Advocate for Japanese Community Locally and Nationally
Melvin Inamasu and Violet Harada
Cultural Center of Hawai‘i
Editor’s Note: This bimonthly series represents a partnership between the Herald and the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i. It celebrates the achievements of men and women who live the values of earlier generations and continue their proud legacy. The writers are retired physician Melvin Inamasu and Violet Harada, a professor emeritus at UH Mänoa. Both volunteer with JCCH. William Kaneko’s complete interview is available at the JCCH Tokioka Heritage Resource Center. It can also be read online at jcch.soutronglobal.net/Portal/DownloadImageFile.ashx?fieldValueId=3152 .
William Kaneko has achieved a far-reaching reputation as an esteemed lawyer. A partner in the Honolulu office of Dentons, the world’s largest global law firm, he advises clients on administrative law, government relations, public affairs, strategic planning, lobbying and community relations. Kaneko represents clients before government agencies at the federal, state and county levels and has served on various boards, notably the Citizens Advisory Board of the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Redress Administration, and the Japanese American Citizens League. In 2014, 2017, and 2021, Best Lawyers named him Hawaii Lawyer of the Year for Government Relations.
Inspired by Dr. Franklin Odo
Throughout his career, Kaneko has persistently worked to improve the lives of the Japanese community at both the local and national levels. Born and raised in ‘Aiea, Kaneko graduated from Punahou School and received his undergraduate degree in business from the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma and his law degree from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He stated that his interest in Japanese American issues was inspired by Professor Franklin Odo, a scholar and activist who at one time chaired the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa’s Ethnic Studies Department. Odo later served as the director of the Asian Pacific American Program at the Smithsonian Institution. According to Kaneko, the course he took from Odo, “Japanese in Hawaii,” was a very active and progressive view of the history of Hawai‘i’s Japanese community. He indicated, “I really dug deep into some of the socio-political aspects of race relations.”
He gained a fuller understanding of the dynamic role that Japanese immigrants and descendants had assumed in Hawai‘i. Although they were often perceived as non-confrontational, he learned the Japanese had facilitated critical social change in this state. He noted, “In the plantation community they fought for better wages” by organizing a strike against the luna and plantation bosses. “After the war, when the Nisei soldiers came back,” he said, “they created a political revolution and fought for change, not only for AJAs but for Hawai‘i as a whole.”
Interest in the Redress Movement
At the national level, the late 1980s was when the Japanese American Redress Movement was underway. Kaneko’s desire to get more deeply involved with the Redress activities led him to volunteer with the Japanese American Citizens League when he graduated from Puget Sound and moved to Los Angeles. From 1983 to 1988, he was a member of the Marina Del Ray Chapter, which was a smaller suburb of Los Angeles that actively supported passage of the Redress initiative. This was an eye opener for Kaneko. Growing up in Hawai‘i, where Japanese were a majority group, he was struck with the difference on the mainland. He became acutely aware of how “AJAs on the mainland grew up being the minority group and having to deal with overt and subtle forms of discrimination.”
By the time the Apology and Redress legislation was finally signed into law by President Ronald Reagan as part of the Civil Liberties Act in 1988, Kaneko, had returned to Honolulu. The Civil Liberties Act, in addition to apologizing for the incarceration of the Japanese (both American citizens and non-citizen) during World War II, also provided for monetary compensation for all surviving internees. His mounting interest in civil rights motivated him to join the local chapter of JACL where he assumed the presidency in 1989. The chapter played an active role in implementing the Civil Liberties Act by conducting public education workshops. Kaneko said, “If people wanted information about Redress, they would call us at JACL.”
Discovering the Excludees
In working on the issue of redress, Kaneko discovered the unique cases of “excludees.” These were Japanese individuals who were not interned but forced to evacuate their homes on the basis of military necessity. He realized that this was “a whole new area of potential redress folks that the Department of Justice had ignored.” The challenge was that the Civil Liberties Act covered the internees but the excludees fell in a gray area open to interpretation.
There was some question about whether the declaration of Martial Law “made it legal” to suspend civil rights. The wholesale internment of West Coast AJAs raised the issue of the rights of individual citizens even in times of war and military necessity. Kaneko indicated, “You have the national or state interest to preserve the security of the country, but you can’t do that at the behest of individual rights. That’s what the whole AJA issue was about. You can’t let everybody else except Japanese Americans stay in their homes. That was a form of discrimination based on race.”
