History of the Internment in Hawai‘i

On March 1, 1943, the Honouliuli internment camp, located in a gulch in Central O‘ahu, opened. This camp was one of at least five sites in the Hawaiian Islands that were used to house local Japanese who were detained by the Federal Government in the days after the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. None of those detained were accused nor convicted of any specific crime. Most were influential male leaders of the Japanese immigrant community in Hawai‘i. Though some were released after a short imprisonment, the majority were detained for the duration of the war, with most eventually transferred to camps on the continental United States. The number of Japanese in Hawai‘i who were detained was small relative to the total Japanese population here: less than 1%. By contrast, Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, authorized the mass exclusion and detention of all Japanese Americans living in the West Coast states, resulting in the eventual incarceration of 120,000 people. However despite the relatively small numbers of local Japanese who were interned here, the impact was significant.

View of the Honouliuli Camp looking into the gulch. The long building in the middle of the photo next to the hillside is where the Board of Water Supply buidling is today. Photo by R.H. Lodge, Courtesy of Hawai‘i’s Plantation Village.

The story of Honouliuli is wrapped up a larger story of Hawai‘i under martial law. Given its strategic location in the middle of Pacific Ocean, the Hawaiian Islands had long been seen as a key American military outpost. Not long after larger numbers of Japanese laborers began to migrate to Hawai‘i beginning in 1885, Japan began to emerge as a military threat to the United States. By the early years of the 20th century, many believed that Japan and the United States were on a collision course to war. At the same time, the Japanese population in Hawai‘i continued to grow; by 1920, Japanese immigrants and their descendants made up over 40% of the population of Hawai‘i. This combination of circumstances alarmed many: what would this large Japanese population in Hawai‘i do in the event of war between the United States and Japan?

Beginning the late 1920s and continuing through the 1930s, various U.S. governmental bodies conducted studies and made plans to address this question. As a result of this planning, detailed lists were produced that allowed local authorities to swiftly arrest several hundred local Japanese within 48 hours of the attack, after the declaration of martial law. Almost all of those arrested were male leaders of the immigrant community—Buddhist priests, Japanese language school officials, newspaper editors, and leaders of immigrant community organizations, among others. There were a handful of women arrested as well as some Nisei. (Most of the Nisei were Kibei, those who were born in the United States, but educated in Japan. The numbers of Kibei who were arrested increased in the subsequent months and years.) In addition to the 1,200 or so local Japanese who were eventually arrested, there were also about 100 local Germans and Italians who were arrested and interned.

Internee tents at Sand Island shortly after the camp opened in December, 1941. Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Museum of Hawai‘i.

In the hours after the Pearl Harbor attack, the arrested were initially kept in local jails or holding cells for a day or two. On O‘ahu, the holding area was at the immigration station building just outside downtown Honolulu. After a couple of days, they were transferred to temporary camps on the various islands that had been set up to hold them. These included Kalaheo Stockade (Kaua‘i), Haiku Camp (Maui), Kilauea Military Camp (Big Island) and Sand Island (O’ahu).

Opening on December 9, Sand Island became the camp that all the Hawai‘i internees passed through. Located on an island in Honolulu Harbor—there was no bridge to the island back then—it was both close to Honolulu and yet so far away. Internees were initially housed in tents for the first six months before barracks were built. Conditions were initially harsh; in his memoir of internment, Issei journalist Yasutaro Soga wrote of forced labor, strip searches, and other indignities aimed at the leaders of the Japanese immigrant community. Families were initially kept in the dark about their husbands and fathers, not knowing for weeks if the men were even alive.

Sand Island, 1946. What remains of the internment camp can be seen in the middle portion of the image. Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard.

In February of 1942, Sand Island internees began to be transferred to internment camps in the continental United States administered by the army and the Justice Department. Later in 1942, dependent family members of the interned men were given the option of “voluntarily” joining their husband/fathers in internment camps. Over 1,000 wives and children did just that, many of the ending up in a camp in Crystal City, Texas, while others ended up in War Relocation Authority administered camps in Tule Lake, California or Jerome, Arkansas. As internees were transferred from Sand Island to the mainland, neighbor island internees were transferred to Sand Island in the spring and summer of 1942. Most of these men also were transferred to mainland camps in late 1942 and early 1943.

On March 1, 1943, Sand Island was closed and the remaining internees were transferred to a new camp in Honouliuli gulch. The Honouliuli camp was built on 160 acres of land in Central O’ahu. Built to hold 3,000 people, its peak population was only around 320. Most of those transferred from Sand Island were Nisei, and thus American citizens by birth. There were also a handful of local Germans and Italians and some prisoners of war. Internees were housed in wooden barracks and tents. The camp was patrolled by armed guards and ringed with double barbed-wire fences and guard towers. Family members were allowed to visit twice a month.

