Film documents those who were forcibly removed but not incarcerated in Hawai‘i


Two people sit at a table, with microphones in front of them.

FIGHT FOR JUSTICE ­— Honolulu JACL Past President William Kaneko (L) and Clayton Ikei, legal counsel for the Honolulu JACL, speak at a press conference about the Lualualei case. photo courtesy of Honolulu JACL

The little-known World War II story of more than 1,500 Americans of Japanese ancestry, who were forcibly removed from their homes in Hawai‘i but not incarcerated, is movingly captured in a video documentary produced by William Kaneko and Ryan Kawamoto. The 60-minute film, titled “Removed by Force: The Eviction of Hawai‘i’s Japanese Americans During WWII,” is one of 12 films the Nichi Bei Foundation will screen during its 13th annual Films of Remembrance.

The film focuses on the forced eviction experiences of Americans of Japanese ancestry, who owned businesses and farms in 23 communities throughout the state. It highlights interviews with family members who experienced the nightmare of the eviction. With bayonets pointed at them, they were given 24 hours to move their entire homes.

Since they were not incarcerated, these families were forced to find dwellings on their own. Some moved in with relatives, but others had no recourse but to find shelter in the hills. One family ended up living in a chicken coop for the duration of the war.

This blatant violation of human rights received no attention until 50 years later when young members of the Japanese American Citizens League of Honolulu found out about this situation and volunteered to bring justice to the families who had suffered the harrowing effects of the eviction.

It was eventually discovered that these families were evicted because they lived near train tracks, military installations, and other facilities deemed to be of military importance. While non-Japanese were allowed to stay in their homes, the Japanese were forcibly removed. The film compellingly captures the narrative from the viewpoints of the victims as well as the young lawyers, who worked pro bono to right this wrong.

Kaneko, a prominent Hawai‘i attorney and a former JACL president, was one of the youthful leaders in the 1990s movement. His group discovered the unique cases of these persons evicted from their homes on the basis of military necessity. They realized that this was a whole new area of potential redress that the Department of Justice had ignored. The JACL team faced intimidating challenges.

While the 1988 Civil Liberties Act covered those who had been incarcerated, these individuals who were evicted but not detained fell in a gray area open to interpretation. The film documents the uphill battle they fought with assistance from government officials and with National Asian Pacific American Bar Association lawyers.

Ultimately, they helped the surviving individuals to gain redress that totaled $30 million. More than the money, however, the survivors appreciated the letters of apology from the president of the United States. It was vindication that the government admitted its wrongdoing.

Kawamoto, who wrote and directed this film, spent more than two years researching the details of the forced eviction. He was already familiar with Kaneko’s documents and used them as the basis for his investigation. He indicated that the biggest challenge was identifying and locating survivors for the interviews. Kawamoto also invested countless hours combing through archival photos and film footage while collaborating with an illustrator to create this engrossing documentary. The film contextualizes the eviction story and the JACL struggles by setting it in the larger incarceration narrative as well as highlights of the redress and reparations movement that resulted in the 1988 Civil Liberties Act.

As joint executive producers, Kaneko and Kawamoto expressed the importance of telling this story. Kawamoto, who was initially shocked to hear about the eviction, felt that this historical episode had to be captured for the families themselves. He recalled an incident at the Hawai‘i film premiere. “We had members of one of the families in the film on stage answering questions from the audience. It was an emotional moment when one of the younger members of the family, who was sitting in the audience stood up and told his father that this film was the first time he had heard about what had happened.”

Speaking about the grit and determination of the advocates for those evicted, Kaneko said, “We were young and inexperienced. But we felt we needed to stand up and fight against the injustice suffered by these folks. My hope is that the younger generations viewing this film will be inspired by those who fought for equality and will help reshape our future into one that is fair and inclusive for all. This battle is even more significant today.”

The film has already garnered impressive accolades. Last year, it premiered at the Hawai‘i Convention Center to a sold-out audience that included past governors of the state. In 2023, it was also nominated for Best Made in Hawai‘i Feature Film at the Hawai‘i International Film Festival. The documentary has had six additional screenings in Hawai‘i as well as airtime on Hawai‘i Public Television. Along with a showing at the Films of Remembrance, Kaneko said they have a whirlwind 10-day tour in February to bring the film to various venues on the West Coast. A book of the same title by Kaneko and Sara Lin is slated for publication by Watermark Publishing later this year.

The documentary is a Honolulu JACL project.

WHAT: “Removed by Force: The Eviction of Hawai‘i’s Japanese Americans During WWII” (2023, 60 min.) by Ryan Kawamoto
TIME: 12:40 p.m. in the Untold Stories program

  • Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024 at AMC Kabuki 8 theater in San Francisco’s Japantown
  • Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024 San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin in San Jose’s Japantown
    WHO: With panelist and executive producer William Kaneko, a redress advocate associated with the Honolulu JACL (bottom left)
    VIRTUAL OPTION: There will also be a virtual option to watch the film From Feb. 24 through March 10 (does not include panel).

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