When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor seventy five years ago, thirty seven percent of Hawai‘i’s population was ethnically Japanese. Honolulu hummed with Japanese run restaurants, sundry stores, hardware and grocery stores, everyone went to Japanese movies, and Japanese maids and gardeners worked in many wealthy homes. HPR’s Noe Tanigawa reports on how Japanese and others felt during the period.
Ted Tsukiyama, now 96, was at home in Kaimukī recovering from his University of Hawai‘i Junior Prom when the attack happened.
“When I saw the Japanese planes, I was swearing at them, Damn fools! What are you doing attacking America? We had no question as to who we were and where we stood, but we knew there were a lot of other people that didn’t, and had suspicions, and of course, even the racial tensions and even hatred became pronounced with some of the haoles (foreigners, Caucasians)."
Honolulu in in December 1941, Christmas lights festooned all of Fort street, past Chong’s Silk House, the Ritz and the Blaisdell Hotel. Tsukiyama says life was laid back.
“Here, being a Japanese Nisei, Japanese American, from our side we felt no different from anybody else in our student population or otherwise. “
Was there racial tension? “After Pearl Harbor, yeah,” But before? “No, I don’t think so.” But If there was no racial tension, it was not because races lived on equal terms.
Tsukiyama: “From the Wai‘alae Golf Course all the way to Diamond Head to Black Point Road everything was all haole (foreigner, Caucasian). If you were non-haole you couldn’t rent or live there. It was segregated.”
Everybody just kind of accepted that?
Tsukiyama: “That’s the way it was. When you’re underclass and you’re nothing or nobody, why, that’s the way it was. We grew up that way, accepting it.”
Jonathan Okamura, UH Mānoa Professor of Ethnic Studies, says while some Japanese in Hawai‘i banded together or pressed legal cases for equal rights and protection, most Japanese were afraid to challenge the establishment.
“The Japanese community overall was very conservative. They had become very conservative in the ‘30’s after the 1920 strike because of the anti-Japanese movement repercussions, like the attacks on the Japanese language schools, (and) the conviction of Myles Fukunaga.”
Okamura: “This is the assumption on the part of planters, military, territorial government that the Japanese community is a monolith, it’s very split! From the time of the 1920 strike especially.”
Fred Makino, head of the Hawai‘i Hochi newspaper, organized and assisted legal and labor efforts to secure rights for Japanese. Reverend Takei Okamura of Makiki Christian Church and Yasutara Soga, head of the Nippu Jiji newspaper had discouraged the sugar strikers, and urged acceptance of Japanese Language School restrictions. Okamura says most local Japanese did not want to challenge the power structure, they simply hoped to move up in it.
“They just went along with the haole powers that be in the naïve assumption that if Japanese cooperated with them, the haoles would respond in much more positive ways towards the Japanese community. They blamed the victim, Oh, Japanese are under the misimpression that haoles are really out to get them!”
What, you could ask, would make them think that? The word, Japs, was not recognized as a racial slur at the time, and before the war the blanket term frequently lumped all ethnically Japanese, American or not, into one bucket. Throughout the war, the term, Japs, was used in mass media and in government posters, with images of animals or humans with squinty eyes, round glasses, military caps and buck teeth. Sample caption: “Stay on the job until every murdering Jap is wiped out!”
For people in Hawai‘i, Bishop Museum historian Desoto Brown says,
“I think day to day relationships were actually fine. Having said that, there was this whole thing played up about “Oh, the Japanese all stick together, and they all speak Japanese to each other, and are they plotting against us? We can’t understand them, so we don’t know!”
For Japanese Americans, history would prove their loyalty, but at the time,
Tsukiyama: “You know we were Americans, but with the face of the enemy.”
How did that make you feel?
Tsukuyama: “Not very good. Not very good. I knew that there were some that kind of wanted to jump on the band wagon, most famous was the president of the telephone company, the guy’s name was Balch. He came out and said, let’s lock them all up in concentration camps.”
Since incarcerating over a third of Hawai‘i’s population was unworkable, martial law was imposed to regulate all residents, says Bishop Museum historian Desoto Brown, and patriotic Americans here went along with it . At first, they feared a Japanese invasion.
“During WWII there was a very high level of very sincere American patriotism. People for the most part dealt
with the restrictions of daily life. They groused about it, but they said, Well, alright, we will turn off all our lights and we will sit inside with all the windows closed with no air circulation because they’re telling us we have to do it. But there was an increasing amount of frustration and annoyance at being pushed around because all civilians were put under martial law. And this went on for several years.”
Brown: “When you read about it, it is a shocking situation because basically there was a military dictatorship and that’s truly what it was. There was no legislative process for passing laws. The military government said, “As of today we decree this will happen and this will not happen.” They took over whatever buildings or private property they wanted. They would send you a letter saying we’ve decided we need this property and we will pay you this amount of money for it, and as of this date we are taking it. That’s what they did all around the perimeter of Pearl Harbor where there was still private property at that point.”
Brown: “Once the military was entrenched, boy they didn’t give up. They moved into ‘Iolani Palace, they built buildings on the grounds and just said, “Ok, this is the military government from now on folks.”
Food and fuel were rationed, there were curfew and black out restrictions, and under martial law, there were no civilian legal proceedings.
Brown: “So you could just be sentenced, and that was it. You had no appeal or anything, it’s just boom, done, next. And that went on for years.”
Legal protests to prolonged martial law mounted, and though it was officially lifted in 1944, the military maintained a grip.
Brown: “Finally there was a case that went to the federal supreme court and the federal supreme court in 1946 said this was unconstitutional and they said, they did it because Hawai‘i was not a state. It was a territory, it did not have the same rights as a state. This is one of the main reasons that after WWII people began to really agitate for statehood. People were saying, Look, you treated us as second class inferior people. If we’re a state, you won’t be able to do that. We want to be a state.”
World War II was a defining point for Hawai'i, and the experience of Japanese Americans through the war has increasing relevance today. We'll take a look at related contemporary issues next.