This article appears in issue 37: Oppression and Resistance

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on the 7th December 1941, thousands of people of Japanese descent were rounded up by the United States’ army, FBI and local police. Those detained included leaders of the immigrant community such as Buddhist priests, language teachers, a handful of women, Nisei (Japanese Americans whose parents were immigrants) and Kibei (Japanese Americans who received their education in Japan). The Kibei were seen as some of the most dangerous Japanese Americans as people were fearful that their time spent in Japan would make them disloyal to America. The people detained were often told they would only be gone for a few hours, but the vast majority ended up being detained for the entirety of the second world war. 

Those detained were primarily sent to the Honolulu Immigration Station where they were granted hearings as a privilege and were asked who they would support if war ensued between Japan and America. After the detainees were officially interned, they were taken to Sand Island Internment Camp, which first opened on the 8th December 1941. The camp housed approximately 300 Issei (Japanese born men), Nisei, as well as a few women. Sand Island served as the principal transfer and holding site for Hawai’i’s civilian detainees for fifteen months before the camp closed in March 1943. The remaining one hundred and forty-nine detainees were taken to a new facility: Honouliuli.

Honouliuli Internment Camp opened in 1943 and was Hawai’i’s largest and longest operating internment camp. It was spread across approximately 160 acres and contained 175 buildings, fourteen guard towers and four hundred tents. Built in a hidden gulch, in West Oahu, on a former sugarcane field, the camp removed Japanese Americans from plain sight and due to its remote location it was only rediscovered in 2002. President Barack Obama proclaimed the camp a national monument in 2015. Honouliuli has often been referred to as Hell Valley by former internees given that the gulch trapped heat and moisture; this also led to a large population of mosquitoes in the camp. 

The internees were housed in barracks which each held eight people; in front of each was a small Japanese garden cultivated by the internees. Those who were not arrested until later in the war, such as Shomei Kaneshiro, lived in tents until other internees were transferred to camps on the mainland such as Tule Lake, California and Santa Fe, New Mexico, due to an overwhelming number of internees. 

Although the internees did not have to endure forced labour, most carried out multiple jobs to pass the time. One such example is Shozo Takahashi; he grew vegetables, worked as a carpenter, and helped out in the kitchen. He noted that each day he had to count the number of spoons given out to the internees to make sure that they were all collected at the end of meal time, given that one man, whilst at Sand Island, had sharpened a spoon and tried to stab himself with it. For each hour worked, the internees would receive ten cents which they could save up and use in the camp shop which opened weekly; internees had the opportunity to buy cigarettes, juice, and other such items. 

Some internees cultivated a vegetable garden outside of the enclosure of Honouliuli under the watchful eyes of the guards simply to be on the other side of the barbed wire. Additionally there was an opportunity for the internees to become ‘Taiki butai’ (standby troops) who voluntarily cut down Koa (native Hawaiian trees) to try and reduce the number of mosquitoes in the camp as well as to leave the camp for a few hours. 

The close family of internees were allowed to visit once or twice a month. Visitors were not permitted to bring items such as money, food, or cameras, they were searched on arrival to ensure that such items were not brought onto the site. Although the visits lifted the spirits of the internees many noted that the worst part of being detained was the breakdown of family structure. Sam Nishimura mentioned his family in his diary with regularity and made note of the birthdays and holidays he had missed, as well as his pains at having to watch his children grow up from afar. After the war ended a national survey was completed and Sansei (third generation Japanese American) who’s fathers had been interned scored lowest on the positive impact scale of the war. 

Towards the end of 1943, the first of Honouliuli’s internees began to be released. Hawaiian internment camps were being phased out as it seemed unlikely that the Japanese would attack Hawaii once more. Before the internees were released, they had to attend a hearing and be cleared for probationary release. If they failed to be cleared, they would be transferred to a camp on the mainland, the conditions of which were much harsher than on the Islands. After their release internees were either told to visit their parole sponsor once a week or report to the military government once a month at Iolani Palace. Those on probationary release had to inform the state of what they were doing and request permission if they wanted to leave their area. The majority of Japanese American internees in Hawaii were released just before the end of the war in 1945.

By Sophie Stanford

Image: via Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai’i