There were over 20 “militarily sensitive” sites across the state where Japanese farmers and residents were not interned but were forcibly evacuated from their homes. As many as 60 individuals who fell in this category were asking, “Am I eligible for compensation?” They added, “I was not in Honouliuli or Sand Island. I was not interned but the military came and at gunpoint, they made us get out of our homes.” These individuals were forced to seek shelter with friends and family members.
To better understand the predicament of the excludees, Kaneko and others first checked through government documents housed at the University of Hawai‘i archives. They were searching for any information that referred to the government’s treatment of this special group. They found what they were looking for. He said they were able to identify documents that related to specific areas where persons of Japanese ancestry were selectively evacuated. This became a six-year project for Kaneko and other investigators including Pam Funai, Ting Cooper, Jennifer Kim, Mary Wong, and Carl Sakamoto. Funai, then a UH graduate student, was the first of the researchers to find evidence of the ethnically selective exclusion order amongst government documents archived at UH Mānoa’s Hamilton Library.
According to Kaneko, the first excludees they discovered lived in Lualualei on the leeward side of O‘ahu. The researchers found a copy of the order that specified that the Japanese be evacuated from their homes “for military security purposes.” While these farmers were allowed to work during the day, they could not return to their homes at night. At the same time, they were not interned because they were growing food for the state. In short, they operated in a twilight zone.
Kaneko said, “The excludees had to wear these black badges and only the Japanese had to do this. When we broke the story on that, that’s when everything blew up. Then, we started hearing about all these other places — Kahuku, Pauoa Valley, Pu‘uloa, Dillingham Field, and places on the neighbor islands where they were displaced.” The Department of Justice decided that they would accept Affidavits of Testimony by people who were not excluded. If families had friends who lived in the same place who were excluded but their neighbors were not because they were not Japanese, those people could provide testimony and an official affidavit and they would use that as evidence. It was impressive to see how many people came forward to help families get redress and document the stories.
Taking on the Excludees’ Cause
The JACL and the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association assistance in working with the evacuees was invaluable because the individual cases were vastly different. Kaneko said, “Some areas, where there were documents, it was a little easier; others, not that easy.” Evidence was often found in unique ways. For example, in the ‘Ewa area, a Caucasian beekeeper was allowed to stay on his property while the Japanese were forced to leave their homes. According to Kaneko, “That was sufficient to make the argument.”
The legal counsel to JACL determined that these evacuees were indeed deprived of their liberties and should be compensated. While the Wartime Commission hearings in 1980 had not addressed the unique case of the excludees, it was to the Department of Justice’s credit that acknowledged the deprivation of civil liberties and subsequently awarded comparable reparations to this group. According to Kaneko, “The government ultimately compensated and apologized to about 2,000 excludees. That amounted to $40 million in compensation, which is pretty sizable.”
The reparation monies were awarded to excludees that were alive at the time of the Civil Liberties Act in 1988. If they were deceased, descendants did not receive the money, but the government still exceeded their funding cap. Kaneko recalled, “The first appropriation was for $1.2 billion and then they had to go in again in 1990 for another $500 million. They found that people were still living so the amounts compiled by actuaries turned out to be lower than the amount needed.” Because of this, Congress had to increase the funds. The late Sen. Daniel Inouye played a key role in creating an entitlement, a payment owed any person who met the eligible criteria established by federal law. Kaneko added, “This meant that the federal government could not take it back or not spend it. The funds were readily available if you met the criteria to be paid.”
Kaneko is currently working with the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i to establish an archive documenting this critical segment of the Japanese immigrants and their descendants experience during World War II. He has amassed critical correspondence between the applicants and the Department of Justice. The goal is to seek funding that will enable digitizing this collection.
Advocating for Social Injustice
In reflecting on the progress made on social issues, Kaneko honestly admitted that they have been successful, particularly in Hawai‘i, where Japanese have an ethnic majority base and had impressive champions like Sen. Inouye. On the mainland, however, they still face glass ceilings. “They are being discriminated against. Politically, they’re non-players. I think there are still a lot of issues that need to be addressed by Japanese Americans and Asian Americans.”
Kaneko strongly believes that it’s now time for AJAs to help level the playing field in Hawai‘i and the nation. “Fifty years ago, we were scraping away, trying to get a good education and there were leaders and groups who helped us. Now, it’s really our responsibility and our turn to be able to assist newer immigrant communities, the Filipinos, Southeast Asians, and to stand up for their rights. Whether it be political power or economic power where we’re clearly in a position to be able to spread it out and to be able to assist newer immigrant groups, we need to fulfill our responsibility.”