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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, September 16, 2001

How bigots 'cleansed' Legislature in 1942

By Bob Dye
Kailua-based historian and writer

Hawai'i citizens once learned what can happen when prejudice overturns reason. Lest we forget, Remember Pearl Harbor and the 1942 territorial election.

Before entering the Sand island Internment Camp, internees were fingerprinted by the military. Approximately 1,800 Americans of Japanese ancestry were held by the military in camps in Hawai'i.

Advertiser library photo • 1942

"It was inevitable that someone should bring up the question of the autumn elections," a Honolulu editorialist noted in June 1942. "It was inevitable that the politicians — out of office — should demand that the elections be held. It was inevitable that many of those in office, for the sake of appearances, should advocate holding the elections — as usual. As usual? A bit funny, that.

"Nothing in these islands can be done as usual. ...We are at war. Life's routine isn't the same.

"It can't be.

"Why an election, anyhow?" he asked. "Why try to change horses during an emergency?"

He concluded, "Let us concentrate on winning the war — and when it is won will be time enough to go back to the luaus, the public speeches, the festivals, and all the ho'omalimali that goes with elections in Hawai'i."

Despite impassioned prose to halt them, it was decided that the elections would be held.

Why? A chance to protect democracy?

No, an editorialist explained, because of the "prospect of eliminating Americans of Japanese ancestry who have in recent years been showing increasing strength in the Legislature and the county boards of supervisors."

He informed readers: "There is only one Japanese-American in the Territorial Senate of 15 members. He is Sanji Abe, a holdover who would not have to campaign. Abe won his seat on the Island of Hawai'i in 1940 over a vigorous opposition that capitalized on the fact that although he had made application, he was unable to shed his dual citizenship before the campaign began.

Thomas Sakakihara, one of six House members of Japanese ancestry in the Territorial Legislature, was interned.

Advertiser library photo • April 21, 1954

"Six of the 30 house members in 1940-1941 were of Japanese ancestry. One of them, Thomas Sakakihara, also of the Island of Hawai'i, has been interned, the Army announced, and it is doubtful whether the other five would enter a campaign now, although no word has been spoken against their loyalty.

"Hawai'i County also had two Japanese-American supervisors, but one of them, Frank Ishii, went to internment with Sakakihara. Kaua'i county also has two supervisors, on a board of seven, who are of Japanese ancestry. There are none in Honolulu and Maui counties."

Did the bigots succeed?

One of the Kaua'i supervisors, George Watase, who had served since 1936, declined to run for re-election. He feared his candidacy would prejudice the community against the Japanese: "What's already boiling should not boil some more." Other Japanese politicians felt the same. Only one Japanese ran for office in 1942.

The 1942 election, to our shame, cynically "cleansed" the Legislature and county boards of supervisors of Americans of Japanese ancestry.

In February 1943, Sen. Sanji Abe, who was in his sixth month of detention, resigned from the Territorial Legislature. The bigots won.

Exclusion of loyal Americans from political participation is wrong-headed. Our stupidity of nearly 60 years ago should be remembered by anguished Americans today.

Even though they were not responsible for the attack, Arabs in America fear a backlash against them. Pray that it does not happen at all. But as voters, we can make sure the ballot box is not used against them.

Holdover senator Sanji Abe resigned from the Territorial Legislature in February 1943, the sixth month of his detention.

Advertiser library photo • June 4, 1968

Although Hawai'i's Arab community is small (about a thousand folks belong to the Muslim Association of Hawai'i), they must be encouraged to fully participate in the next election, not discouraged. Exercise of our first freedom by all of us is paramount to preserving this most important of our democratic institutions.

The 2002 election gives us the chance to affirm a precious civil liberty. As patriotic Americans gave blood for the wounded, so too should they register to vote for those good and devoted citizens who run for public office. Those men and women, though courageous, need a mandate from us to do what is just and right in the trying days ahead.

Politics has its roots in reality. Terrorism is not a practicable alternative to the peaceful solution of problems.

On this first Sunday after "America's bloodiest day," it's truly difficult to think about campaigns for the next election. The horrific events of Tuesday make campaigning for office seem trivial. And almost to a candidate none of them did.

On that day our politicians were patriots, not partisans. There were tears in their eyes, not blood. Respecting their own feelings of shock and sadness, and sensitive to the feelings of their fellow citizens, they muted campaigns to mourn the dead. They are decent people.

Gov. Ben Cayetano established a proper tone in his televised message that morning. Although recognizing the "enormous anguish" of the entire nation, he simply told us in a calm and quiet voice what we needed to know in order to carry out our personal responsibilities on that terrible day. Ben was at his best.

We are now urged by the president to return to our normal routines and usual interests. As the editorialist wrote in 1942, "The fun of a campaign with its flower leis, delectable luaus, unlimited liquid cheer, gay hula dancing, and night-long festivity is the mainspring of normal Island politics."

Since the 1954 campaigns, exercise of the right to vote has been the true strength of Hawai'i.

Note: The quotes from "editorialist" are from Hawai'i Chronicles III: World War Two in Hawai'i, from the pages of Paradise of the Pacific.