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July 2008 - From Island to Mainland: Detainees of Hawaii

Bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii (from denshopd-i37-00768)
"I think the project of taking all of the Japs out of Oahu and putting them in a concentration camp on some other island in the group ought to be pressed vigorously."
   -- Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox

The incoherent justification for rounding up and detaining Japanese Americans during World War II can clearly be seen in one striking comparison: In Hawaii, the territory attacked by the Japanese enemy where espionage might reasonably be suspected, people of Japanese ancestry formed more than 35% of the population. By war's end barely 1% were detained. On the mainland, less vulnerable to attack, Japanese Americans represented roughly 1% of the population. Within months, every man, woman, and child of Japanese heritage was forced from the West Coast and imprisoned. If the generals in charge had been exchanged, a dark blot on American history might have been averted. In command of the West Coast, General John DeWitt told Congress, "A Jap's a Jap...There is no way to determine their loyalty."1 In Hawaii, General Delos Emmons told the public, "We must remember that this is America, and we must do things the American Way. We must distinguish between loyalty and disloyalty among our people."2

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Army took control of the Islands and habeas corpus was suspended. Rumors of sabotage by Japanese immigrants ran rampant, though after investigation, Naval Intelligence, the FBI, and Military Intelligence all agreed that none in fact took place. Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox nevertheless recommended removing all Japanese aliens from Oahu and interning them on another island. Once President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which permitted the mass incarceration on the mainland, Knox began pressing to remove all people "of Japanese blood"-including citizens-from Hawaii to the mainland. Roosevelt also wanted to remove all 140,000 Hawaiian residents of Japanese ancestry, saying "I do not worry about the constitutional question-first, because of my recent order [E.O. 9066] and second because Hawaii is under martial law." 3

Several hundred Issei men were interned in Hawaii, and over 800 were sent to Justice Department camps on the mainland along with 100 German aliens. But General Emmons and Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy argued that mass removal was impractical and would paralyze the economy and war effort in Hawaii. Emmons apparently trusted the intelligence reports that found no threat warranting large-scale detentions. He dismissed "fantastic" rumors promulgated by the territory's "highly emotional and violently anti-Japanese" U.S. Attorney:

I talked with Mr. Taylor at great length several weeks ago at which time he promised to furnish evidence of subversive or disloyal acts on the part of Japanese residents to me personally or to my G-2. Since that time he has, on several occasions, furnished information about individuals and groups which turned out to be based on rumors or imagination. He has furnished absolutely no evidence or information of value.

Then in July 1942, Roosevelt authorized removing and detaining on the mainland 15,000 Japanese immigrants and citizen offspring in Hawaii, who were "considered as to be potentially dangerous to national security." Key leaders questioned the legality of the move. The Justice Department objected to transporting U.S. citizens thousands of miles for imprisonment. McCloy stated, "There are also some grave legal difficulties in placing American citizens, even of Japanese ancestry, in concentration camps." Secretary of War Henry Stimson was more blunt, writing, "A number of them [American citizens] have been arrested in Hawaii without very much evidence of disloyalty, have been shipped to the United States, and are interned there. McCloy and I are both agreed that this is contrary to law."4

Under pressure, Emmons did begin sending Hawaii Japanese into distant detention, choosing two categories to remove from the Islands: 1) "primarily for the purpose of removing nonproductive and undesirable Japanese and their families from the Islands," and 2) "largely a token evacuation to satisfy certain interests which have advocated movement of Japanese from the Hawaiian Islands."4 Put more directly, he was bowing to political pressure.

The first two groups of Issei and their children were shipped to the mainland in July and December 1942. Almost half of the citizen children were under the age of nineteen. One of those children who suddenly found herself shivering at the Jerome incarceration camp in December was Sarah Sato. Her father had been detained, it seems because he had served in the Japanese military. Sarah was not quite eighteen. Her parents did not appoint relatives as her guardians because they did not want to separate the family. To Sara, the Japanese were the enemy, but the I.D. she carried saying she was a U.S. citizen did not prevent her from being "shoved into camp" along with her parents.

Bitter about their unjust treatment, Sarah and her father demanded answers rather than say "yes," "yes" to questions no. 27 and 28 in the loyalty questionnaire administered to all the camps in 1943. Because qualified answers were considered "no," "no," the family was sent to the Tule Lake segregation center for Japanese Americans designated as disloyal. Caught up in an impossible situation, the family took an even more dire step, for the sake of family duty:

My mom answered yes, yes on 27 and 28. But with my dad, I told him, because Dad and Mom didn't sign my guardianship over to my aunties and I was forced to go into camp, he had to write what I told him. It was his turn to, so, he and I both said, "Give me the reason for interning Dad." And then for 28, we said, we'll answer 27 after we got the answer for 27. For that, Dad and I got blackballed. And then, we got sent to Tule, so the whole family went to Tule. …Dad told them the reason why he wanted to go to Japan was because he was worried about his father. For that they made him renounce [his citizenship]. Mom said she was renouncing because she was going with Dad. And I said I'm going because if I don't go, then my parents would be separated. So for that I got my renunciation. So when people say only "no-nos" were renounced, that's not true. I wrote to my auntie Edith and my auntie Helen, and I said, "I'm going to Japan with Mom and Dad because if I don't go, Dad would be sent alone and I don't know what's going to happen to him."

After years in impoverished and war damaged Japan, Sarah eventually regained her U.S. citizenship along with thousands of other renunciants. Sarah had renounced her citizenship not because she was disloyal to her country, but because she was loyal to her family. Mass internment on the Islands was prevented not because anyone "worried about the constitutional question," but because Hawaii Japanese met economic and military needs. Like the 120,000 Japanese Americans on the mainland, the 2,000 detainees of Hawaii lost their freedom not because they posed a danger, but because they were victims of politics and circumstance.

I think it was in late '70s or early '80s when I wrote to the State Department and the FBI to get our records to show my kids. I said, "No way did Grandpa and I say that we were disloyal." And they said, "That's right." But you think the other people would believe? So, it took me a long time. Then, after I got my kids, I thought, you can't be bitter. But I told them they have to learn to stand up for what they think is right. Don't get killed doing it because that was the foolish way. But from the time they were little, we put in lots of Japanese objects here to show them that they can still have the Japanese face but they were Americans.


1. Brian Niiya, editor, Japanese American History (New York: Facts on File, 1993), p. 128. [ link ]

2. Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (1982-83; reprint Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997), p. 265. [ link ]

3. Tetsuden Kashima, Judgment without Trial: Japanese American Imprisonment during World War II (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003), p. 80. [ link ]

4. Personal Justice Denied, p. 271. [ link ]

5. Kashima, Judgment without Trial, p. 86. [ link ]


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