Among the prominent members of the local Japanese community interned at Honouliuli were Thomas T. Sakakihara, a former territorial representative and Sanji Abe a former territorial senator. The latter was the first AJA to be elected to the Senate when he was elected in 1940 as a Republican from South Hilo. He had attended one legislative session before being interned in 1942.

Though the number of local Japanese from Hawai‘i who were interned was small relative to the total Japanese population, the impact of their internment was disproportionately large. Because the interned were community leaders and often family men, their internment affected family members and large community institutions such as Japanese language schools, Buddhist temples, and even a handful of Japanese Christian churches. Because arrests and detentions continued through the war, the community remained on edge, fearful as to who might be next. Japanese culture became equated with Japanese political affiliation, and Japanese language, clothing, and customs suddenly disappeared. The local Japanese community would never quite be the same again.

Internee barracks area at Honouliuli. Part of the rock wall in the background still stands today. Photo by R.H. Lodge, Courtesy of Hawai‘i’s Plantation Village.

In all, between 1,200 and 1,400 local Japanese were interned, along with about 1,000 family members.

Most of the Hawai‘i internees remained in detention for the duration of the war and beyond, a period approaching four years. Most eventually returned to Hawai‘i after the war, their stories largely forgotten in the dramatic changes of the postwar years.

Remembering Internment

Drawing of internment at the Kilauea Military Camp, 1942, by George Hoshida.

Beginning in the 1970s, Japanese American community activists living on the West Coast began a movement to seek reparations for the World War II internment. At around the same time, the community began to organize pilgrimages to former camp sites. The first was a pilgrimage to Manzanar in east-central California in 1969, an event that eventually became an annual one. In the late 1970s, Japanese American communities began organizing Days of Remembrance (DoRs) on or around February 19 to commemorate President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. Today, DoRs are annual events in communities across the country. In 2009, there were over twenty such commemorations in cities ranging from Philadelphia to Fresno and including Honolulu.

The redress movement improbably led to the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, signed into law by President Ronald Reagan. Under the provisions of this legislation, surviving Japanese American former internees received a presidential apology and a reparations payment of $20,000. In Hawai‘i, this legislation also led to the 1990s discovery of well over 1,000 local Japanese who were not interned but who were denied access to their land during the war as well as renewed interest in the story of Hawai‘i internees.

Hawai‘i internee group at Sante Fe camp, ca. 1944. Yasutaro Soga, author of “Life behind Barbed Wire,” is in the front row, third from the right. Photo from the JCCH collection.

Perhaps as a result of these developments, a local television station asked the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i (JCCH) about the location and current status of Honouliuli. This inquiry has led JCCH to focus its research efforts on these questions over the past few years. As a result, the site of the camp has been located, and several visits to the site have taken place. Honouliuli is specifically mentioned in the Camp Preservation Bill (HR 1492), signed by President Bush in 2006. This legislation authorizes $38 million in funding for the preservation of former World War II confinement sites. $1 million was appropriated for grants under this legislation in 2009, and four Hawai‘i-based research, exhibition or preservation related projects were funded for nearly $150,000. State legislation passed in 2007 also approved funding for a study of how these sites in Hawai‘i might best be memorialized, though this funding was never released by the governor. JCCH has also produced a exhibition on the Hawai‘i internees’ story and is working on a series of three books centering on internment, the first of which, an English translation of Yasutaro Soga’s Life behind Barbed Wire, was published by the University of Hawai‘i Press in December 2007. Finally, JCCH has also worked to integrate the Hawai‘i internees’ story into our educational system through an internment discovery box and a folder of resource material on the topic that was distributed to every public high school in the state in 2007. JCCH received a federal grant in 2008 to produce curriculum material on Hawai‘i internment in collaboration with the state Department of Education and to produce a website, work that will be completed by the end of 2009.

The 2007 Manzanar Pilgrimage. Photo courtesy of Jenni Kuida.

Formed in 2005, the Hawai‘i Confinement Sites Committee at JCCH oversees all this internment related activity. Our dream is that the Honouliuli site become a public historical park where the Hawai‘i internees story can be shared with future generations. Legislation currently being considered by Congress would authorize the National Park Service to undertake a special resources study of Hawai‘i confinement sites, the first step in what we hope will be a National Historic Site at Honouliuli. We hope you will join with us to help make this dream a reality.

by Brian Niiya
June 4, 2010