How Hawai‘i avoided incarcerating Japanese Americans en masse



By Tom Coffman (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2021, 384 pp., $24.99, paperback)

Tom Coffman is a prolific scholar, journalist and filmmaker whose books “Nation Within” and “The Island Edge of America: A Political History of Hawai‘i” have shaped scholarly discourse about Hawai‘i’s recent history. His new book “Inclusion” is a fascinating study of the Council for Interracial Unity, a now largely-forgotten race relations group located in the then-Territory of Hawai‘i in the years surrounding World War II, and especially two of its outstanding members, the Chinese American social worker Hung Wai Ching and the Japanese American school principal Shigeo Yoshida.

Ching and Yoshida, working in collaboration with various officials, promoted interracial cooperation in Hawai‘i before World War II. After Pearl Harbor, they promoted the mass wartime mobilization of Hawai‘i’s people, and in the process helped avert mass wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans.

The structure of Coffman’s work is binary. The first chapters detail the early life histories of Yoshida and Ching. Ching, a star athlete, was inspired to study theology on the mainland before returning to Hawai‘i at the end of the 1920s and taking a job with the YMCA. Yoshida, a champion debater, became a schoolteacher and later school principal. He gradually emerged as a community spokesperson, gaining widespread attention in 1937 by his testimony before a congressional committee about Japanese American loyalty.

The two men’s attachment to democratic principle, along with their connections to liberal white Christians such as community leader Charles Hemenway, led them to form interracial committees to promote inclusion of Asians in Hawai‘i society.

The book’s second half deals with the coming of war between Japan and the United States, and the efforts of military leaders and intelligence agents in Hawai‘i such as Cecil Coggins of the Office of Naval Intelligence and Robert Shivers of the FBI to determine the loyalties of Japanese American community members in Hawai‘i.

Due to their network of contacts within the community, Shivers and local police chief John A. Burns were able to recruit trustworthy Japanese Americans as agents. After Pearl Harbor, they vouched for numerous individuals and protected them from arbitrary imprisonment. With their support, Ching and Yoshida were named to a Morale Committee by the leaders of Hawai‘i’s military government, from which they were able to influence military governor Delos Emmons and Col. Thomas Green, the executive officer of martial law, to endorse the loyalty of Japanese Americans and not institute mass confinement.

Coffman is a dedicated researcher and skilled narrator who mixes biography and larger analysis gracefully. Coffman posits Hawai‘i’s society, with the aloha spirit of tolerance and welcome for all people handed down from native Hawaiians, as a model for race relations elsewhere in America. At the same time, the text offers insight into a larger question: how did Hawai‘i manage to avoid the tragic experience of mass incarceration that befell West Coast Japanese Americans?

Despite Hawai‘i’s importance to American life, its history remains little covered in the scholarly literature. The book has a real contribution to make to our knowledge of (Japanese) American history and the special set of forces in Hawai‘i that preserved its interracial harmony through the depths of war.

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