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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Thursday, May 5, 2005

Portrait of an era

 •  Ariyoshi's thoughts on key moments in time

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

It should have come as no surprise to producers of the latest Biography Hawai'i offering, "Koji Ariyoshi," when their principal subject suddenly appeared, Zelig-like, in a few seconds of 60-year-old b-roll footage.

Koji Ariyoshi at his typewriter in 1972. He died in 1976.

Advertiser library photo • Feb. 29, 1972

Koji Ariyoshi and his wife, Taeko, in front of the flower shop they opened in the late 1950s.

Biography Hawai'i

Additional reading: "From Kona to Yenan — The Political Memoirs of Koji Ariyoshi," edited by Alice M. Beechert and Edward D. Beechert
The producers had been looking for some way to visually represent the years Ariyoshi spent in Yenan, China, working as a U.S. military observer during World War II.

A fortuitous tip led them to Honolulu resident Fay Domke, whose husband, Paul, had years ago acquired from the Hoover Institution a copy of film shot in the Chinese province during that time.

"We sent ... (the film) to the Mainland to get cleaned up," said series scholar and producer Craig Howes. "And when we got it back we saw that it was high-quality footage and — holy smoke — Koji's in it!"

Surprising? Not really. From his birth on a coffee farm in Kona in 1914 until his passing in 1976, Ariyoshi had always displayed an uncanny knack for being present at pivotal moments in Hawaiian, U.S. and world history.

Largely overlooked in chronicles of modern Hawai'i, he advocated an expansive vision of social justice formulated through his experiences as a laborer, student, World War II internee, military language specialist, journalistic muckraker, accused communist propagandist and mentor to a generation of Hawai'i activists.

Ariyoshi's improbable odyssey is captured in "Biography Hawai'i: Koji Ariyoshi," airing at 8 tonight on PBS Hawai'i.

Like previous "Biography Hawai'i" subjects Maiki Aiu Lake, Harriet Bouslog and Princess Ruth Ke'elikilani, Ariyoshi provides a perspective from which to examine elements of Hawai'i's story.

"We wanted someone to represent the ... (Americans of Japanese ancestry) experience and he had such an interesting narrative and such a different spin to the idea of the AJA experience," Howes said. "He was as 'from here' as you can possibly get, yet he had a very international view of every situation. All politics was not local for him. To him, all politics is the entire world."

Franklin Odo, a former University of Hawai'i professor and director of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program, spoke to the importance of acknowledging Ariyoshi's left-of-center standing in the documentary.

"There is a danger that what looks like a monumental success story of AJAs in Hawai'i will overshadow some of the dissident elements," Odo said.

The documentary meticulously traces Ariyoshi's then-radical views that were shaped by the injustices he witnessed growing up.

Ariyoshi's parents came to Hawai'i as indentured workers under contract to a sugar plantation. When their obligations were fulfilled they tried to assert their independence by leasing a coffee farm, but they were forced to buy supplies on credit from the coffee company at exorbitant costs, the same company that would in turn buy their harvests at the lowest possible price.

With his father debilitated by illness, Ariyoshi's mother was forced to care for the 8-acre farm largely by herself.


1914 — Born in Kona

1931 — Graduated from Kona Waena High School

1937 — Attended the University of Hawai'i

1940 — Received scholarship to the University of Georgia in Athens, Ga.

1942 — Interned at Manzanar War Relocation Center; enlisted in Military Intelligence Service

1944-46 — Served in India, Burma and China

1948 — Starts Honolulu Record

1951 — Charged under Smith Act with Hawaii Seven; conviction overturned in 1958.

1970s — Taught at UH Ethnic Studies program

Ariyoshi graduated from Konawaena High School but put off college for six years to help pay his family's debts. He bounced between the Big Island and O'ahu, taking jobs at a cannery, an ice cream plant, construction companies, business offices and the docks, where his interest in labor unions as a means of improving the quality of life for laborers was stoked.

He attended pro-labor speeches at A'ala Park and found inspiration in the collectivist ethic of the YMCA.

When he finally made it to UH, Ariyoshi found himself alienated by what he saw as an institutional bias against labor unions and liberal ideology. Still, he excelled as a student and eventually transferred, on scholarship, to the University of Georgia.

Athens exposed Ariyoshi to racial segregation and the oppressive poverty under which Southern sharecroppers lived. Befriended by the parents of author Erskine Caldwell ("Tobacco Road"), Ariyoshi also came to recognize the universal plight of the working class worldwide.

