HomeJapanese AmericanHawaii opposed incarcerating Japanese despite Pearl Harbor

Hawaii opposed incarcerating Japanese despite Pearl Harbor

By Allyson Pang, AsAmNews Staff Writer

On a cold December morning in 1941, 12-year-old June Brieske had just finished breakfast when her mother returned from across the street and said she saw puffs of smoke near Pearl Harbor. Her mother had also seen low-flying planes bearing the Japanese flag on their wings.

Brieske recalled the radio announcement that rang out: “We are under attack! Take cover! Take cover!”

“It was something completely different [and] unexpected on a quiet Sunday morning for us,” Brieske said to AsAmNews.

Unlike the 120,000 incarcerated Japanese on the mainland, Brieske’s family and other Japanese in Hawaii were not placed in an incarceration camp.

According to the National Park Service, while Hawai’i’s government had considered a similar mass incarceration policy (Hawaii was a territory of the United States at the time. It was not admitted into the union until 1959), it was ultimately rejected. Since Hawai’i’s Japanese American and immigrant populations were over one-third of the total population, their labor was needed to maintain the economy and war effort in the islands.

Author Tom Coffman explained in his book Inclusion that just a little over one percent of the Japanese community was incarcerated in Hawaii.

“The remainder of the Japanese community continued to function with some restrictions along with the martial law restrictions like the rest of the population,” Coffman told AsAmNews.

Through this, Brieske’s father was able to continue managing the gas station he had bought about six days prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Brieske’s family was thankful he was at the station instead of at his regular Sunday fishing because Japanese fishermen were considered “prime suspects” and had been refused to return to shore.

According to Coffman, those who worked closely with the Japanese consul or had ties to Japan were put into the camp. Fishermen, Shinto and Buddhist priests, Japanese language school teachers from Japan and Japanese language newspaper reporters were some of the unjustly incarcerated.

In the Hono’uli’uli internment camp, there were around 350 internees from Hawaii and about 4,000 prisoners of war.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, people of Japanese ancestry who were not incarcerated were fingerprinted and given black identification cards that had to be carried with them at all times.

“We really obeyed the laws because we were so scared of what was going to happen,” Brieske said.

The different colored IDs were a form of discrimination by the federal government, but did not reflect the attitudes of Hawai’i, Coffman said.

In fact, Hawai’i had made various efforts to include Japanese Americans.

The Council for Interracial Unity played a special role in focusing on lessening the war’s impact by increasing participation from all ethnic groups, including people of Japanese ancestry.

The United States Army in Hawaii evolved into having a positive view of Japanese Americans, Coffman said. Army commanders eventually broke away from Washington D.C’s policies to advocate for the involvement of Japanese Americans in the war efforts.

Alongside the ID, they were also supplied with gas masks.

A few months later when school resumed, students participated in gas mask drills, which required putting the mask on within a certain timeframe. However, the masks were never used in a real emergency, Brieske said.

Air raid shelters were also built in case of emergency. Brieske’s small backyard could not fit one, so her family relied on their neighbor’s shelter. However, not everyone used it.

“My mother would be outside doing the laundry, hanging up the laundry and she’d said nope, she’s not worried about it and she never did [go in the shelter],” Brieske said. “We went into it.”

Brieske recalled the air raids being a terrifying experience, even if no bombs were dropped.

“If [the military] thought they saw enemy planes coming in or anything like that, we had air raids,” Brieske said. “And I used to be really absolutely scared. I didn’t want anything to happen to us.”

For many Japanese on the west coast, it was a very different story compared to Brieske’s.

According to Coffman, the rationale for mass internment was built on the belief that Japanese Americans in Hawai’i helped with the attack on Pearl Harbor.

However, this belief was examined and debunked; additionally, many Hawai’i leaders did not believe it.

“If the truthful testimony of Hawai’i had been listened to rationally on a national basis, there would’ve been no internment,” Coffman said.

Coffman believes Hawai’i’s unique culture contributed to the difference on how Japanese residents were treated in comparison to the mainland U.S.

He said there is significance in knowing one another, making acquaintances and forming friendships. In Hawai’i, where racial and ethnic lines are broken down, this created an atmosphere of mutual support for one another rather than division.

(Editor Note: AsAmNews receives 10% of the proceeds through books purchased through the Bookshop links in this article).

This story is a project of “The Stop The Hate campaign and is made possible with funding from the California State Library (CSL) in partnership with the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs (CAPIAA). The views expressed on this website and other materials produced by Asian American Media, Inc. do not necessarily reflect the official policies of the CSL, CAPIAA or the California government. Learn more at capiaa.ca.gov/stop-the-hate.

AsAmNews is published by the non-profit, Asian American Media Inc. Follow us on FacebookX, InstagramTikTok and YouTube. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to support our efforts to produce diverse content about the AAPI communities. We are supported in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.


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