village for the purpose of maintaining the village’s official written genealogy, its koseki.

In certain ways, he also helped Japanese immigrants stay at arm’s length from the homeland — for example, by helping younger men apply for deferment from service in the Japanese army. In his humanitarian work, he was viewed by the U.S. government as one of more than 200 widely dispersed unpaid ”agents” of the Japanese consul in faraway Honolulu. The Rev. Watanabe received the toxic label of, in the words of his FBI file, a Consular Agent.

Over years of hard work, Okawa spent an astounding six-plus months in the National Archives. There she located what conventional historians would call Watanabe’s hearing document, a 12-page verbatim transcript. He opted not to be represented by either a translator or a lawyer. His immigrant English was less than perfect, and the nuance of words escaped him. He was held out of the room while the reasons for his detainment were read against him. These were not charges, because neither he nor any of his comrades in detention had done anything wrong, as the government conceded. Rather, he was caught hanging mid-air, too close to his origins in Japan. Trusting the United States as he always had done, even though barred from naturalized citizenship, he did not mount a defense, as a lawyer would. As best he could, he responded politely to questions — rhetorical questions, that were posed simple-mindedly and repetitively.

What his questioners most wanted to know was, who did he want to win the war? While the obvious right answer was to say the United States, he instead said with the excruciating honesty of his class and training, he did not know enough to give a simple answer. He tried to build a bridge. “I am Christian minister and I am preaching about the Christ and Savior and … the Christian legend of salvation,” he said. As a minister, “I am doing my very best for the United States of America and that is good for Japan and that is good for human beings.”

The hearing board finding said three things: The Reverend was a subject of Japan. He owed allegiance to Japan. His activities had been pro-Japanese though not necessarily anti-American. The Christian issue and the humanitarian nature of his work must have nagged. Uncharacteristically, the board voted 3-1 not to intern. This conclusion was then reversed by the FBI, Army Intelligence and Naval Intelligence, collectively explaining that “it appearing necessary.” The word “it” begged questions. Who was this bloodless, faceless entity called It? Why was It necessary? To whom? For what reason?

Told from the through-line of Okawa researching her grandfather, the book becomes a study, the likes of which will probably never be matched. It is truly about remembering not only her grandfather but “Our Grandfathers.” From the National Archives, she obtained the hearing transcripts of three other issei for comparative analyses: a Buddhist priest, a coffee farmer from Kona and a store clerk from Kaua‘i. Each meanders around, but over the same underlying script. The “hearings” are not hearings. They are rituals with foregone conclusions — a finding that contradicts various internment historians, who have written that Hawai‘i’s process was significantly more like due process than that of the U.S. mainland.

As an extension of her grandfather’s story, Okawa profiled the lives of 38 other individuals, drawing on personal interviews, family interviews, notes, photos and scrapbooks, in total a significant sampling of the 700 or so Issei sent into Our Grandfathers’ Exile.

To be shipped away was particularly painful. If they had been interned at the government’s camp at Honouliuli Gulch on O‘ahu (another story), they at least could have been visited by their loved ones. So why were the Issei sent to mainland detention centers? The answer is not exactly news but Okawa heightens its meaning by focusing on the Exile. She quotes a memo to the U.S. Army’s (later infamous) organizer of detention, Maj. Karl Bendetsen, as saying the exile is “largely a token evacuation to satisfy certain interests.” More specifically, it was designed as a delaying tactic to placate President Roosevelt and the Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, who favored a mass removal of the entire Japanese-ancestry population from the islands.

The heart of the book is about ways the internees maintained themselves, with a focus on the empowering nature of literature and the written word. She finds a letter from her grandfather commenting on her baby picture: “I do not hear Yukie’s voice, but … her innocent face attracts me from the bottom of my heart. Now in my old age I feel I could understand more why Jesus loved a small child.”

He records survival principles: First, look “for the best in each person, situation and thing.” Second, “If I forgive everybody without exception … I then forgive myself whole-heartedly.” And third, approach “my (camp) job as sacred and do my day’s work to the very best of my ability (whether I like it or not).”

He wrote an extensive petition asking that he be paroled to Hawai‘i. His petition was effectively denied. More than two hundred of the Issei, including Rev. Watanabe, also collectively petitioned for a return to Hawai‘i. Okawa traces their petition rattling through the bureaucracy and eventually being denied for not following the government’s prescribed protocol.

It should be noted that Gail Okawa’s is not the first account of the mainland exile. She follows in the footsteps of Dr. Patsy Saiki’s “Ganbare: An Example of Japanese Spirit” (and a series of personal memoirs by the editor Yasutaro Soga, the artist George Hoshida, the newsman Otokichi Ozaki and the businessman Kumaji Furuya. I also wrote about an exiled internee, Seigo Miwa, in my recent “Tadaima! I Am Home,” an experience that gives me a special appreciation for the depth and breadth of Okawa’s book.

It is good work, and it is hard work. Among the tanka (a Japanese verse form of five lines containing five, seven, five, seven, and seven syllables respectively) of internees, she unobtrusively — slyly — inserts a poem of her own. In a recurring dream, she is standing on the back porch of the family home, near the mango tree. Suddenly armed men drop down from a helicopter and turn the yard into a battlefield.

I watched afraid

Then tried to secure the screen door

To keep them out …

To keep them from taking me


Tom Coffman is a one-time political writer for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and author of six books including “Catch A Wave,”” Nation Within,” Tadaima!” and “I Respectfully Dissent: A Biography of Edward H. Nakamura.” He provided research and editorial service to Gov. George R. Ariyoshi and H.S. Kawakami. His numerous documentary films include “The First Battle,” “Ganbare” and “Martial Law in Hawai‘i.”

Coffman’s new book release for “INCLUSION: How Hawai‘i Protected Japanese Americans from Mass Internment, Transformed Itself, and Helped Change America” (UH Press) is scheduled for fall.


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