Talking the Hawaii Incarceration Story

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Gardena Valley JCI holds annual Day of Remembrance.

Boy Scout Troop 683 present the colors at the Day of Remembrance at the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute.

By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor

GARDENA — A loneliness and longing for home of those imprisoned in Hawaii’s wartime incarceration centers was captured in a beautiful dance performed by Staci Toji, an attorney and dancer with Halau Keali’i O Nalani.

Staci Toji performs a hula dance.

At the annual Day of Remembrance program on Feb. 22, the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute focused on the lesser-known stories of Japanese American incarcerees in Hawaii.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Honouliuli, Sand Island and other sites in the islands became detention facilities for Japanese Americans as well as residents of Japanese and European ancestry. More than 2,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans were imprisoned in Hawaii confinement sites.

Alvin Takamori, GVJCI board member, served as emcee for the afternoon. Dignitaries in attendance included State Sen. Steven Bradford, Gardena Mayor Tasha Cerda and Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi, who recently introduced legislation seeking an apology by the State of California for the incarceration of Japanese Americans.

In the audience were Japanese Americans who were imprisoned in war relocation centers. Takamori asked them to stand to be recognized and asked attendees to imagine what it would feel like to lose your job, your home and even your pets.

“That is a taste of what 120,000 Japanese Americans had to endure,” Takamori noted.

A moment of silence was observed for those who have passed since the last Day of Remembrance, including former Assemblymember Paul Bannai, author Hank Umemoto and poet Hiroshi Kashiwagi.

Erich Nakano speaks about his grandfathers, who were both picked up by the FBI in Honolulu in the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

The documentary “The Untold Story: Internment of Japanese Americans in Hawai’i” detailed the injustice and suffering of the Nikkei rounded up by the FBI after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The film highlights the experiences of individuals such as Yasutaro Soga, an Issei journalist, who was arrested on Dec. 7, 1941 and spent the next four years in concentration camps in Hawaii and on the Mainland.

In a panel discussion, Brian Niiya, Densho content director, said the leaders in Hawaii’s Japanese community were rounded up and given hearings in what amounted to kangaroo courts. Family members didn’t know what happened to them until much later, but eventually they were able to exchange letters.

Erich Nakano, director of the Little Tokyo Service Center, said that was the experience of both of his grandfathers, who were picked up by the FBI.

“It was months before they knew what had happened to them,” Nakano said of his parents’ families.

A member of the audience, Betty Dietz of Westminster, recalled the Pearl Harbor attack, which occurred when she was 4 and living in Honolulu. She also recalled military men ransacking the family home.

Josephine Ong, a Ph.D. student in gender studies at UCLA, said the family separation was a form of violence against women, who had deal with the consequences of their husbands’ unjust imprisonment.

In many instances, wives and children followed their loved ones into camps in Texas, California and Arkansas to keep their families together.

Niiya also noted there was a small number of women, Buddhist priestesses, who were detained.

Returning home after the war, the Hawaii incarcerees experienced social stigma from neighbors who assumed they they must have done something to be detained by the government.

Honouliuli internment camp, which held as many as 4,000 prisoners, was designated a National Historic Site in February 2015 and is managed by the National Park Service. Eventually Honouliuli will be open to the public. Until then, Niiya encouraged the public to contact the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai’i to arrange a tour of the site.

“It’s 20 minutes from Waikiki in clear traffic and feels like you’re miles away from civilization,” Niiya said.

Photos by MARIO GERSHOM REYES/Rafu Shimpo

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