Immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, FBI agents appeared at Japanese American homes with guns and bayonets and began arresting Issei immigrants without cause and threw them in local jails.
“They just grabbed him,” said Laura Miho, remembering how the FBI took her father, Koichi Iida. “We were all so scared. We didn’t know what to do. My mother was so worried. She waited by the door, but he didn’t come back. We all cried.”
Scenes like this played out repeatedly on the U.S. mainland, but this particular moment, with Iida’s daughter remembering the day her father was taken away, happened in Hawai‘i, where Iida was one of nearly 400 Hawai‘i Issei arrested in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor. In telling this story, award-winning filmmaker Ryan Kawamoto brings this and other lesser-known Hawai‘i Japanese American incarceration stories to light in his documentary film, “Voices Behind Barbed Wire: Stories From Hawai‘i.”
The 78-minute film, set to screen at the 11th annual Films of Remembrance on Sunday, Feb. 27, explores the personal stories of Hawai‘i Japanese Americans from their initial imprisonment in Hawai‘i to their eventual incarceration in mainland prison camps.
Since the discovery of the Honouliuli Internment Camp on O‘ahu in 2002, the film also reveals that 16 other Hawai‘i-based prison sites have been found on the islands of O‘ahu, Maui, Kaua‘i and Hawai‘i Island, thanks to the painstaking work of groups such as the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i, Nisei Veterans Committee and the National Parks Service.
But beyond these walls of confinement, it’s the stories of what happened to Hawai‘i’s Japanese Americans, as told by their descendants, that brings this film to life. And while the number of Japanese Americans in Hawai‘i’s prison sites was significantly less than on the mainland, viewers learn that the trauma of their unjust incarceration and the long-lasting effects on them and their families was the same, and still exists to this day.
Ahead of its upcoming screening, Kawamoto spoke with the Nichi Bei Weekly via e-mail about his film:
Nichi Bei Weekly: What made you tell this story?
Ryan Kawamoto: In 2012, I made another documentary film called, “The Untold Story: Internment of Japanese Americans in Hawai‘i.” During community screenings, more families came forward to share their stories. At the same time, research and new information regarding the confinement site locations came to light. With the overwhelming amount of new information and family stories from around the state, there was an immediate need to share these stories with the larger community.
NBW: Do you have a personal family connection to this story?
RK: Yes. My uncle’s father was a business owner in Honolulu with ties to Japan. He was incarcerated and sent to a camp on the U.S. mainland. His wife and young children, including my uncle, voluntarily joined him in camp. My mother told me this story when I was young, so I knew that JAs from Hawai‘i were incarcerated during the war.
NBW: What makes the Hawai‘i story different from the JA incarceration on the mainland?
RK: In Hawai‘i there was selective internment: Buddhist and Shinto priests, Japanese language teachers, volunteer consular agents, journalists of Japanese language newspapers, and those the government deemed “suspicious.” Because the entire JA community was not incarcerated, it created a stigma in the Hawai‘i community. The government incarcerated the leadership of the Japanese community in Hawai‘i versus the entire population.
NBW: Why was it important to use local actors in historical re-enactments?
RK: There are limited amounts of photographs that depict this story, especially during the early days of the war. I wanted the audience to experience the raw emotions of what the families went through and felt the best way to bring it to life was through historical re-enactments based on oral histories, interviews and memoirs.
NBW: Why has it taken so long for the JA people in Hawai‘i to tell this story?
RK: Because not everyone in Hawai‘i was incarcerated during WWII, it created a painful stigma where many did not want to talk about it until recently.
NB: What has been the response from the people in Hawai‘i and the mainland?
RK: I think for many audiences in Hawai‘i, it was eye-opening and led to interest in preservation of some of the sites like the Honouliuli Internment Camp. For audiences on the mainland, it’s an opportunity to compare their own histories with what happened to those in Hawai‘i.
NBW: Why is it important?
RK: Prejudice, discrimination and racism are still problems in 2022. I’d like people to have a conversation about what they can do in their communities to help heal this divide and to be vigilant about preventing something like this from happening again to another group in our country. With the recent rise in hate crimes and a highly polarized political divide, we need to remember the mistakes of the past so that they are not repeated.
“Voices Behind Barbed Wire: Stories From Hawai‘i” (2018, 78 minutes) will screen online starting Sunday, Feb. 27 at 2 p.m. PT through March 13. A discussion on the film with Kawamoto will be held at 3:30 p.m. Tickets cost $15 or $50 for an all-access pass. For more information, visit www.filmsofremembrance.org.