After graduation, Ariyoshi worked as a longshoreman in San Francisco, where he first became acquainted with Karl Yoneda, later a key figure in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. The bombing of Pearl Harbor robbed Ariyoshi of his work (people of Japanese ancestry were no longer allowed to work on docks) and, soon after, his freedom. Ariyoshi and Yoneda were sent to the Manzanar War Relocation Center, a Japanese-American internment camp.

Ariyoshi met and married his wife, Taeko, at Manzanar and, to the chagrin of some of his fellow internees, sought opportunities to help with the war effort.

He enlisted with the Military Intelligence Service as a language specialist, which took him away from Manzanar and his wife, all the way to India and Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), where he witnessed the inequity of British colonialism; to Burma, where he started to see connections between imperialism and profiteering, and finally to China, where he found inspiration in the fledgling reforms of the communist movement.

During his time in Yenan, Ariyoshi got to know communist leaders Mao Tse-tung and Chou En-lai, and became appreciative of the small gains peasants made under the agrarian reform policy, a stark contrast to the brutal sharecropping system upheld by the Nationalist movement led by Chiang Kai-shek.

By the time Ariyoshi returned to Hawai'i in 1948, AJA veterans were beginning to make inroads in local politics. Still, the radical ideology he had adopted, more theoretical socialism than actual communism, set him apart. Rather than take advantage of job offers from one of the powerful Big Five companies, Ariyoshi, a devoted reader of the progressive local Japanese newspaper the Hawai'i Hochi, started his own labor-oriented newspaper, the Honolulu Record.

"My mother encouraged him to take a Big Five job, get settled and start a life, but it was not his way," said Ariyoshi's son, Roger. "He did what he believed in and he never looked back."

As editor of the Record, Ariyoshi fearlessly tackled subjects ranging from poor working conditions to the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. And while the paper was credited with helping bolster a growing organized labor movement and a newly emergent Democratic Party in Hawai'i, it wasn't long before Ariyoshi became a focal point for the country's metastasizing communist paranoia. In 1951, Ariyoshi and six others — later dubbed the Hawaii Seven — were arrested and charged under the nefarious Smith Act for advocating the violent overthrow of the U.S. government.

After spending a night in jail, Ariyoshi returned to the Record and promptly set about writing a series of 59 columns titled "My Thoughts, For Which I Stand Indicted."

The case of the Hawaii Seven drew national attention and put a strain on Ariyoshi's family and community life.

"My mom's family thought she was crazy," Roger Ariyoshi said. "They wanted her to go back (to the Mainland) but she said no.

"A lot of family on both sides shunned them because of the political situation. One of my uncles, who was not a U.S. citizen yet, was threatened with deportation. My parents understood and they never held grudging feelings. My dad always said you had to understand and accept what those times were like and the climate of fear that was present."

Koji Ariyoshi was found guilty and sentenced to five years in jail with a $5,000 fine. Released on bail pending his appeal, Ariyoshi continued his work with the Record until the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned his conviction. Still, the stigma lingered.

The Record went out of business in 1958, and soon after Ariyoshi started a new line of work as a self-taught florist. To those who still considered him a communist, he was known as the Red Florist.

It wasn't until the late 1960s, with the civil rights movement initiating a sea change in American civic life and consciousness, that Ariyoshi began to be considered in a different light.

Ariyoshi was appointed to the Hawai'i Foundation for History and the Humanities in 1969, and became president of the organization three years later. In 1971, he took advantage of a thaw in U.S.-China relations to accept an invitation to visit China as a journalist, writing a series of articles for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. The following year, he started the China-Hawaii People's Friendship Association to foster better relations between the two countries.

Ariyoshi also accepted a teaching job with UH's Ethnic Studies program, a position that enabled him to pass on his knowledge and experience to a new generation of socially conscious students. He encouraged his charges to tell Hawai'i's story in their own creative voices. He fought for the collection and preservation of oral histories. And he served as a role model for young activists committed to effecting meaningful social change.

"He was very simple and pragmatic, yet he was also an idealist," Roger Ariyoshi said of his father. "I remember talking with him late at night about philosophy and he'd always start at the very beginning of everything. Sometimes I just wished that he'd get to the point I wanted him to address, but he had to take it step by step by step because he wanted me to see the broader picture. He was always interested in the long view."

Reach Michael Tsai at mtsai@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2461.