In Defense of Justice: Joseph Kurihara and the Japanese American Struggle for Equality

In Defense of Justice: Joseph Kurihara and the Japanese American Struggle for Equality

by Eileen Tamura

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ISBN-13: 9780252037788
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 09/30/2013
Series: Asian American Experience Series
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Eileen H. Tamura is a professor in the Department of Educational Foundations, College of Education, at the University of Hawai'i Manoa. She is the author of Americanization, Acculturation, and Ethnic Identity: The Nisei Generation in Hawaii and coauthor of The Rise of Modern Japan.

"A notable addition to the revisionist literature on the wartime removal and confinement of West Coast Japanese Americans."--Pacific Affairs

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In Defense of Justice

Joseph Kurihara and the Japanese American Struggle for Equality

By Eileen H. Tamura


Copyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-03778-8


Growing Up American

Joseph Yoshisuke Kurihara was born January 1, 1895, on the island of Kaua'i in what was called the Republic of Hawai'i. This was two years after the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy and three years before the U.S. Congress passed a joint resolution that resulted in the occupation of the islands as an American territory.

Kurihara's father, Kichizo Kurihara, was among the many farmers in southwestern Japan who had been hit hard by the economic transformations brought about by the Meiji government in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Like many others in the Oshima district of the Yamaguchi prefecture, he and his wife Haru responded positively to the call for plantation workers in the distant and unknown Hawaiian Islands. With high hopes, they left their home and their homeland and arrived in 1888 in what was then the Kingdom of Hawaii. The Kuriharas were one of the relatively few married couples who joined the migration of Japanese nationals to Hawai'i. Like the Chinese who came to the islands before them, the overwhelming majority of Japanese migrants, who became known as Issei, first generation, were men.

They were not the earliest migrant workers in the islands from Japan. An earlier group of 148 Japanese had arrived in the islands in 1868, but the Japanese government halted the emigration of laborers due to internal needs as well as political and diplomatic developments. Then in 1885, Japan and the Kingdom of Hawaii reached a new agreement governing the migration of Japanese nationals to the islands. As a result of this agreement, in the next twenty years, tens of thousands from Japan would arrive in Hawai'i, each obligated to a term, usually three years, of labor on sugar plantations.

The Kuriharas settled in Hanama'ulu, two miles northeast of the main town of Lihue, on the island of Kaua'i. Hanama'ulu was a component of the fifty-thousand-acre Lihue Plantation.

At the plantation Kichizo Kurihara found himself in the harvesting season facing the task of performing strenuous physical labor for ten to twelve hours a day under the scorching sun in dusty air amid razor-sharp cane leaves and buzzing wasps and yellow jackets. It was an oppressive, debilitating, onerous, relentless routine. In it he worked alongside Japanese and Chinese nationals, Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders, as well as Portuguese and a few Spaniards. (Portuguese, like the less numerous Spaniards, had been recruited as laborers and were therefore considered distinct from other Caucasians.) Germans, too, worked for the plantation, but as more highly paid skilled workers and field foremen. During this time the Kuriharas lived in a single room in a long hut in a camp in which Japanese were segregated from those of other ethnic groups.

The Japanese camp, like camps of other plantation workers, was situated in the midst of a vast sugar cane field. The Hanama'ulu site included a sugar mill6 and a plantation store at which families purchased food and household essentials, charging them to accounts identified not by the name of the family head but by his plantation identification number, called bango—a Japanese word meaning "number"—which had been issued to each plantation worker. To supplement the provisions at the plantation store, peddlers from nearby villages came with their wares and foodstuffs. Japanese families were especially fond of their own ethnic foods such as soy sauce, tofu, and Japanese sweets.

