The bombing of Pearl Harbor was a turning point for Hawai‘i, but it was also the culmination of decades of militarization on O‘ahu. At the same time, ethnic Japanese constituted forty percent of Hawai‘i’s population, a fact not lost on Washington, as Japanese armies spread across China and the Pacific.
HPR’s Noe Tanigawa follows these two threads leading up to the bombing.
Bishop Museum is honoring the 75th Pearl Harbor Remembrance with Homefront Hawai‘i, an exhibit of photographs and memorabilia, in the Portico Hall of Hawaiian Hall.
Desoto Brown, historian with the Bishop Museum, begins this way: “Starting way back in 1898 when the Hawaiian islands were annexed by the United States, and actually even before that, Pearl Harbor on the island of O‘ahu was recognized as probably one of the best harbors in the Pacific. United States military realized this was going to be a very crucial sort of linchpin to control of the Pacific.”
Jonathan Okamura, professor of ethnic studies, UH Mānoa clarifies:
“With annexation, the military in Hawai‘i gained access to land. This how they came to control 23% of the land on O‘ahu. Through annexation they took over the land the Republic of Hawai‘i ceded to the U.S. when Hawai‘i became a territory.’
Starting in 1908 through 1910, according to Brown, the U.S. built a series of forts along O‘ahu’s south shore, Ruger, DeRussy, Armstrong and Kamehameha and military development of Pearl Harbor sped up.
“By the late 1930’s Schofield Barracks was the largest army base in the country, which is astonishing, and Pearl harbor was this huge naval base.”
Meanwhile, Okamura says Hawai‘i was still very much a sugar plantation society, and thousands of Japanese workers had been imported since 1885.
“In general, for local Japanese, there was the anti-Japanese movement intended to subordinate them, to keep them on plantations. The military, the Territorial government, the planters (were) restricting employment, laws were passed for example, that aliens could not work on public works projects.”
After Japanese sugar workers went on strike in 1909 and 1920, many of them, skilled workers, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, were evicted. Laws forbidding aliens to work on public works projects sent former sugar workers into their own businesses.
“In the public schools, forty percent Japanese American, the curriculum is directed to vocational education, farming, agriculture or domestic service," according to Okamura. "McKinley High School under Miles Cary was one of the exceptions . He didn’t go along with this dictate from what was called the Department of Public Instruction so he developed the science curriculum, math curriculum, social studies. This is why there is a statue in front of McKinley High School, this is why the cafeteria is also named after him. But one of the more obvious examples of the attacks against Japanese in Hawai‘i, is the effort to close Japanese language schools in the 1920’s. Laws were passed.”
Professor Okamura says in the decades prior to WWII, Japanese were generally regarded with suspicion on the U.S. continent, and that affected establishment views in Hawai‘i.
“Japanese were viewed very differently from Filipinos. With Filipinos and Hawaiians you get the biologically based racism, that they’re born inferior in terms of intelligence, ability, compared to whites. Whites, of course, viewed themselves as biologically superior to everyone else in Hawai‘i, including Portuguese who are technically white too, right? But the haole fear of Japanese was that they weren’t biologically inferior because they had demonstrated this ability to organize very large strikes, this planning capacity, organizing ability to organize strikes in 1909 and 1920 involving coordination of activities between striking workers on O‘ahu and members of the union on the neighbor islands who continued to work and contributed to the strike fund to support the O‘ahu workers. That takes a lot of ability, in 1909 especially given the limitations on communication. That was the fear that haoles had that this very large population would be able to cripple the main industry of the islands.”
For a decade prior to the Pearl harbor attack, Japan had been defying expectations.
Brown: “From 1931 onward, Japan had been increasing aggressive in Asia. They had gone to war and taken over Manchuria, then they went to war openly with China in 1937, and in 1941, the summer, they took over French IndoChina. Nearly forty percent of the population here is Japanese, are they going to be saboteurs? Are they going to support Japan? If Japan starts a war, who are they going to support?”
The possibility of a Japanese attack was real, and there were three practice blackouts held for the entire Hawaiian Territory in May of 1939, ’40 and ’41. Women were instructed to stock up on canned foods and necessities for their families, should shipments be interrupted, and wartime contingency plans were made.
Historian Desoto Brown says Japanese were so entrenched in society, removing them was deemed unworkable. In addition, there wasn’t enough building material to construct camps.
“And there wasn’t enough room, and there wasn’t transportation enough to physically move everyone either, so plan B was, well, since we can’t segregate them out and put them all under control, we have to put everybody under control.”
The military was ready---the U.S. Navy fleet had been moved to Pearl Harbor, along with the Pacific Command, and Schofield was America’s largest Army base. According to plans developed over a decade earlier, martial law was imposed on Hawai‘i the same day of the bombing December 7, 1941.
“Even when Pearl harbor was attacked, not everybody in the U.S.A. really knew what this place was, or wait,
is that part of the country? What? People in the U.S.A. were very aware of this tropical paradise of the Hawaiian Islands. They were very aware that that was where people surfed, that was where hula dancers were, there were palm trees, they had that picture. That had been in movies, it had been in books, it had been in photographs, and there were Hawaiian music broadcasts on the radio, they knew about that. But they didn’t know that it was this heavily militarized area that was an outpost of United States’ power in the Pacific and that’s why Japan attacked it.”
Next week, we’ll look at what that attack did to the social fabric in Hawai‘i and the legacy of Japanese internment that holds particular relevance today.