‘Fresh’ history of Hawai‘i’s Nikkei is somewhat lacking



By Jonathan Y. Okamura (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2014, 272 pp., $42, cloth)

It is a somewhat curious fact that many of the people I have met on the mainland, Japanese Americans and others alike, seem rather uninformed about the Nikkei experience in Hawai‘i. (I am no exception — when I first visited Honolulu in 2006, amid the pleasure at seeing the amazing visual landscape of Hawai‘i and meeting new friends, I felt abashed at the realization that I was exploring a markedly different Japanese American culture about which I knew very little). It is a further irony that many of the outstanding scholars of West Coast Nikkei communities, including the late Ronald Takaki, Gary Okihiro, Franklin Odo, Stephen Sumida, Gail Nomura, and Thomas Fujita Rony, are themselves products of Hawai‘i.

All this is to say that Jonathan Okamura’s new book provides a welcome opportunity for all of us on the mainland to learn something about the history of the “local Japanese.”

Okamura’s work is divided into three parts. The first part reflects on the history of the Nikkei community in Hawai‘i from its origins in the 1880s through 1970, when George Ariyoshi was elected lieutenant governor (paving the way for his election four years later for the first of his three terms as governor).

During this period, Okamura contends, ethnic Japanese in Hawai‘i were defined by their race, and subjected to control and discrimination by the dominant white society. For example, one of his chapters recounts the case of Myles Yutaka Fukunaga, who kidnapped and killed the young son of a prominent white banker. Okamura presents the case that Fukunaga was executed for his crime, despite being likely insane, because his act threatened the domination of the white minority in Hawai‘i’s society.

Okamura’s second section covers the period since 1970. During this period, he states, Japanese Americans were defined by “ethnicity.” What this means is that, through the efforts of Nisei union leaders such as Jack Kawano and political leaders such as Patsy Takemoto Mink, who fought to bring civil rights and social justice for all of Hawai‘i’s people, Nisei and Sansei were able to make a central place for themselves within the fledgling state’s government, and to climb to central places of power in society. Ironically, the very success of the “local Japanese” (and to a lesser extent Chinese Americans) made them the targets of resentment by less-favored groups, notably Filipino Americans, who considered them unjustly privileged.

A final section is composed of portraits based on interviews with leaders of the new Yonsei generation, who are building on the contributions of their elders. One particularly fascinating study is that of Blake Oshiro, who as majority leader of the state legislature in 2009-2010 was faced with the thorny question of enacting civil union legislation for same-sex couples. On the last day of the session he resigned as Majority leader in order to offer personal support for the bill, and in his speech he mentioned his own experience as a gay man.

Okamura’s book is not without its problems. He hardly mentions World War II, and seems unaware of the developing scholarship on the impact of wartime martial law on the Nikkei community — he makes no mention of the mass incarceration of ethnic Japanese at Honouliuli. His account of the attack on Japanese-language schools in 1920s Hawai‘i is likewise outdated. Still, he brings a fresh perspective on a history that is worth knowing and connects past to present in a useful and intelligent fashion.

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