Short film shows effects of internment on isle residents

The late Dr. Seiichi Ohata of Maui is pictured in the middle with a black shirt in an internment camp is Missoula, Mont. Once a prominent doctor on Maui, he told his son, Seiya Ohata, in a letter that all he owned in the camp was his toothbrush. His story is one of three featured in a new minidocumentary, “Voices Behind Barbed Wire: Stories of Maui County.”

Just hours after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, U.S. authorities were detaining Dr. Seiichi Ohata in Paia.

He was initially taken to the old Wailuku Jail and then sent to Fort Missoula Internment Camp in Montana and eventually to Japan.

“All of them were sad. They were all very afraid,” said film director Ryan Kawamoto of the Maui County families whose loved ones were detained during World War II.

Kawamoto has written and produced a new documentary on the more than 250 Maui County residents sent to internment camps. While it is unclear how Ohata and others were treated in Maui County’s internment camps, the detainment took a toll on them, he said.

Kawamoto said he saw a photo of Ohata prior to the internment, in which he was nicely dressed as a doctor and a leader in the Japanese community. In a 1943 photo, two years after being interned in Montana, Ohata has a scraggly beard and wears prisoner-of-war style clothing, Kawamoto said.


“All I own in this camp is a toothbrush,” Ohata wrote his son, Seiya Ohata, who was in medical school on the Mainland. “I have no money for clothes.”

The elder Ohata wanted to have presentable clothing because he was being sent back to Japan.

Ohata’s story is recounted through Seiya, a World War II veteran and longtime physician on Maui, and is one of three featured stories of Maui County internees in the minidocumentary “Voices Behind Barbed Wire: Stories of Maui County.” The other two internees are Shigeji Terada and the Rev. Tadao Kouchi.

The 25-minute documentary, produced by the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai’i, also includes updated information on the four Maui County confinement sites.

The minidocumentary is a followup to a 2012 film written and directed by Kawamoto titled, “The Untold Story: Internment of Japanese Americans in Hawai’i.” That film painted a broader picture of the more than 2,000 people of Japanese ancestry in Hawaii who were picked up and imprisoned because of their race and ancestry.

The new minidocumentary is screening Saturday afternoon and the initial showing is booked. A second screening is set for 3:30 p.m. at the Maui Adult Care Center hall on the campus of the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center along Kahului Beach Road. To reserve a seat for the second showing, call 244-6862.

Kawamoto said since unveiling the initial film, more stories and discussions have come to light about the internment camps in Hawaii. When Kawamoto produced the 2012 film, he noted 12 to 13 confinement sites in Hawaii but with new information garnered since then that number has increased to 17.

While Kawamoto, who was born and raised on Hawaii island, does not have a personal connection to the camps, he does feel a range of emotions on the subject.

“I get very sad and angry when I work on this project, that the U.S. government could do something like this,” said Kawamoto, 42. “At the same time, the reason for doing a film like this, . . ., we need to be careful (because) something like this can happen again.”

Kawamoto pointed to current events and happenings, such as racial profiling and recent claims by politicians that the internment camps were necessary. They signal that people could be singled out for their race again.

In Maui County, there were four sites where people of Japanese ancestry were held. Two were on Maui — in Haiku behind the current Haiku Post Office and in the old Wailuku Jail, where the county’s Kalana Pakui building currently sits. Old jails on Lanai and Molokai were used.

The Lanai jail still is there; the Molokai jail building has been moved to Malama Park.

The jails were like “little boxes” with no windows and just some ventilation holes, he said. It must have been hot.

“They were kept in the jail until they were sent on to Oahu. I can only imagine what that must have been like,” he said.

There were at least 256 people, mostly men, interned in Maui County, he said.

Kawamoto visited the Haiku site, now private property, for the film and believes he and his crew stood on the grassy field where families used to visit internees. They often ate lunch together, separated by a barbed wire fence.

Ohata’s story is mostly told by his son, who was in his 20s and in medical school when his father was detained. Being the son of an internee presented obstacles as well.

Seiya Ohata said his father’s assets were frozen when he was detained. Needing money, he went to the Army recruiting office to enlist. He was rejected multiple times but was finally accepted in 1943 as a first lieutenant when he received his medical degree.

Unlike other Japanese men who enlisted, Seiya Ohata was not assigned to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, one of the most decorated units in American history and mainly composed of Japanese-Americans.

Instead, he was probably the only Japanese-American to participate in D-Day in Normandy, Kawamoto said.

Kawamoto’s Maui County project has been in the works for almost two years. He received historical help from the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai’i and was commissioned by the organization to write and direct the film.

Kawamoto also has received help from the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center on Maui, which has collected many oral histories that include information on the internment camp experience.

In other happenings at the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center, former Gov. George Ariyoshi will launch the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center’s new series of talks on leadership and nisei (second generation Japanese-American) values beginning at 1:30 p.m. Feb. 17 at the Kahili Golf Course’s Nahele Ballroom. Tickets are $35 and includes heavy pupu. For tickets, call 244-6862 or visit

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at