THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Sen. Sanji Abe’s ‘tragic’ story, and the ‘hollow’ case for the wartime incarceration


This week’s chapter covers the tragic story of Sen. Sanji Abe as a way of understanding the plight of Japanese Americans in Hawai‘i during World War II.

People who study Executive Order 9066 and the Japanese American wartime concentration camp experience often present as contrast the treatment of Japanese Americans in the Territory of Hawai‘i. In Hawai‘i, which had an even larger ethnic Japanese population than the West Coast, there was no mass removal, and only some 3,000 individuals of Japanese ancestry were ever imprisoned in camps, either on the islands or the mainland.

Gen. Delos Emmons, the territory’s wartime military governor, well understood that, apart from any moral or constitutional dimensions of the question, any such policy would be doomed to failure on practical grounds. Putting together, in time of wartime scarcity, the resources in food and materials needed either to maintain 150,000 people in close confinement (from which they could be liberated by any Japanese invader) or to transport them to the mainland would be costly if not impossible.

Furthermore, the territory’s leaders simply could not afford to incarcerate the bulk of its labor force if they needed to keep up war production, while the politically powerful “Big Five families” who made up the Hawai‘i’s ruling class were opposed to losing their plantation workers. Emmons preferred to trust Japanese Americans, and they amply repaid that trust by contributing massively to the war effort in terms of labor in defense industries and enlistment of soldiers.

As countless numbers of latter-day scholars and activists have pointed out, the fact that Japanese Americans were left at liberty in Hawai‘i, whose territory had been attacked at Pearl Harbor and which remained the most exposed to invasion during the war, lays bare the hollowness of the case for military necessity made by the Army and by those West Coast whites who agitated for the wholesale removal of ethnic Japanese. Put another way, if in Hawai‘i, where Japanese Americans constituted some 40 percent of the population, they could be left alone, why could not one percent of the West Coast population be similarly trusted? This argument, to be sure, carries a great deal of truth. However, the argument tends to ignore two essential (and related) points.

First of all, averting mass confinement in Hawai‘i was a near thing, despite the unrealistic nature of any such project. Plans for mass roundup and confinement of “local Japanese” in Hawai‘i removal were drawn up in the spring of 1942 by the joint chiefs of staff, approved by Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox and endorsed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Emmons (with help from Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy) succeeded in scuttling the plan by a stalling policy, though he did ultimately send 1,000 “potentially dangerous” Japanese Americans and family members — the sacrificial victims of the policy — to camps on the mainland as a gesture of compliance. Emmons deserves enormous credit for his cool-headed balancing of the needs for labor and materials against fears for security.

That said, a second and related point is that Japanese Americans, like others in Hawai‘i, remained only partly free under wartime military rule. Indeed, beginning in the first moments of the war, their presence gave the Army the pretext to grab absolute power in Hawai‘i and cling to it. On Dec. 7, 1941, as the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor, Lt. Gen. Walter Short visited Territorial Gov. Joseph Poindexter and warned of the urgent menace of sabotage by local Nikkei. He insisted that unless the governor granted full powers to the Army he would not be responsible for guaranteeing Hawai‘i’s safety, and then threatened to take power unilaterally. Short pressured Poindexter to sign a special martial law proclamation that the governor had never seen. Once Poindexter had signed the proclamation declaring martial law, Short declared himself the military governor, abolished Hawai‘i’s government, dismissed the legislature, and suspended the U.S. Constitution.

When Emmons arrived 10 days later to replace Short, he took on the title and powers of military governor. Military officials, led by Provost Marshal General Thomas Green, imposed a set of general orders to govern the territory. Army rule was marked by harsh and often arbitrary regulations. Newspapers remained heavily censored and criticism of military officials forbidden. The regime imposed stringent labor rules and bans on strikes. Despite promising to restore civilian government, military governors held power for three years, long after any threat of Japanese invasion had passed.

While Japanese Americans were not singled out for different treatment in most cases, there were some special restrictions on them. Japanese American farmers in the West Loch area near Pearl Harbor were banished form their homes, though they were permitted to farm the land on their property. Japanese churches and language schools were shuttered. Community leaders such as school principal Shigeo Yoshida, knowing that Japanese Americans were vulnerable, led “speak English” campaigns and war bond drives.

