• The Forgotten Internment of Japanese Americans in Hawaii

    A Dark Chapter in the History of Religious Persecution

    A memorable scene in Martin Scorsese’s 2016 Academy Award-nominated film, Silence, set in 1670 near Nagasaki, depicts the interrogation of four prisoners by Japanese officials determined to stamp out Christianity in their country. The scene, witnessed by a Portuguese Catholic missionary named Rodrigues, unfolds with one of the officials telling the prisoners that their interrogations and tortures will end if they simply step on an image of Christ—a practice called fumi-e (literally, stepping on an image)—placed on the ground in front of them. “This is just a formality, really. Just one step, that’s all,” the official reassures him. “We’re not asking you to do it sincerely. It’s only for appearances. Just putting your foot on the thing won’t betray your faith, whatever it is.”

    In Honolulu in December 1941, when an Army interrogator asked 21-year-old David Kobata, an American citizen, to step on an image of the Japanese Emperor to prove his loyalty to the United States, the parallel to the ancient Japanese practice of fumi-e was not lost on Kobata.

    After the Japanese attack, the U.S. Army had declared martial law on the islands of Hawai‘i, and rounded up not only enemy aliens or Japanese nationals, but also American citizens of Japanese descent. Kobata had been working as a truck driver at Pearl Harbor and other waterfront areas, but authorities had deemed him a security risk and swiftly confiscated his truck-operator license. Though American-born and raised, he had spent some years in Hiroshima Prefecture during his youth, living with his devout Buddhist grandmother. Three of his brothers were living in Japan when war broke out, and his mother was stranded there, having recently traveled with his deceased father’s ashes to perform Buddhist rites in her husband’s hometown temple. As a so-called kibei (an American-born citizen of Japanese descent, educated to some extent in Japan), Kobata was a target of the animus and suspicion directed toward anyone assumed to have dubious or split loyalties.

    “You, David Kobata, say you pledge your loyalty to the United States. Can you prove it to me by stepping on the Emperor’s picture?” the Army interrogator asked.

    “Oh, yes, I will, but under one condition,” Kobata said. “What is the condition?”

    “You lay down President Roosevelt’s picture on the floor and you step on that, too. If you do, I will step on the Emperor’s picture.”

    “Why do you want that?”

    “Even though it is President Roosevelt’s picture, I don’t believe that you are going to be disloyal to the President,” Kobata told the interrogator. “How can you take it as proof that if I step on the Emperor’s picture I am proving my loyalty to the country America?”

    Kobata later recalled, “They let me go, but when I came out of the office I had cold sweat, because I thought that if this was in Japan and I had said that, I think I would be dead by now. But, I said to myself, this is America. They respect the freedom of speech.”

    Nonetheless, like other American Buddhists at the time who persisted in believing both in their religion and in their American constitutional rights, Kobata was subjected to numerous interrogations by the Army, the Office of Naval Intelligence, and the FBI. He maintained his loyalty to the United States despite his ethnic, cultural, and religious connections to Japan.


    Young Japanese American adults like Kobata who had spent time living in Japan—the kibei—were deemed particularly suspect by the military authorities. In the first year and a half of the war, the Army’s Counter Intelligence Corps focused on the “approximately 5,000” kibei living in Hawai‘i as well as the “large and active Japanese fishing fleet,” while simultaneously launching “projects involving Buddhist and Shinto priests, consular agents, and language school officials.” Ultimately, a select group of individuals, composed of roughly two-thirds issei and one-third nisei (almost all kibei), were rounded up in Hawai‘i, many of them influential members of the community. In a military intelligence memorandum “prepared to assist agents investigating Japanese to evaluate properly the loyalties of the individuals investigated,” the 14 key factors identified for determining whether to intern kibei included their religious affiliation. Being Buddhist—while being American—was a red flag for investigators.

