Film examines little-known history of incarceration on Hawai‘i Island


Filmmaker Ryan Kawamoto continues his exploration of Hawai‘i’s hidden history with “Voices From Behind Barbed Wire: Stories From Hawai‘i Island,” a follow-up to his 2012 film “The Untold Story: Internment of Japanese Americans in Hawai‘i.”

The short film examines the little-known history of the incarceration of the Japanese population on the Big Island of Hawai‘i during World War II.

From Honolulu, the 42-year-old Yonsei native of Hilo, Hawai‘i responded to an e-mail interview with the Nichi Bei Weekly in anticipation of his new film’s debut at the Nichi Bei Foundation’s seventh annual Films of Remembrance Feb. 24.

NBW: When did you first hear about the incarceration of people of Japanese descent in Hawai‘i?
RK:  Probably when I was in the fifth grade and worked on a report for history class. My mother who is a Sansei told me stories about her brother-in-law’s family who were well-to-do business people in Honolulu, HI and were incarcerated during WWII. The father was taken and the wife and children joined him in a mainland camp. So at a young age I knew of this period in history. I did not understand the differences between Hawai‘i and the mass incarceration on the U.S. West Coast however. Nor did I know how many confinement sites there were across the state.

NBW: Is this story taught much in local schools?
RK: When I went to high school in Hawai‘i during the early 1990s, we were never taught about this subject matter. Through efforts of the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i there is a curriculum guide and lesson plans that have been distributed to schools across the state of Hawai‘i with my previous film, “The Untold Story: Internment of Japanese Americans in Hawai‘i.” … The story has been getting out to local schools and students.

NBW: When you first made “The Untold Story” in 2012, the story of the Honouliuli camp was still relatively little-known, it seems. How was it was rediscovered?
RK: The camp was actually discovered by JCCH volunteers in 1998 when a local reporter called to ask them about the location of Honouliuli and the volunteers realized they did not know where it was located. They set out to find it and did. Since then and through visits and tours to the site, archaeological studies by UH West O’ahu and a grassroots effort by the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i, Honouliuli became a National Monument under the National Park Service in 2015.

NBW: How has the public knowledge of the camp — and perhaps the other island camps — evolved?
RK: In 2012 when I directed JCCH’s previous documentary, “The Untold Story,” there were only 12 known confinement sites in Hawai‘i. Since then the number has grown to 17. And the locations of many of the sites were unknown. In some of the films, I was with the archeology team when we discovered the true locations of a few sites like the Kalaheo Stockade on Kaua‘i, the Ha‘iku Detention Camp on Maui, and the Waiakea Prison Camp on Hawai‘i Island.

NBW: How were the 17 sites different?
RW: Some were county jails, others were army facilities, others were makeshift detention facilities like gymnasiums, immigration centers, and in one case a bank.

NBW: Your film notes that there were 400 people incarcerated from the Big Island. Who were they, and what happened to them?
RW: Like their counterparts on the other Hawaiian islands they were mainly Buddhist and Shinto priests, Japanese language school teachers, volunteer consular agents, and those with ties to the Japanese government. Basically the leaders of the Japanese American community in Hawai‘i were rounded up. Some were detained for days, others for weeks, and many for the duration of the war. They were sent from confinement sites on their home islands to the Sand Island Detention Facility on O‘ahu and then onto the U.S. mainland to places like Jerome, Arkansas; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Missoula, Montana; and a dozen other places.

NBW: You also recently produced a similar short film on the Maui detention camps. How many of these films are in the works?
RK: In total there are four films. One for each of the four counties in the state of Hawai‘i: Hawai‘i Island, Maui County, O‘ahu, and Kaua‘i County. Each county is unique and so are the stories we present in each film.

NBW: What is your goal with this series of films?
RK: To get them into every school in Hawai‘i so that these stories can be passed to the next generation. To do community screenings and discussions in every county in Hawai‘i and to teach these lessons of history to our state and beyond.

“Voices Behind Barbed Wire: Stories of Hawai‘i Island” will screen Saturday, Feb. 24, 2:15 p.m., as part of the “Hidden Histories of Hawai‘i” program at the seventh annual Films of Remembrance, presented by the Nichi Bei Foundation at New People Cinema in San Francisco’s Japantown. For more information, see page 3 or visit:

One response to “Film examines little-known history of incarceration on Hawai‘i Island”

  1. Franklin Odo Avatar
    Franklin Odo

    Good going, Ryan! Am showing “Untold Story” to my seminar on JAs and WWII here at
    Amherst College where I am visiting prof for next few years. One of my students, Kyle Zweng, is haole kid from Punahou now at UMass Amherst [different school]. He wants to do project on individuals or families impacted by Honouliuli. Not sure if there are any survivors still alive? Can he do this? Would you be willing to chat with him? Take care, franklin

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