Film focuses on Hawaii’s internment camps

On the Mainland there were Manzanar and Tule Lake, perhaps the two most-known Japanese-American internment camps.

But not many know of Honouliuli on Oahu and Kalaheo Stockade on Kauai – two of Hawaii’s 13 internment camps during World War II.

In Maui County, there were four camps. The Big Island had two, there were four on Kauai and there were three on Oahu.

“Most of the general public doesn’t know about them. Even the Maui sites are relatively unknown,” said Ryan Kawamoto, an independent filmmaker from Oahu, who wrote and directed the film “The Untold Story: Internment of Japanese Americans in Hawai’i.” The film profiles the camps and internees’ experiences.

Kawamoto said that one camp on Maui was in Haiku and the other was at the old Wailuku jail, where the county’s Kalana Pakui building now sits.

The old Lanai and Molokai jails also held detainees during the war. The Lanai jail is still erect, although the Molokai jail building has been moved to a park, Kawamoto said.

“Some of the sites, there were no known photographs and Maui is one of them,” he said, alluding to the Haiku site, which was dismantled. “That’s not uncommon for a lot of the sites. There weren’t any photographs allowed.”

Officials from the National Parks Service who have done studies on the camps say that they believe the Haiku camp was on an athletic field makai of the old Haiku Pineapple Cannery.

Internees couldn’t take photographs, and photographs that were taken of the sites were done by military personnel or by someone way outside the fences of the camps, Kawamoto said.

Although Kawamoto and the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai’i have put together the film to document the Hawaii internment experience, they are still searching for more information that possibly could lead to a photograph of the Haiku camp or more family tales from Maui County and other Hawaii residents.

“The story is far from over,” Kawamoto said.

The film, produced by the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai’i, will be shown on Maui for the first time Saturday at 9 a.m. at the Consolidated Kaahumanu 6 Theatres. (See fact box.)

The film has been shown to sold-out audiences five times on Oahu. It made its world premiere at the Hawaii International Film Festival in October.

“We hope (the film) brings awareness (so) that other survivors and children of survivors will come forward and share their stories with us. Even though we have the film, the center is still doing research on this matter,” Kawamoto said.

Carole Hayashino, president and executive director of the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai’i, said: “Our film, ‘The Untold Story,’ helps us ensure that the experience of over 2,000 persons of Japanese ancestry in Hawaii who were picked up and imprisoned simply because of their ancestry is not forgotten.

“The legacy of the Japanese-American incarceration in Hawaii is significant to our state and nation. It is an important and unique chapter in American history, Hawaii’s history and in the history of Japanese-Americans in Hawaii.”

Shortly after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Hawaii authorities arrested several hundred local Japanese on Oahu, Maui, Hawaii island and Kauai. Within 48 hours those arrested included Buddhist priests, Japanese language school officials, newspaper editors and business and community leaders. There was no evidence of espionage or sabotage and no charges were ever filed against them, according to a release from the center.

Kawamoto added that, most times, internees in Hawaii camps were held for a short while before being moved elsewhere, including Mainland camps.

The film chronicles the details of internees’ stories through oral histories, documents, interviews and re-enactments.

Kawamoto said that the film took about three years to make. But the center’s Resource Center spent about 10 years looking through its library and archives, collecting documents, photos and oral histories.

He explained that a film profiling the camps and their people is only coming to light now because for “many, many years, the survivors were very hesitant to talk about it.

“I think part of them, for many of them, it was too painful. It was a chapter they had rather just forget because they would have moved on with their lives. For many years, the children, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren had no idea their relatives, their parents or great-grandparents were ever interned.”

He added that research on the camps also took a while because many of the internees were first-generation Japanese to come to Hawaii. The “issei” may have written about their experiences in Japanese and only in the last five years were those documents translated into English, Kawamoto said.

The 37-year-old, a fourth-generation, or “yonsei,” said that while making the film at times he got “really angry” seeing how people were treated, such as living in tents, internees not being able to shower, eating out of dirty dishes and being treated like the enemy even though the internees had done nothing wrong.

“When you see it and hear it, it’s very powerful.”

He added that the camps also broke up families as a man might have been jailed while his wife was left to take care their large family.

Kawamoto was honored to be able to work on the film, especially being of Japanese ancestry.

“It’s an educational film and I want to make sure that the next generation and the generation after that will know the story.”

He added that lessons in the film are relative to the world today, as there is still discrimination in America, such as to Muslims after 9/11 and inequities for gays and lesbians.

“Let us not repeat those mistakes of the past,” he said.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at