It is one of the greatest injustices the U.S. government has ever visited upon its own people, across the country and right here on Hawaii Island.
Innocent Americans were imprisoned, families were torn apart and much of the lasting damage — to individuals and their relatives, businesses and reputations — has never been fully repaired.
And yet, many of the specifics of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II have been lost to time.
More than 110,000 residents and citizens of Japanese descent across the nation were detained and held following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Less than 2,000 of them resided in Hawaii at the time, and yet historians say complete records detailing who was detained and all the locations that held them have been lost or no longer exist.
In an effort to reclaim and reinvigorate discussion of that history, Honolulu-based filmmaker Ryan Kawamoto partnered in 2009 with the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii to produce the first, full-length documentary dedicated to the experience of Hawaii’s Japanese Americans during and in the aftermath of the war. Despite the documentary being completed in 2012, the group continues to find new evidence and hear new stories from surviving relatives, deepening the public’s understanding of the impact the U.S. internment policy had on Hawaii.
Last week, East Hawaii residents were provided a pair of screenings of the film, as well as a guided tour of the Kilauea Military Camp facilities at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which served as a detention site for more than 106 Japanese Americans living on the island.
According to Kawamoto’s film, “The Untold Story: Internment of Japanese Americans in Hawaii,” Japanese immigrants and their descendants in Hawaii were taken into custody on a much smaller scale than in other Japanese communities around the country because of economic concerns. Japanese farmers and other workers made up an enormous part of the state’s labor force, and the War Department decided only high-profile individuals, such as teachers, community leaders and religious heads, would be taken from their families and placed in detention camps around the state and later on the mainland.
While fewer Hawaii residents were detained, the result of this selective imprisonment created a difficult situation for them when they were released. Many of those who hadn’t been imprisoned thought those who had must have done something to deserve it, despite the fact not a single internee was ever charged with a crime, Kawamoto said.
“They didn’t want guilt by association. The detainees carried a stigma, and no one came to their defense,” he said Tuesday during the tour of Kilauea Military Camp.
The camp is one of three known locations on Hawaii Island where detainees were held. The other two that have so far been verified include Waiakea Prison and Hilo Independent Japanese Language School. Kawamoto and Japanese Cultural Center President Carole Hayashino said Tuesday afternoon that while they were visiting the national park to share information with the public, they also came to continue their search for additional sites.
“We’re asking for the public’s help in finding these places,” Hayashino said. “Many people never talked about it (being held in the camps). But there are more stories out there, more information.”
The pair were set to visit an area near Waiakea, where a landowner thought another camp might have been located.
“We really don’t have any evidence at this point,” Kawamoto said, “so we’re going out to look at it.”
Many of the attendees of the film and tour said they were surprised to learn Japanese Americans were interned on the Big Island, adding that getting to hear the stories and see the locations where they happened shed light on a dark time in the history of the United States.
Gordon Ching, who teaches business education at Hawaii Community College in Hilo, said he couldn’t help but think about the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as he learned about the internment camp.
“You ask yourself, ‘Can history repeat itself?’” he said. “Yes it can. Often, you can’t prevent panic in times of war, and I think future generations need to remember this, and shouldn’t have knee-jerk reactions.”
Email Colin M. Stewart at email@example.com.