    Kobata managed to escape arrest, but other American citizens on the Hawaiian Islands were not as fortunate. A number of American citizen Shinto and Buddhist priests—but no Christian ministers—were taken into custody and interned as if they were enemy aliens. Since habeas corpus was suspended, any civilian, including American citizens, could be confined indefinitely without charge as long as they resided on the islands.

    Among them, the Buddhist nun Ryūto Tsuda (also known as Shinsho Hirai), a charismatic female leader with a reputation for healing abilities, stands out. She was born in Kona, Hawai‘i, but trained as a nun at Tōdaiji Temple in Nara, Japan (leading her to become the first official “missionary” of that temple’s sect to America). Despite her U.S. citizenship, government officials considered her a national security threat because she had studied for four years in Japan and was suspected by the authorities of praying for Japan’s success at war while at the temple. At one of her hearings later during the war, the parole board led by Lt. Col. Edward Massee, found her to be “bright, sharp, and shrewd . . . a religious woman of the fanatical type. In conclusion, the Board believes that she is dangerous to the public peace, safety, and internal security of the United States.” The Buddhist nun was one of nine ordained American Buddhist or Shinto clerics, including a number of other females, thought to be of such a danger to national security that they were arrested in the weeks and months following the Pearl Harbor attack.

    The early roundup of the Buddhist leadership, whether citizen or not, was a harbinger of a broader persecution of non-Christian religions on the Hawaiian Islands. Under martial law, the misguided presumption that Japanese American Christians were necessarily more loyal to the United States became increasingly apparent, and the historical animus against Buddhism and Shinto intensified.

    Although the military authorities in Hawai‘i would ultimately forgo a mass incarceration of the Japanese like the one carried out in the continental United States, this outcome was not assured in the initial days and weeks after the attack. On December 18th, Navy Secretary Frank Knox went so far as to recommend that all Japanese aliens be removed from the island of Oahu, where Pearl Harbor was located, and detained on another island. The Army’s chief of staff, General George Marshall, similarly recommended the eventual incarceration of the entirety of the Japanese American population, and the immediate removal of the most dangerous 20,000 people to either the island of Molokai or “a concentration camp located on the U.S. mainland.”

    However, the new commander of Hawai‘i’s martial law government, Lieutenant General Delos C. Emmons, cited the logistical difficulty of removing such a large number of people, and his view prevailed when Secretary of War Stimson agreed that such a massive relocation would be impractical. Still, fears of another attack by the Japanese military and of fifth column activity by Japanese Americans, one of the largest ethnic groups on the islands, led officials to take measures beyond the initial arrests to restrict, constrain, and surveil the community.

    For much of the war, the Hawaiian Islands were under strict blackout orders from 6 pm to 7 am. Under martial law, this nighttime curfew, as well as the requirements to carry new government-issued ID cards and to submit to mail censorship and long-distance telephone call monitoring, were shared by everyone on the islands. Gas masks were issued to all civilians, including children, with instructions to carry them everywhere. The son of Rev. Tadao Kouchi, of the Lanai Hongwanji Mission on Maui, recalled: “Living in Lanai changed. We had to be fitted for gas masks, and sleep with no lights on/ [Bulbs were] painted black, with the exception of the bottom. I guess they didn’t want to show the Japanese bombers where we lived.”

    Strict observance of blackouts was required. At the Puna Hongwanji temple, American soldiers shot their rifles at a flashing light in the tower after one insisted it was a spy sending coded light signals to the Japanese in violation of the blackout regulations. Explaining that the tower was a columbarium where the deceased members’ ashes were kept, a lay Buddhist member of the temple led the soldiers up the stairs, where they found a large mirror, reflecting the moonlight.

    The early roundup of the Buddhist leadership, whether citizen or not, was a harbinger of a broader persecution of non-Christian religions on the Hawaiian Islands.

    In addition to these general regulations, military authorities applied restrictions specific to Japanese nationals residing on the islands. They were forbidden to travel beyond a ten-mile radius of their homes, or to change residences or occupations without registering the change and securing the approval of the Provost Marshal General’s office. Members of the U.S. Army Signal Corps conducted house-to-house searches for contraband in Japanese neighborhoods. In their confusion, some Japanese families voluntarily turned in precious family heirlooms, such as samurai swords and kimonos, to their local police stations.