Kichizo Kurihara worked at Lihue Plantation from 1888 to 1890. Leaving the plantation was a momentous decision for someone who had little command of English and few skills beyond farm work and the pidgin language that foreign workers used to communicate across ethnic lines in Hawai'i. In making the decision Kurihara was rejecting the poor pay, grueling field labor, and harsh treatment of plantation foremen—luna—in favor of confronting the daunting challenges of unknown work ahead. In this he was like many other plantation laborers who left the plantation at the end of their three-year contract. By this time his wife was expecting their first child.

It is not clear what type of work Kichizo found after leaving Lihue Plantation, but all five of the couple's children were born on Kaua'i: Kikuno, a daughter, in 1890, followed in the next year by Taiji, a son; Kawayo, a second daughter, in 1893, then Yoshisuke (Joseph) in 1895, and finally Saiichi, the third son, two years later.

When Yoshisuke—he would give himself the name Joseph at age twenty—was two years old, the family moved to Honolulu, the seat of government of the Republic of Hawaii and the urban center of the island of O'ahu, in search of better economic opportunities. The next year the United States occupied the Hawaiian Islands and in 1900 incorporated them into the American union as a territory. The acquisition of the island chain, strategically located in the Pacific Ocean, was one result of a late-nineteenth-century U.S. imperialistic enterprise that included war with Spain and later the Philippines, with the resulting possession of the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the temporary control of Cuba.

Honolulu in 1897 was a bustling little city of twenty-nine thousand inhabitants, almost a third of the population of the archipelago. The Kuriharas settled there, in the Palama district, on Asylum Road, so-called because it led to the Oahu Insane Asylum. Nearby was O'ahu's Reform School. The family rented a simply constructed wooden cottage, one of many clustered in the area. The Kurihara residence was surrounded by homes of other struggling, working-class families. People cooked on wood-burning stoves and lit lamps fueled with kerosene. Ox carts and horse-drawn wagons traveled unpaved dirt roads, which sloshed with mud during and after heavy rains.

Located immediately west of downtown Honolulu, Palama was home to both middle-class and working-class families, many of them Native Hawaiians. About three years after the Kuriharas arrived in Honolulu, a catastrophic fire a few blocks away in the Chinatown section of downtown Honolulu changed the face of Palama and much of the rest of the surrounding community. In the fall of 1899 the world pandemic of bubonic plague reached Honolulu. The outbreak occurred in Chinatown, an overcrowded, squalid section of the city, and threatened to spread everywhere. In their attempt to eradicate it, health officials ordered the controlled burning of rat-infested tenements in Chinatown. One of the resulting fires set in January 1900 became a spreading conflagration when unexpectedly powerful and relentless winds whipped the flames out of control. In the aftermath, thirty-eight acres—about a fifth of downtown Honolulu—lay flattened and charred, and five thousand people—largely Chinese but also Japanese and Native Hawaiians—were left without homes, businesses, and personal belongings.

Government officials ordered the rapid building of two- and three-storied tenements in Palama, to which the displaced Chinatown residents were directed to move. The resulting over-crowded conditions in Palama disrupted the water system and caused the sewer systems to malfunction, and as a consequence, middle-class families moved out of the area. Thereafter Palama became known as the poor, "rough" part of town, where youth gangs picked on newcomers and got into fistfights.

Despite these problems, Palama maintained a vibrancy of its own. During the first decade of the twentieth century, the district—only a mile from busy Honolulu Harbor, which accommodated increased shipping of raw sugar to U.S. markets—offered a rich amalgam of rural and urban life. Within Palama and its adjoining Kalihi district stood a soda bottling company, a soy brewing company, a poi factory, churches, clusters of wooden cottages, tenement houses, and small family shops offering meals, produce, and supplies. Intermingled with these businesses and dwellings were fields of taro patches, rice paddies, banana groves, and farms of vegetables, chickens, pigs, and dairy cows. Only a mile or so away from the harbor, acres of sugar cane grew under the blazing sun.

