Thirty-six years ago today the arrival of warplanes over Pearl Harbor and Hickam Field signaled the beginning of a bloody Pacific war eventually lost by Japan to the United States. In the generation since that war ended, the offspring of Japanese-born residents of the then-territory have gone on to run these islands.
Today, as Americans of all races here join in remembering Pearl Harbor, Japanese-Americans dominate the government, the Bureaucracy and the educational system of what has since become Americas 50th state.
Hawaii's governor and both of its U.S. senators are Japanese-Americans, so are the leaders of both houses in the state legislture. Twenty-three of the 51 state house members and 11 of the 25 state senate members are Japanese-Americans. Even these numbers are an understatment, since Japanese-Americans are an absolute majority of legislators in the ruling Democratic Party.
The dominance is even more impressive in the educational system, where seven out of 10 principals and a majority of teachers are Japanese-American. So are more than six out of every 10 high-ranking officials in the state Department of Education. The University of Hawaii sometimes is referred to here irreverently as "the University of Tokyo" because of its many Japanese-American students.
Japanese-Americans also are strongly represented in the professions, numbering three-fifths of the dentists, a fourth of the attorneys and a fifth of the physicians. The medican family income of Japanese-Americans, trailing only the income of Chinese-Americans, is higher than that of Caucasians and far higher than the income of other ethnic groups.
The Japanese-Amercian success story is seen by sociologist here as a triumph for the second-generation, or "Nisei," who were denied opportunity before World Warr II and suspected of being potential traitors after Pearl Harbor.
These suspicions were dispelled by the conduct of Japanese-Americans in Hawaii, who were too important to the island economy to be interned during the war. Most of all, the suspicions were dispelled by the distinguished combat performance in Italy and France of the all-Japanese 442d Regimental Combat Team and 100th Battalion.
"The self-conscious Nisei who were tested in the war came back with chips on their shoulders feeling they had earned the right to participate," says University of Hawaii sociologist George Yamamoto, who was one of them. "It was a natural development. The sheer numbers of Japanese were what the 'haoles' [whites from the United States or northern Europe] had feared before the war. They used to say, 'what if all the Japanese become citizens and participate?' What you're seeing now is the 'what if'".
According to 1976 figures, the Hawaiian population of 851,824 includes 226,571 Japanese-Americans. In a state where every ethnic group is a minority, this means that the Japanese, with 26.6 per cent of the total population, are outnumbered only by Caucasians, with 27.7 per cent. However, the figures are deceiving because of the presence of mostly Caucasian military personnel, the large majority of whom do not vote in Hawaii.
With military and dependents excluded, Japanese-Americans are the largest ethnic group, with 30.2 per cent of the total population. More significantly, 36.7 per cent of eligible voters are Japanese-American.
But the achievement has been more than a numerical one. Japanese-Americans particularly point to the oppotunities offered to returning servicemen by the GI Bill of Rights. "Japanese have an almost fanatic interest in education," says Professor Alvin Yanagisako of the University of Hawaii's ethnic studies program. "In the Japanese value system, school is always good, hard work is good, saying your money is good. So with these values, when the opportunity came, we made the most of it."
The upwardly mobile Nisei, most of them the children of immigrants imported as sugar and pineapple plantation workers, were so eager to become Americanized that they place little value on retaining Japanese culture, says Hideto Kono, a Nisei former business executive who is now state director for planning and economic development. Despite this, Kono says, there was "a positive carryover from the culture" which expressed itself in hard work and a strong sense of obligation to one's family.
While there are generations differences, the "Sansei" (third generation) Japanese-Americans seem proud of their parents and highly aware of what they have accomplished.
"I can be a demonstrator or I can question government policies because of what happened during the war," says Gail Yukie Okawa, a teacher who was born during an air raid blackout a year after Pearl Harbor. "I feel very secure as an American, and the Nisei made this possible."
Jean Minami is a 31-year old teacher who attended the University of Washington in Seattle, where she was amused by the "yellow power" buttons worn by some of her ethnic Asian classmates from the mainland. Minami considered herself Japanese until she went to Japan to study and realized that she was an Ameircan in a foreign land.
After returning to Hawaii to teach, Minami one day caught sight of herself in the big picture mirror of a downtown store. Behind her in the mirror were other shoppers, of varying shades of yellow and brown.
"I remember thinking I'm not a foreigner here," she said. "I was happy. Here, I'm a majority. If anything, we're the oppressors here."
Minami smiled as she used the word "oppressor" but this idea is no laughing matter to less successful minorities in Hawaii, including some of the less well-off Caucasians. Japanese-Americans who were looked down upon as inferior a generation ago are now on occasion criticized for presumed notions of superiority.
"Other ethnic groups that haven't made it sometimes resent the Japanese," says sociologist Yanagisako. "We're like the Jews on the mainland. We're a privileged minority and the people we're conspicious to are the people who haven't made it. They see our faces in the school and the government. We feel the pressure from below. Sometimes we get yelled at. The feeling is that the Japanese are taking over."
A Japanese-American politician says that much resentment arises from the overwhelming presence of Japanese-Americans in the government bureaucracy.
"When somebody is dealing with a bureaucrat, it's because he has a problem," this politician observes. "If his problem isn't solved, he's apt to blame the Japanese."
After the war the Japanese went into government and education because these professions were open to them. Relatively few business opportunities existed, except in the service industries and most Japanese-American businessmen lacked the capital for large ventures. But this is changing, too.
Kono, who served as president of the East Asian subsidiary of Castle & Cooke, one of the big Hawaiian firms, says the barriers to Japanese in executive positions were of class as much as they were of race. This has changed in the last decade, he says, and well-educated Japanese-Americans now hold important corporate positions.
Japanese-Americans in Hawaii have responded to criticims of their influence with characteristic self-restraint. In the educational system, says Yamamoto, "Japanese fear their own power and there is social pressure to select someone [for a post] who is not Japanese. We are leaning over backward to be fair."
A reporter for a local newspaper tells of the time she wrote a story about a multi-cultural center in which she objectively described the role of Japanese-Americans who were involved. Some Japanese-American readers complained to her afterward that she had singled out the Japanese for too much praise.
This caution veils but does not hide a deep sense of pride felt by Japanese-Americans about their accomplishments in Hawaii since the war. It is a pride that unites in what sociologist Lawrence H. Fuchs called "the promise of Hawaii, a promise for the entire nation and, indeed the world, that peoples of different races and creeds can live together, enriching each other, in harmony and democracy."
Or, as a Japanese-American businessman puts it: "We have built here a distinctive society that is American but partakes of the Japanese culture."
Kono, the author of an imaginative state development plan, agrees, but says Hawaii also is a society which lacks the dynamic "I'm No. 1" spirit of either present-day Japan or the United States of the past.
"We're like an eddy in a pool," he says.
But it is some eddy, some pool.