The United States recently celebrated the Fourth of July, a time to celebrate and embrace our nation’s freedoms. The occasion should also be a reminder to all Americans that these freedoms can never be taken for granted. Perhaps no ethnic community knows this better than Americans of Japanese ancestry (AJAs), whose civil rights were unconstitutionally violated en masse during World War II.

The incarceration of AJAs on the U.S. mainland is a well-documented story that has been told many times by various authors. Less known is what happened to residents of Japanese ancestry living in Hawaii after Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese military. People of Japanese ancestry living in Hawaii at that time – the vast majority of whom called Hawaii their home and whose children who were born in the territory were legally Americans – comprised the largest single ethnic group in the island state.

For decades, however, the selective incarceration of those that the American government considered leaders in Hawaii’s Japanese community during World War II was a subject that largely remained in the shadows of American history. That is partly due to the fact that the number affected in Hawaii’s case pales in comparison to the those on the American continent. But as works started to be published on this topic – examples include memoirs by Hawaii-based Japanese-language newspapermen Yasutaro Soga and Otokichi Ozaki; businessman and Japanese-language radio entrepreneur Kumaji Furuya; artist George Hoshida; and an edited volume by Claire Sato and Violet Harada called “Resilient Spirit: The Voices of Hawaii’s Internees” – it became evident that every person wrongly imprisoned during this time has a story that is deep and complex.

Author Gail Y. Okawa demonstrates the power of personal stories in her book, “Remembering Our Grandfathers’ Exile: U.S. Imprisonment of Hawai`i’s Japanese in World War II” (University of Hawai`i Press, 2020). Okawa’s ability to integrate personal history with scholarly research has resulted in a compelling story about her interned grandfather, Rev. Tamasaku Watanabe, that illuminates not only her own family’s past during this dark period in Hawai`i`s and the nation’s history but also addresses broader social, psychological and political issues that transcend family lines and even generations.

Reverend Tamasaku Watanabe

Okawa eloquently weaves her personal journey of discovery with an academician’s passion for historical research. (The author is a retired professor of English at Youngstown University in Ohio.) The result is a multi-layered narrative that has the intimacy of a memoir – it is written in the first person – with the intellectual heft of a well-researched history book.

In her introduction, Okawa recalls a childhood memory of her grandfather, who was visiting Honolulu from his home island of Maui. “I made my favorite egg salad and Spam sandwiches for our lunch,” she writes. “A man of few words, he expressed his enjoyment and approval of the simple meal by smiling impishly and remarking in English that I should open a sandwich shop. I’ve never forgotten the compliment!”

This same grandfather, she was later to learn in high school, had been imprisoned during World War II by the United States government. Okawa learned this not from the man himself but from a neighbor. Okawa asked her parents about this, and they confirmed the information, adding, “He came back a changed man.” The subject was not discussed again for some time.

What is not spoken about is not necessarily forgotten, however, and Okawa revisited the subject on different occasions, triggered by the surfacing of material artifacts such as letters and photographs from her grandfather’s time as an internee. After her grandfather’s death, she looked in vain for anything he left behind among his possessions that could shed additional light on his life as an internee. Although he was known to be a meticulous record-keeper, there was little to be found on this subject, as if that time in his life had been erased from both his family’s memory and from history.

“Of course, I looked eagerly for any writings dated 1941, yet his notes after 7 December 1941, the date Pearl Harbor was attacked, through the war years to 1944 are mysteriously absent,” she writes.

He left nothing behind that could help answer the questions she had. “Why was he arrested? What was he charged with? Where was he imprisoned? By whom? What kind of life did he lead in those facilities that Franklin D. Roosevelt referred to as ‘concentration camps’ back in 1936? Who were his friends and associates? What kind of dilemmas did he face and how did he face them? How did he feel about it all – this pensive man who enjoyed my Spam sandwiches?”

