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Sturgeon's House

Legacy of the 442nd: The Creation of Modern Hawaii

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Super Comrade's thread on telling Japs apart from Chinese got me thinking about a dramatic, obscure bit of US history; the story of the Japanese and the state of Hawaii.


The Hawaiian Islands are a volcanic chain that's about dead in the middle of the Pacific.  The islands have undergone significant weathering over millions of years, which means that the island of Oahu has a natural deep water port at Pearl Harbor.  The volcanic soils are also rich in minerals, and this combined with the heavy rainfall makes the islands exceptionally fertile.


Hawaii was first colonized by Polynesians sometime in the early to mid ADs.  The islands were unified by King Kamehameha the Great at roughly the same time they were discovered by British explorer James Cook.  Descendants of Kamehameha ruled the islands as an independent kingdom, and attempted to maintain their sovereignty over them.  For various reasons, this was not possible in the long run and the United States annexed the islands in 1898.


American agricultural interests then set about stealing all the land from the native Hawaiians.  This was not a difficult task; Hawaiian concepts of land ownership were quite different than American ones, and most of the Hawaiians were illiterate in any case.  The native Hawaiian population began a long decline, caused by a trifecta of imported diseases, firewater, and having everything stolen from them.  Don't trust Johnathon.


(as an aside, there is still a vestigial Land Court in the modern State of Hawaii.  This was originally formed in 1903 as a way to solidify title to land as it was being stolen from the Hawaiians)


The agricultural interests began importing labor from overseas.  The majority of the population of Hawaii today are descended from these plantation laborers; primarily Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and Portugese.  Sugar cane and pineapple were the main products, but taro (a traditional Polynesian root vegetable) and cattle ranching were also significant.


Statehood was not a popular prospect at this time because the majority of the population was not White.  Despite this, Whites kept a near monopoly on higher education (Punahou, the island's most prestigious private primary school and also where President Obama went to school, had racial quotas until the 1950s) and white-collar professions.  It should be noted that despite this, some Asian households managed to become respectably middle class, generally through the practice of several families pooling money together for investments.


The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor would, indirectly, change everything.  The Japanese population of Hawaii was interned; rounded up and shipped to prison camps in Wyoming.  This is a undoubtedly a violation of human rights, and to add insult to injury they were also in prison camps.


For young Japanese men there was a chance to get out of the camps; the 442nd Infantry Regiment.  This formation of Japanese, most of them from Hawaii, was to create a solid reputation for itself and suffer hideous casualties in the European Theater of Operations, including the brutal meatgrinders at Anzio and Monte Cassino.  For the men of the 442nd, service was a chance to prove their loyalty.  "Go for broke" became the unit's well-known motto; less known was another; "no bring shame."  They weren't just fighting to see the war over; they were fighting for their families who were behind barbed wire back in the US.


I want to emphasize this part; the 442nd was absolutely heroic in war, because what happened next was... less inspiring.  The men of the 442nd were proud of what they'd done, but they knew better than to expect the praise and recognition to flow freely.  They knew that while their families would be free to go (for the time being), they would still be second-class citizens.  Their position in society would not be secure until they dismantled the power system in Hawaii.


So that's what they did.  The men of the 442nd put themselves through college on the GI bill and became doctors, lawyers and most importantly, politicians.  Daniel Inouye is the best known of the bunch, but there were others, as well as a number of Japanese who had been in the Army but not in the 442nd like George Ariyoshi.  The wiki entry on George Ariyoshi is particularly interesting, as it alludes to the methods and associations that the Japanese politicians would use to take power in Hawaii.  Larry Mehau is an interesting guy, worthy of his own discussion, but that is not a discussion I am willing to have in a place where persistent, publicly-searchable records are maintained.


In short, a generation of Japanese politicians, many of them veterans, aligned themselves with the Democratic party and sought allies in labor unions, civil rights organizations, and well, people like Larry Mehau.  After a few strikes, a few well-placed publicity campaigns, and some under-the-table strings pulling, the Democrats were firmly in power in Hawaii, Hawaii was a state, and the old system of racial quotas in Hawaiian education was deader than disco (only it was still the early '60s, so the atrocity of disco was yet to come).  The state transitioned from a primarily agricultural exporter to a tourist destination.  


The Democrats' conduct in Hawaii since their takeover has been... good by the standards of Democratic management, I suppose.  Unlike, say, Detroit, Honolulu is not a smoldering crater, which given the relative volcanic characteristics of Hawaii and Michigan I suppose must lend the Hawaiian Democrats some credit.  I think it fair to characterize Hawaiian politics since the Democratic revolution as venal, corrupt and incompetent, but not disastrously so.


And so it goes.


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  • 10 months later...

I have finally overcome my fear of discussing Uncle Larry. In completely unrelated news, he's dead:


Welp.  The first comment:


Charles Darwin 2 days ago

Will the crime rate drop now?

Not many people in this countrys history have been so bad for so long without going to prison.

Who will decide who wins elections on the island now that the "Don" is gone?

Where will all those thick envelopes end up now?

Who will sell labor peace to the highest bidder?

Good riddance to an awful human being, Hawaii can only be better without him.

Of course, there are plenty of other cockroaches to take his place if allowed to.

Dangerous comments? Maybe, but aren't we all tired of the culture of corruption?

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