Still, it is incontestable that in certain cases the commanders of the military regime used their great power in unjust and arbitrary fashion against Japanese Americans. A case in point is the story of Sanji Abe. Born on May 10, 1895 in Kailua Kona, the son of immigrants from Fukuoka province, he was granted U.S. citizenship after Hawai‘i was annexed by the United States in 1898. He later moved to Hilo on the Big Island. After serving in World War I, Abe joined the conservative veterans’ group American Legion to assist in the Legion’s “Americanization” program. Meanwhile, he was named president of the “Nisei Club,” a well-known civic group in Hilo. Hired as a patrolman by the Hilo Police Department, he was later promoted to the position of clerk of the police court, and was subsequently named a deputy sheriff. He also bought a home and various other real estate properties. He also married and had six children.

In 1940, running on the Republican ticket, he sought election to the territorial senate. After being repeatedly attacked by a race-baiting white Democratic opponent for his (pro forma) dual citizenship, Abe agreed to formally renounce his Japanese citizenship as a gesture to appease nativists — his expatriation notice arrived a few days before the election. In November of 1940, Abe defeated his opponent, thereby becoming Hawai‘i’s first-ever Nisei senator. The next year, following the Pearl Harbor attack, Abe (who was well beyond military age) volunteered as a civil defense worker.

Despite (or because of) his position, Abe seems to have been closely watched by the military authorities once war began. According to Hawai‘i historian Bob Dye, on July 21, 1942, Abe’s son Stanley accompanied military intelligence agent Samuel H. Snow on an inspection of the Yamatoza theater, of which Sanji Abe was part owner. While looking among the stage properties, Snow announced that he had found a Japanese flag — Stanley Abe, who played in the theater backstage and knew it well, was certain that it had been planted.

On Aug. 2, Sanji Abe was arrested and charged with possession of a Japanese flag, for which the penalty was a fine of up to $10,000 and/or a one-year prison term. Abe protested that he had never bought or flown any Japanese flag — and had indeed ordered his theater checked carefully for just such contraband. He also pointed out that the military orders making possession of Japanese flags a crime were not issued until Aug. 8, six days after his arrest. Army officials were thus forced to release him on Aug. 19. Still, even after he publicly burned the offending flag, the following day, Abe remained under suspicion.

As if to demonstrate in graphic terms the authoritarian power of the military, in September of 1942 Green had Abe rearrested, this time without charge. Brought before a board made up of a mix of officers and civilians, it was a kangaroo court, with the “evidence” against Abe based on rumor, vague accusations by informants, and a broad dose of racial prejudice; the chief charges against Abe were that he had studied in the prewar era he had studied in a Japanese language school, had traveled to Japan, that he had shown Japanese-language motion pictures in his theater, and that in 1939 he had served on a reception committee for officers of a visiting Japanese naval vessel.

Abe produced white witnesses who testified as to his loyalty to the United States. Despite the lack of any evidence presented as to Abe’s purported disloyalty, let alone formal charges against him, the board recommended that he be incarcerated for the duration of the war. As a result, Abe was placed in “custodial detention,” where he remained for 19 months, first at the Sand Island concentration camp, later at the Honolulu Detention Center. Bob Dye’s hypothesis is that Abe’s detention was part of a larger campaign by military officials to pressure all Japanese American legislators into resigning their seats or withdrawing from the legislature — the result was that after elections were held in November of 1942, not a single Japanese American assemblyman was returned. Abe refused to resign despite the pressure. However, in February of 1943, he was barred from taking his seat in the new legislature when it convened, and he reluctantly resigned in order to spare his district from further reprisals. In March of 1944, Abe was granted parole. As a condition of his release, he was required to sign a form waiving any challenge to his detention.

During the postwar years, Abe concentrated on his business affairs, and did not speak publicly abut his ordeal. When he was interviewed about his detention in 1968, he insisted that the reasons for his detention were still a mystery to him. When his interviewer asked whether it was the work of his political opponents, he responded, “I assume so.”

Wartime Army rule in the territory represents a unique case in modern U.S. history where an elected government was overthrown by Army commanders exercising unchecked power. Throughout the war, the Army in Hawai‘i used Japanese Americans as scapegoats, and they became proxies in the larger struggle for the constitutional rights of all groups. Despite being a war veteran and a duly elected territorial legislator, Sanji Abe was subjected to arbitrary arrest and imprisonment without charge. His case reminds us that if Japanese Americans in Hawai‘i were not confined en masse, they remained subject to official denial of their fundamental rights on racial grounds.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., the author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. He can be reached at

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