    Because the Japanese were prohibited from owning boats and made to surrender their crafts, 700 fishermen lost their livelihoods. Authorities on the islands also banned issei, and a number of nisei, from other types of jobs, such as photography and teaching. And despite their American citizenship, nisei were compelled to wear so-called black badges issued by the military government. Actually ringed in black, these badges prominently featured the word RESTRICTED, and in many cases prevented Japanese Americans from returning to jobs located in sensitive areas. Ignoring the constitutional protection of religious freedom, the Office of the Military Governor’s official policy was to “discourage Japanese religious activities other than Christian.” This policy would continue until April 1944.

    Thus, during the first several years of the war, Buddhists and Shintoists were restricted from practicing their religion, and had to petition the Army’s G-2 intelligence division for permission, most often denied, to meet at their temples and shrines. Several Shinto shrines, such as the Izumo Taisha shrine in Honolulu, were simply confiscated and declared “gifts” to the city and county of Honolulu. On the island of Kauai, the Military Governor’s Office coordinated the closure of the island’s Japanese-language schools with the dissolution of Buddhist temples. Ultimately, 13 of the island’s 19 Buddhist temples were eliminated.

    In the midst of the general suppression of Buddhism, the white priest Rev. Ernest Hunt was the one of a handful of Buddhist leaders who managed to obtain an exemption from General Emmons to hold public services. On one occasion at a Buddhist temple in Olaa, on the Big Island, a military official barged into the temple during the middle of a service Hunt was officiating. The officer grabbed Rev. Hunt’s priestly robes and questioned what he was doing there, especially as a “Caucasian,” and backed down only when Hunt showed him Emmons’s letter. With a portable Buddhist altar (butsudan) on his back, Hunt trekked to remote plantations and even “ministered to the forgotten patients of a tuberculosis sanitarium” as the rare individual given permission to serve tens of thousands of Buddhists on the islands.

    While serving the U.S. government as a staffer in military intelligence, the nisei Buddhist priest Rev. Egan Yoshikami also managed to receive permission to conduct occasional funerals at his sect’s head temple in Honolulu. And the female issei Buddhist priest Yoshiko Tatsuguchi took care of the Shinshū Kyōkai Mission in Honolulu, substituting for her interned husband. With the quiet consent of the congregation, she hid her priestly status during the war so that she could avoid internment and care for her six children.

    The remnants of the Buddhist leadership who were not arrested operated in an anti-Buddhist environment engineered by the military government and aided by social pressure from nongovernmental groups. On December 18th, 1941, the Hawaii Territorial Office of Civilian Defense started up a civilian group called the Morale Section, made up of representatives of various ethnic groups. The Morale Section, in turn, formed many subcommittees, including ones on each of the main islands to function as intermediaries between the Japanese American community and the Army. At first, these “Emergency Service Committees” seemed reasonable to the majority-Buddhist Japanese American community, but when Committee members criticized anything that might appear culturally un-American, many felt under attack. One of the main Morale Section leaders, school principal Shigeo Yoshida, urged the elimination of “all vestiges of alien influences and practices which are inconsistent with American ideals and practices and which retard the full Americanization, in a cultural sense, of our group and obstruct our full integration with the rest of the community.”

    Anything deemed too Japanese was a target. The most obvious symbol, the Japanese flag, was banned under martial law in Hawai‘i. At the Shinto shrine in Hilo, the Daijingū, the Japanese flag was painted black for the duration of the war. Also in Honolulu, city and county workers tore down the Japanese Hō-ō (celestial bird of good tidings) at the Waikiki Natatorium, and the tokonoma (Japanese alcove) at the Honolulu Academy of Arts was dismantled.