After a decade on Asylum Road, the Kuriharas moved less than a mile away, to Houghtailing Road, named after a prominent family who lived on fifteen acres of land abutting the road. There the family rented half of a small duplex near King Street, an unpaved dirt thoroughfare busy with horse-drawn vehicles and fronted by family-operated shops and large-scale businesses. Kurihara's father drove a hack, one of many horse-drawn cabs that transported passengers. After a few years he became a drayman, an independent businessman who transported heavy loads in his own wagon. A few years later he opened a new business, listing himself in boldface in the city directory as a "Contractor for Stone Wall, Step and Cement Work, Dealer in Black and White Sand, Coral Rock, Foundation Stone and All Kinds of Soil."

The Kuriharas sent their children to public grammar school, but each of the three older ones attended for only a few years. Kurihara's eldest sister, Kikuno, wanted to continue her schooling, but she had to quit at the end of her third year to take care of her younger brothers, Yoshisuke (Joseph) and Saiichi. In time, Kikuno formed a close bond with her charges, and throughout her life she continued to maintain a protective and supportive relationship with them. By the time Kurihara decided that he wanted to continue in school, his parents had no objections. By then they were financially secure enough that they had no need for him to work to augment the family income.

Kurihara first attended Kaiulani School, less than a mile away from his home. The school had been named after the heir apparent to the Hawaiian kingdom, Princess Kaiulani, who died in 1899, the year the school opened. With 407 students enrolled in its first year, the school helped ease the overcrowding in other Honolulu schools. The island's Reform School, which had been on a lot adjacent to Kaiulani School, had been removed to a new location just before the grammar school opened.

Kaiulani School was an attractive, two-story brick-and-stucco structure with large windows. This solid, contemporary-styled building, like others constructed in the islands at the turn of the twentieth century, helped to demonstrate that Hawai'i was no backward way-station but on the contrary, a prosperous, progressive economy and polity in step with the United States. Such evidence ostensibly endorsed the efforts of the republic's white political and business leaders, who had orchestrated the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy and then engineered an occupation of the archipelago by the U.S. government. As part of their effort to show that Hawai'i was Americanized, these men enacted a law that provided for free public schooling and made schooling compulsory for children aged six to fifteen. As the schooling record of Kurihara's family demonstrated, however, the law was poorly enforced.

On his first day of school in September 1903, eight-year-old Kurihara walked barefoot to Kaiulani School, one of nineteen public grammar schools in a city of thirty-nine thousand inhabitants. Like his classmates, many of whom were also children of immigrants, Kurihara was a U.S. citizen because he was born in Hawai'i. According to the Organic Act, which created the Territory of Hawaii, all who had been citizens of the Republic of Hawaii—which meant those born or naturalized in the Hawaiian islands—were "declared to be citizens of the United States." In race-conscious America in the early twentieth century, however, the meaning of citizenship for racial and ethnic minorities was amorphous. Thus Kurihara and other Asian Americans were often treated as noncitizens or as "new" Americans. During the first half of the twentieth century, the unmodified word "American" referred to white Americans. The territory's public school reports, for example, included teachers' names and "nationality." The reports reserved the term "American" for Caucasians, while calling Asian Americans Japanese or Chinese.

As a first-grader, Kurihara shared his teacher with forty other students. By today's standards, such a student-teacher ratio is abysmal. But Kurihara was more fortunate in this respect than most of his peers, some of whom sat in classrooms with as many as sixty students. By the time Kurihara reached the eighth grade in 1910, overcrowding had become an even greater problem, with some classrooms in urban Honolulu having as many as fifty to eighty students. Kaiulani School's student body, which grew from 569 to 952 during the first decade of the twentieth century, reflected this increase in class size.

Kurihara's teachers were white and female, which was the norm in the territory's public schools. His classmates were predominantly Native Hawaiians and Chinese, with some Japanese (these terms refer to their ethnic background and not their nationality). While the proportions of ethnic groups varied from school to school, the predominant groups enrolled in the territory's public schools during the first two decades of the twentieth century were, in order of numerical size, Japanese, Native Hawaiians, Portuguese, and Chinese.

