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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, June 4, 2004

Hawai'i internees tell real story

By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer

There's much that Harry Urata, 85, has tried to forget about his two-plus years in a hot, arid wartime internment camp in 'Ewa. The day the federal agents picked him up to take him there, however, he remembers very clearly.

From left, former internees Chojiro Kageura, Harry Urata and Shozo Takahashi visit an exhibit on Hawai'i's World War II camps at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai'i.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

He was a boarding student at Mid-Pacific Institute and, in one of the great ironies of his life, was sitting in a class on democracy at the time.

"The principal said, 'Harry Urata? Can you come out to my office?' " he recalled. "When I came out, I saw the two FBI agents, and they handed me a warrant of arrest."

Urata's English was good, but there was one word in the warrant he didn't understand: inimical. He later learned that it meant he was suspected of being antagonistic. An enemy.

Nobody should forget a moment like that, said Keiko Bonk, director of the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai'i, which is why the center is hosting an exhibit on the nearly 1,500 Americans of Japanese ancestry interned here during World War II. Many assume it was a Mainland experience, Bonk said, so the community needs "to get clarity."

"The survivors don't believe the story was ever really told," Bonk said.

Urata and two of his lifelong buddies — Shozo Takahashi, 89, and Chojiro Kageura, 83 — took a trip yesterday to the camp location, more properly known as Honouliuli. It was their first such excursion since the the war ended, so they insisted on doing it away from the glare of cameras.

Later, they agreed it had not been too upsetting a visit. Grass and trees have taken the place of wooden military shacks, cots and fences, and only the hot 'Ewa weather remained to remind them of that time.

Exhibit explores internment

• "Dark Clouds Over Paradise: The Hawai'i Internees Story"

• Exhibit opening: 1-4 p.m. tomorrow

• Community Gallery, Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai'i

• Free

• 945-7633

• For a full series schedule, see tomorrow's Island Life section.

There is their friendship, too, reinforced a dozen years ago when Urata decided to unite fellow internees as the Taisho Boys, a singing ensemble that performs traditional Japanese songs. As part of the cultural center's internment series, they will relive some of their memories, and perform some of those songs in a June 26 program starting at 10 a.m.

They're free to celebrate their culture now, although many of the people who were investigated for internment in Hawai'i were those with the closest bonds to their culture.

"I was dual citizen," said Kageura, who worked for the Chinatown wholesale grocers Fujii Junichi Shoten. "They told me it was because I have strong family in Japan, was working for a Japanese store and was educated in Japan."

Takahashi taught primary school in Japan before returning home and teaching at a Japanese language school in Wai'alae.

Urata, Takahashi and Kageura were what is known as kibei: those of Japanese ancestry who were born in the United States but were sent back to Japan for education. That, amplified by the fact that military training was part of the basic education in Japan, focused suspicion on them — although they were told internment was for their own good, they said.

"They say they worry maybe the Japanese army or navy would land over here," Takahashi said. "They say, 'We protect you.' "

Takahashi and Urata were the first to arrive, soon after the original Sand Island internment camp was shut down and the Honouliuli facility was built in March 1943. Kageura arrived the next January.

Conditions were tolerable, they said — the food, front-line soldier fare, was actually quite good, once they swapped the potatoes for rice — but there was no consolation for separation from kin. Internees in the all-men's camp had visits from family twice a month. Takahashi's first glimpse of his infant daughter had to wait a few months until his wife could come by bus.

The subject of racial profiling has grown timely again with the passage of the Patriot Act, Bonk said, so the hope is that exhibit visitors will see the parallels "with open eyes and evaluate what's going on now in terms of our own civil rights."

Reach Vicki Viotti at vviotti@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8053.