An examination of racism in 1920s Hawai‘i’s society

RACED TO DEATH IN 1920s HAWAI‘I: INJUSTICE AND REVENGE IN THE FUKUNAGA CASE

By Jonathan Y. Okamura (Champaign, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 2019, 252 pp., $27.95, paperback; $99, cloth; $14.95, Ebook)

A few years ago, I reviewed in these pages Jonathan Okamura’s book “From Race to Ethnicity.” I welcomed the chance to present to Nichi Bei Weekly readers a solid interpretation of the history of the “local Japanese” in Hawai‘i, something unfamiliar to many katonks (mainland Japanese Americans). One of Okamura’s contributions in the earlier book was exploring how, before the contemporary era, ethnic Japanese in Hawai‘i were defined by their race, and subjected to control and discrimination by the dominant white society. His chief demonstration of the primacy of racism was his chapter on the 1928 case of Myles Yutaka Fukunaga.

In the current book, Okamura expands on his treatment of the case and its place in the racial history of Hawai‘i. Fukunaga was a teenaged Nisei who was forced to work long hours to support his family. Embittered by his experience and attracted by the idea of revenging himself on the establishment by committing “the perfect crime,” Fukunaga kidnapped and murdered George Gill Jamieson, the 10-year-old son of a local banker against whom Fukunaga bore a grudge. He obtained a $4,000 ransom payment from the Jamieson family in exchange for the boy’s promised return, then vanished. As news of the crime spread and a wave of fear and terror spread among the public, authorities targeted the local Japanese community, and police arrested a dozen individuals.

Issei parents terrified of anti-Japanese pogroms told their children to come home directly after school. Japanese community organizations, feeling the brunt of public outrage, offered a reward for the killers’ capture and volunteered to help in the search.

Following a large-scale manhunt, Fukunaga was apprehended, and his case was set for trial just 10 days afterward, amid a lynch mob climate of public and press opinion. Although Fukunaga did not deny his guilt, the judge in the case refused to permit him to plead guilty. Despite clear evidence pointing to his insanity, the court refused to schedule a psychiatric evaluation. After a summary trial, Fukunaga was found guilty and sentenced to be executed. Hawaii Hochi editor Fred Makino and other local Japanese community leaders, though fearful of being further tarred by association with the notorious criminal, launched a series of appeals, arguing that the death penalty was unjust because Fukunaga was insane. However, the courts refused to hear the appeal, and on Nov. 19, 1929, Fukunaga was hanged.

Okamura presents the case that Fukunaga was judged with excessive speed and executed for his crime, despite the evidence of his insanity, because his act defied the domination of the white minority in Hawaiian society. The reaction of the haole (white) elites to the alleged crime and the racial bias shown in the trial encapsulated the real nature of racial hierarchies in the supposedly multicultural territory. These events heavily foreshadowed the 1932 Massie case, in which five young men of non-white ancestry were unjustly accused of raping a white woman. Following their acquittal by a jury, one of the men, Joseph Kahahawai, was kidnapped and murdered by family members of the alleged victim, who escaped imprisonment for their crimes.

Okamura’s work opens the door for further reflection on how this history fits into larger patterns of U.S. race relations.

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