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Maui High students earn silver at National History Day

Project, website highlight role of nisei during WWII

Maui High School students Jaelen Matsuda-Williams (from left) Sarah Sakakihara, and John Andrei Balanay pose for a group photo during the Maui District History Day competition in February at the University of Hawaii-Maui College. Their performance advanced them to Hawaii State History Day and eventually Nationals, where they finished second in the senior website division. — GWEN JARAMILLO photo

KAHULUI — Three Maui High School students launched a website that pays tribute to a less familiar piece of history, a research project that took second place among thousands at the first-ever National History Day Virtual Competition.

In the high school division, John Andrei Balanay, Jaelen Matsuda-Williams and Sarah Sakakihara designed a website called the “Military Intelligence Service: Japanese Americans Breaking Barriers to Help End the War,” which earned them national recognition last week.

“As a Japanese-American, I was kind of drawn to the history about World War II, and the MIS was such an important part that not many people know about,” Sakakihara, a graduating senior, said on Friday morning. “I thought it went pretty well considering we had to transfer to online. The History Day program I thought did a really good job, like not canceling, because a lot of competitions have been canceling their competitions (due to COVID-19).

“So I think we were really lucky that we got to compete at state and nationals.”

The project, which focuses on nisei (second-generation Japanese-Americans) soldiers breaking through racial, cultural and identity barriers during WWII, took them five months to complete while balancing school and other extracurricular activities. The students said they wanted to bring more light to an important, but somewhat less discussed, piece of history.

Halfway through their project, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the National History Day competition to become a virtual event, Sakakihara said. They worked together one more time over spring break before making all their collaborations over FaceTime. 

“I think we work really well together, and I thought the competition was really good to compete in because I learned how to write better and how to analyze things more,” freshman Matsuda-Williams said. “I learned how to work well with other people because I really don’t do much group projects, and I also learned time management, which helped a lot because I was busy. So overall, I think it really helped me to become a better person.”

Balanay, also a freshman, said that his portion of the project focused on the post-war period while Matsuda-Williams focused on the war period. He also coded and designed the website. Sakakihara wrote the thesis and overview, as well as proofread all the sections.

“For me, it just improved my time management and working with other people, I usually work alone,” Balanay said. “But working with Jaelen and Sarah was a great experience, and I definitely learned a lot from them.” 

Hawaii History Day, a state affiliate of National History Day, is a yearlong history education program for 4th through 12th graders from public, private, charter and home schools. The program promotes a theme-based, research-centered model for history and civics education, according to the website.

After advancing past the Maui District competition, Balanay, Sakakihara and Matsuda-Williams finished in second place at Hawaii State History Day in the senior website division to qualify for the national event, which included almost 3,000 students from across the country.

On June 26, Hawaii’s state finalists from Oahu, Kauai, Maui, Molokai and Hawaii island took home one gold medal, one silver and one bronze at the national competition.

During a call with the Maui High students Friday, they collectively said they “not at all” expected to finish that high in the national competition.

“I think every step of the way we were just surprised that we made it to the next level,” Sakakihara said with a laugh. “Jaelen and John, I’m expecting them to win for the next three years. They can do it.”

For the competitions, students typically present their projects in various formats, like as an exhibit, essay, performance, documentary or website. There are three divisions: senior division for students in grades 9-12, junior division for students in grades 6-8, and youth division for grades 4-5. 

Hawaii History Day is run by the nonprofit Hawaii Council for the Humanities and has helped youths statewide to learn and speak about the complex stories of the community.

“We celebrated our 30-year anniversary this school year, which has been compelling and powerful as well as difficult given our need to move almost all of the fairs into a virtual space after the spread of COVID-19,” said Lyz Soto, communications officer for the nonprofit.

Sakakihara, who had past experience with History Day, spearheaded the formation of the team with fellow band member Matsuda-Williams and later Balanay.

“We started to get interested in it because none of us really knew about it,” Matsuda-Williams said. “We wanted to look more into it.” 

Balanay said they gained most of their primary resources and research materials through the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center in Kahului. 

“Once we started researching, it was such a great topic,” he said.

Throughout the project and competition, Sakakihara said she learned to appreciate history more and how to “not just say what happened, but analyze the historical events.” 

Most of the work was student-directed, but Maui High AP world history teacher and National History Day supervisor Janyce Omura was “always there for us when we needed her,” she said.

According to a news release, Omura also was selected for the Naval Historical Foundation Teacher of Distinction Awards. Baldwin High School teacher Scott Clarke was a finalist for the Hannah E. (Liz) MacGregor Teacher of the Year Award.

According to the student’s website, WWII increased discrimination against Americans of Japanese ancestry. With Japan as the enemy, the United States rounded up thousands of Japanese nisei (first generation) put them in internment camps on the Mainland.

However, there was a need for Japanese language interpreters as it appeared America was headed for war with Japan in 1941. Not many non-Japanese Americans were familiar with the language at that time. Later that year, but before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Military Intelligence Service (MIS) trained nisei Japanese-Americans as radio announcers, interrogators, interpreters, translators and propaganda writers. The first MIS school was located in an abandoned aircraft hangar in San Francisco and graduated 58 students. 

The school was later moved to Camp Savage and Fort Snelling in Minnesota. Soldiers from the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Infantry Battalion were recruited, and by the end of the war, 6,000 soldiers graduated with specialized skills.

They were on the front lines of major battles in the Pacific and often faced suspicion and friendly fire. After the war, many MIS members served as interpreters at military tribunals

Their efforts in helping the Americans win the war were not truly recognized until 1972, when their activities were declassified. In 2000, the MIS received a Presidential Unit Citation.

“I learned the importance of history and the importance of learning from what had happened to make the present and future better,” Sakakihara said. 

To view the students’ website and to learn more about the MIS unit, visit site.nhd.org/ 42188557/home. 

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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