This is where Okawa’s personal quest to learn more about her grandfather veers from the personal to the social. Her grandfather was one of hundreds of Hawaii Japanese men and some women from the immigrant generation, known as Issei, who were interned after the attack on Pearl Harbor and treated as enemy aliens. The story of their West Coast counterparts is much better known. For decades, many Hawaii residents had no idea that selected members of Hawaii’s ethnic Japanese community had been arrested and incarcerated, held in facilities or camps in Hawaii or on the mainland United States or both. Most were community leaders – the author’s grandfather was a Protestant Christian minister on Maui – or had some connection, even if vague and indirect, with the Japanese Consulate in Honolulu.

The descendants of those incarcerated were likewise left in the dark about the details until decades later when a number of first-hand accounts were published and the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii began a public education campaign to raise awareness of the past existence of an internment camp in Honouliuli (now designated as a national historic site) in West Oahu and a detention facility on Sand Island.

“Remembering Our Grandfather’s Exile” attempts to answer the questions Okawa could not ask her grandfather. Through meticulous research spanning decades and involving interviews, site visits and an analysis of documents and artifacts, including photographs and illustrations that are interspersed throughout the book, she was finally able to construct an overarching narrative that is a valuable addition to the existing body of work on this subject.

Despite the author’s claim in the introduction that the book is meant for a more general readership, even experts on this subject are likely to find it impressive in both scope and depth. She pursues interesting avenues of inquiry, including interviewing residents who lived around the Santa Fe Internment Camp to capture their (or their descendants’) memories of what they remember of those days. The findings are surprising in their variation.

Some sympathized with the internees and thought their incarceration was unfortunate. Others extended their anti-Japan animosities to the interned immigrants, who had been for all intents and purposes committed to living as Americans in Hawaii, like their Hawaii-born children, but legally unable to claim American citizenship. It is important to note that many of those interned had adult sons who fought on behalf of the United States during World War II.

The book also refers implicitly to the lingering effects of historical trauma. This is psychological injury imposed upon past generations that carry into future ones. Okawa shares a poem that she, as an adult, wrote in 2004 about a dream involving helicopters “flying low in our back yard.” In this dream, men in combat gear appear. “I watched afraid / Then tried to secure the screen door / To keep them out / To keep them away / To keep them from taking me away.”

Without being overbearing, Okawa adroitly tells the story of her grandfather, and of his contemporaries unjustly imprisoned during World War II, through a social justice lens. By doing so, she reminds us that although this story is specific to a particular period in U.S. history, it also transcends that period and reveals important lessons that should never be forgotten by those who value democracy, freedom and inclusion. The book’s release also intersects with rising tides of anti-Asian violence and discrimination in the United States as a result, at least in part, of irresponsible language used by political demagogues.

Toward the end of the book, Okawa also reminds the reader that the imprisoned internees, although no doubt harmed in various ways by their incarceration, demonstrated both strength and character in times of tremendous stress and injustice to both their person and to their community. Ultimately theirs is not a story of shame and victimhood but rather one of quiet resilience, perhaps with the hope that future generations would learn from this wrong and overcome racial prejudice.

Sadly. they may have returned home as changed men for what they had experienced in the internment camps, but they survived – and at least in one case – was able to enjoy an egg salad and Spam sandwich with his young granddaughter who would later grow up to become a university professor and spend a good portion of her life doing research so she could tell his story long after he was gone.

Kevin Y. Kawamoto is a writer and educator based in Honolulu. He has written freelance articles for The Hawaii Herald, a newspaper for Hawai`i’s Japanese American community, for more than 30 years.

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  1. Author Okawa’s grandfather, Reverend Tamasaku Watanabe served as one of our past
    pastors (1921-1922) formerly known as the Japanese Church of Christ of Sacramento.
    The church is now named Parkview Presbyterian Church in Sacramento.
    The book was brought to my attention by a friend, Toshiko (Toby) Fusato, whose father
    is mentioned in the book as one of many people who was forcibly removed.