Japanese American Experience in Hawai’i

In the fall of 2023, I’ve been fortunate to spend two months as a visiting scholar at the University of Hawai’i, Manoa. While here, I’ve spent some time getting to know the Japanese American history on the Hawai’ian islands, as well as understanding the ways their wartime experience was different.

Although there were some calls to incarcerate the entire Japanese population of Hawai’i, such plans never materialized. First of all, the population was the same size as the entire West Coast mainland population, about 130,000, and Japanese Americans made up 37 percent of the islands’ population. Consequently, they were an important factory in island economy and the war effort.

Like on the mainland, though, the FBI had kept an eye on “subversive” activities long before the attack on Pearl Harbor. They had a ready name list of community leaders to arrest and intern in the days and weeks following the attack. About 800 Japanese men were interned at Hono’uli’uli and Sand Island. You can read more about this on the National Park Service website. The Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai’i also has a wonderful resources, especially a database documenting the movement of all Japanese American inmates from Hawai’i.

Some of these men requested to be accompanied by their families, and these people were transported to mainland camps, especially Jerome, in Arkansas. Altogether 2,000 people were incarcerated in WRA camps.

At the University of Hawai’i archives

While my larger project is concerned with large-scale data and the movement of the entire community, I of course want to discover the more personal histories as well. In my previous work on Heart Mountain, I discovered that many of the community leaders had been born on Hawai’i. This was another reminder of the importance of the island state on Japanese American history.

Although my work on the Hawai’i community is only in the beginning, it has become evident that there are some evident differences in the way the wartime is remembered. Here, it’s first and foremost about internment, the detention of Japanese nationals, and almost exclusively men. Consequently, the first-hand experiences of the camp conditions didn’t apply to the entire family, and camp memories became the exclusive property of the relatively few that were interned.

That is not to say that families weren’t affected; of course they were, as any family where the (likely only) breadwinner is taken away for years. But it is ultimately a different experience than for those mainland Japanese American communities that were removed, resettled in camps, and left to rebuild in whatever way was available.

That’s why I think it’s all the more important that the Japanese American Hawai’ian families incarcerated on mainland WRA camps become a part of my larger study. Although they were only a fraction of the Japanese American population, their experience deserves to be better recorded.