    Like the military authorities, these civilian groups encouraged Japanese Americans to demonstrate their loyalty by attending Christian churches. The Morale Committee conducted a “Speak American” campaign, advocated for the dissolution of Japanese-language schools, and proposed to the authorities that Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, which they regarded as hubs of a “foreign” religion, be shut down until after the war.

    Buddhists were forced to contend with these echoes of the prewar tensions with Japanese American Christians. Indeed, the leaders of the prewar anti-Buddhist campaigns, such as Christian pastor Takie Okumura and his son Umetarō, worked closely with authorities and plantation owners to close Buddhist temples during the war. According to Rev. Hunt, the Okumuras even threatened individual Buddhists by putting “pressure on the Buddhist youth with implied threats of the concentration camps unless the children attend [Christian] church.”

    Like the military authorities, these civilian groups encouraged Japanese Americans to demonstrate their loyalty by attending Christian churches.

    The threats were not just verbal. In the first months after Pearl Harbor, Buddhist statuary and temples on the islands suffered a rash of attacks. White American soldiers vandalized the stone bodhisattva Jizō statues in Wahiawa and Kawailoa. Another Jizō statue, installed outside of Ryūsenji Temple, was thrown into the river. Soldiers also used the Buddhist statue at Kaahapai for target practice.

    Anti-Buddhist violence also came in the form of arson, which struck the Papaikou Hongwanji Mission on the Big Island and Ewa Hongwanji Mission on Oahu. In another suspected arson case, the Pahala Hongwanji on the Big Island burned down. Temple members managed to run into the main hall just in time to save the Buddha statue and altar accessories. The wife of that temple’s priest recalled installing the rescued Buddha statue at a nearby temple of a different sect: “Upon seeing the figure of Amida Buddha safely housed in the Shingon-shu temple Taishi-do next door, I folded my hands in gassho, tears rolling down my cheek.” After the temple burned, local Buddhist families asked the plantation manager if a plantation building could be used to house a Buddhist Sunday School for the children. He told them, “There is no need to have two Sunday Schools. The Christian Sunday School should be enough.”

    Before it burned, the Pahala temple had been forcibly taken over by the military, as were dozens of other temples. Among them was Kona’s Zen temple Daifukuji. One of its members, who also owned a popular restaurant in Kona, recalled:

    The temple was filled with soldiers. At night, there were blackouts so the soldiers had to use candles and were afraid of ghosts. They came over to my family’s store to buy cokes. When my restaurant was opened in 1942, some soldiers were still around so we served them chicken hekka two or three times in the hall . . . My mother used to say to me, “Kannonsama [the bodhisattva Kannon] is crying” because there were only soldiers in the temple.

    Many of the temples seized by the military were vandalized. The Jōdo Buddhist temple on Makiki Street in Honolulu, which was converted into an infantry battalion headquarters, was ransacked, and the Hilo Hongwanji Temple was desecrated and looted by soldiers. Although the theft of the temple’s equipment was reported to the authorities, no compensation was made. And when a white soldier tried to steal the Kishimonjin statue at the Nichiren Mission of Hawaii, a devout laywoman “frantically shouted” at the soldier and chased him away, and then began guarding the temple at night to protect it.

    It would fall to these people—ordinary laypeople, the wives of interned priests, the handful of elderly or infirm issei priests, and nisei and white convert priests—to protect and maintain a semblance of Buddhist life under martial law. With its leadership arrested and imprisoned, new segments of the community kept Buddhism alive in the face of violent attacks on temples, official military suppression of their religion, and pervasive social pressure to avoid displaying any symbol or engaging in any activity associated with Buddhist or Japanese culture.


    Adapted from American Sutra: A Story of Faith and Freedom in the Second World War by Duncan Ryūken Williams, published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2019 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

    Duncan Ryūken Williams
    Duncan Ryūken Williams
    A renowned scholar of Buddhism, Duncan Ryūken Williams has taught at the University of California, Berkeley, University of California, Irvine, and Trinity College, and is now the Director of the Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture at the University of Southern California. He has published five other books, including The Other Side of Zen.

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