Those attending the territory's private schools that year, including Catholic schools, constituted 21 percent of the student population. Of the 5,525 private school students, 35 percent were Hawaiians or Part-Hawaiians, 21 percent Portuguese, 13 percent Japanese, and 12 percent Chinese. While Caucasians constituted 7.7 percent of the territory's population, their children were only 3 percent of public school students and 14 percent of private school students.

The ethnic diversity that surrounded Kurihara in his youth meant that, aside from his white teachers, most of his interactions were with people of color. This ethnic mix would change abruptly when he moved to northern California.

While Hawai'i included a unique combination of ethnic groups, ethnic diversity in schools in the major cities of the United States in this period was not unusual. In 1908, for example, 72 percent of all students in New York City schools were immigrants or children of immigrants, and the percentages in other cities were also high: 67 percent in Chicago, 64 percent in Boston, 60 percent in Cleveland, and 58 percent in San Francisco. In matters of curriculum, too, Hawai'i's public schools reflected U.S. trends. During each of his grammar school years, Kurihara's course of study included language, arithmetic, nature study, geography, physiology and hygiene, reading, writing, manual work, calisthenics, and music. In his fifth through eighth grades, history was also part of the curriculum.

When Kurihara was sixteen years old, he completed the eighth grade at Kaiulani School. He spent the next two years working to accumulate savings to pay for future schooling. Then in September 1913 he enrolled in the Catholic, all-male St. Francis School as a ninth grade student, with tuition a dollar a month. Why did he opt for a private school that charged tuition? The only public high school on O'ahu at the time, McKinley, was noted for its high academic standards, and was not only free but accessible to Kurihara by trolley car. The answer to that question is unknown, but the question itself invites speculations that go to the root of Kurihara's distinctiveness. The option he took was one of a series of radical, almost unique choices for a young Japanese American in 1913: to begin high school at the age of eighteen; to opt for a liberal arts rather than a vocational course of study; and to enroll in a Catholic school with a Western-oriented curriculum. In combination, these actions suggest a deliberate decision to reorient the course of his life in a most fundamental sense. He would become culturally an American rather than a Japanese or Japanese American, a Christian rather than a Buddhist or unbeliever. All of these choices are vital to self-identity, to self-creation, to making an individual into the person he or she wants to be, and to be identified as such.

None of this might have occurred to Kurihara on any conscious level. On the surface at least Kurihara might simply have been inspired by some of the things he had come to know and believe about Catholicism. Yet here, at the point at which he became seriously attracted to Catholicism, may be the pivot of Kurihara's life, the turn that set him apart from his Nisei peers, whose typical life course he had heretofore generally followed.

Situated near his home at the corner of College Walk and Kukui Street, St. Francis was a charity school attached to St. Louis College, a high school run by the Brothers of Mary and known to give its students a sound education. In his class of forty-six students, Kurihara was the only one of Japanese descent, but Chinese Americans constituted 44 percent of his classmates, while 37 percent were whites and 17 percent were Hawaiians and Part-Hawaiians. Chinese immigrants had arrived in Hawai'i a generation earlier than the Japanese, and they and their offspring were more open to Christianity than the Japanese.


Excerpted from In Defense of Justice by Eileen H. Tamura. Copyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Foreword Roger Daniels ix

Preface xi

Acknowledgments xiii

Introduction 1

Chapter 1 Growing Up American 9

Chapter 2 A Yank in France, a Jap in America 24

Chapter 3 To Manzanar 39

Chapter 4 Resistance in Manzanar 51

Chapter 5 Stepping Back 68

Chapter 6 Isolating Citizen Dissidents 81

Chapter 7 Turmoil at Tule 96

Chapter 8 Renunciation 115

Chapter 9 Japan 132

Afterword 146

Notes 153

Glossary 199

Bibliography 201

Index 223

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