News Archive

Treatment of Japanese-Americans in WWII Hawaii Revealed in Article

Honolulu prison camp
U.S. Army Honouliuli Prison Camp in the 1940s.

By Andrew Cohen

The U.S. Government’s policy of internments, involving the mass removal of Japanese-American aliens and citizens from the West Coast, is a commonly known aspect of World War II history. But a revealing article by Berkeley Law’s Harry and Jane Scheiber, co-authored with Benjamin Jones ’10, describes a concurrent regime of martial law in the Hawaiian Islands—the likes of which the United States had never seen.

“Hawaii’s Kibei Under Martial Law: A Hidden Chapter in the History of World War II Internments,” was recently published in Western Legal History, the journal of the Ninth Judicial Circuit Historical Society. Starting December 7, 1941, when Pearl Harbor was attacked, the U.S. Army placed the entire governance of Hawaii—including operation of the courts—under martial law. Many elements of that regime continued until just before the war ended in 1945.

“Never before or after in American history have U.S. citizens been kept under martial law in such numbers or for so long a time,” said Harry Scheiber, Berkeley Law’s Stefan Riesenfeld Professor of Law and History and director of its Institute for Legal Research.

His wife, Jane Scheiber, is a research associate at the Center for the Study of Law and Society. Jones, a researcher in the Institute for Legal Research while a student at Berkeley Law, is an associate at O’Melveny and Myers in San Francisco. Their article casts new light on the Army’s record regarding security issues and internment policy in Hawaii, a frequently ignored piece of the history of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

All Hawaii residents were subject to close military oversight after Pearl Harbor was attacked. But Hawaii’s Japanese population—about 158,000, more than one-third of the territory’s total population—did not face mass removal and imprisonment similar to what transpired on the mainland. Instead, the Army’s “selective” policy resulted in roughly 2,000 people of Japanese descent being taken into custody. Of that group, almost all were removed to camps on the mainland.

The authors cast a critical eye toward the Army’s record in governing Hawaii’s citizens, and in administering justice within its provost courts. They identify a series of severe—and what they deem largely unwarranted—restrictions of liberty imposed on the islands’ entire civilian population long after any real danger of invasion or attack had passed.

“When we embarked on this project years ago, we never imagined that we would be documenting a story of Army governance so harshly imposed, nor treatment of Japanese-Americans so different from the mass internment on the mainland,” said Harry Scheiber, who is now completing with Jane a coauthored book about the same subject, titled Bayonets in Paradise. “We researched War Department archives, federal trial records, presidential papers, and other contemporary sources, all of which reflected the Army’s sweeping suspension of constitutional rights in Hawaii under military rule.”

The authors provide detailed analysis of the fate suffered by a subgroup of Japanese-Americans called the Kibei—citizens born in the United States who spent time for education or other purposes in Japan and then returned to live in Hawaii—many of whom were singled out for particularly harsh treatment.

“Throughout the war, the roughly 5,000 Kibei citizens of Hawaii lived in constant jeopardy of evacuation, internment, or both,” the authors assert. “About 10 percent of them were detained at some point during the war, a stark contrast with the less than 1 percent of the overall population of Japanese descent taken into custody.”

A small minority of Kibei who professed loyalty to Japan in security interviews were formally interned and often separated from their families for years. But the article notes that no persuasive evidence exists in archives to suggest that most Kibei citizens taken into custody, citizens who declared their loyalty to the United States, actually presented a security risk.

In 1946, the U.S. Supreme Court declared illegal the Army’s takeover of civilian government for much of the war and the military government’s prosecution of civilians in provost courts. The Ninth Judicial Circuit, the authors recount, similarly ruled against the government in two decisions highly critical of U.S. administration of the mainland relocation centers. Those decisions blocked Justice Department efforts to deport to Japan Kibei and other Japanese-American detainees who, under obvious duress, had renounced U.S. citizenship but sought to reverse their renunciations in 1945-46.

The same Western Legal History issue includes an article by Berkeley Law visiting professor Jon Van Dyke on the South Pacific Judicial Conference and its successor, the Pacific Judicial Conference, and how their leaders advanced the region’s rule of law and judicial independence. The issue can be ordered by enclosing a $15 check and mailing the request to Ninth Judicial Circuit Historical Society, 125 South Grand Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91105.