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For the first superintendent of Oahu’s Honouliuli National Historic Site, it’s personal

Updated: Apr. 26, 2021 at 12:00 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Nearly 80 years ago, more than a dozen of Hanako Wakatsuki’s family members were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to camps across the mainland as part of the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans after the Pearl Harbor attack.

Today, Wakatsuki serves for the federal agency behind those incarcerations — so she can make sure her family’s story and so many others are preserved. It’s a passion she’s now taking to her newest role: as the first-ever superintendent of Central Oahu’s Honouliuli National Historic Site, where one of Hawaii’s own World War II confinement sites was once home to more than 4,400.

Speaking on a recent day at the Pearl Harbor National Memorial, where her offices are, and wearing the uniform of her post, Wakatsuki is frank about the internal challenges she faces on the job. “As a person who had family incarcerated at those mainland camps, it sometimes can be tough wearing this badge because it’s the badge of the agency that incarcerated my family,” she said.

“But it’s also the mission of … the Park Service to tell these stories.”

A majority of Wakatsuki’s family — great-grandparents, grandparents, aunts and uncles — were taken to California’s Manzanar, one of 10 camps opened in the U.S. Her great aunt Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, who was also there, documented her experiences in the 1973 memoir “Farewell to Manzanar.”

Others were sent to camps like Minidoka in Idaho and Tule Lake in California. Three of her aunts and uncles were born at Manzanar, but her father was the first child born free after camp, she said.

Thousands of miles west, in the middle of the Pacific, Hawaii wasn’t immune from the wartime incarceration policy. Honouliuli, tucked away in a secluded gulch in Central Oahu and hidden from public view, was dubbed “Hell’s Valley” for its extreme heat and humidity. It became the camp for 4,000 of prisoners of war and 400 civilian internees, many of whom were Japanese Americans.

As the National Park Service’s first Honouliuli National Historic Site superintendent, Wakatsuki is charged with overseeing preservation and development of Honouliuli as a park unit — a landmark step in what was a years-long struggle to create a leadership role like this for the project.

The place was long forgotten for decades but is now being slowly remembered through a time-staking process that could take decades more.

Wakatsuki in March was tasked with overseeing the project that’s seeking to bring those memories alive.

“To me, it’s like, my personal ties help navigate me to how I want to tell this history to make sure we’re being accurate with the terms and how we’re describing the incarceration and what happened to American citizens here at Honouliuli for the ‘issei’ and also all the POW that were incarcerated,” Wakatsuki said.

“It’s easy to fall into the narrative of World War II. This all happened in a vacuum, which it kind of did. But then we need to tell the stories of the individuals and their experiences as well so we can fully understand the cost of war.”

Hanako's grandmother, Chizuye Wakatsuki, with Hanako's Aunt Patty, Uncle George and Uncle Woody...
Hanako's grandmother, Chizuye Wakatsuki, with Hanako's Aunt Patty, Uncle George and Uncle Woody in front of a barrack at Manzanar during World War II, circa 1943.(Hanako Wakatsuki)

Though she grew up primarily in Idaho, Wakatsuki still has ties to Hawaii, a place she feels comfortable living in as a Japanese American woman. Her great-grandmother was born in Honolulu and eventually moved to the mainland, and her sister and her family were stationed at Schofield Barracks in Wahiawa. She also recently found out she has family on Maui.

Wakatsuki also notes a lesser-known connection between Idaho and Hawaii: The word “Owyhee” is an old English term to describe the people of Hawaii. The connection dates back to the 1800s, when a group of Hawaii natives were believed to have gone missing while on a fur trapping expedition.

“They named the whole mountain range Owyhee, and it’s actually our largest county in Idaho, so a lot of people don’t recognize it’s supposed to be Hawaii,” Wakatsuki said.

Growing up, Wakatsuki, 34, always loved history, particularly World War II history because of her family connection with the incarceration of Japanese Americans. At first, she thought she would become a high school history teacher, but she later realized her true passion was a career path that involved bridging the gap between academia and the public in learning history.

Hanako's grandfather, Woodrow Mann Wakatsuki, was drafted out of Manzanar into the military in...
Hanako's grandfather, Woodrow Mann Wakatsuki, was drafted out of Manzanar into the military in 1944, leaving her grandmother to raise their children by herself.(Hanako Wakatsuki)

After receiving her bachelor’s degrees in history and political science from Boise State University in 2008, then a master’s degree in museum studies from Johns Hopkins University in 2013, she began her career with both the National Park Service and U.S. Navy Seabee Museum.

Her most recent job: chief of interpretation and education at Minidoka National Historic Site — the location of a World War II-era camp in Idaho for Japanese Americans. Everything she learned there, she said, can be used to help guide development of Honouliuli.

“We put together two brand new exhibits, we did a park film, we opened up the brand new visitor center at the Park Service last year and so I could take all those skill sets into developing this site and hopefully learn from some the mistakes that we’ve had, so we could make sure that we had a good process forward and we could streamline things a little bit more,” Wakatsuki said.

The history of Honouliuli goes back to World War II, just months after the Japanese launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

Unlike President Franklin Roosevelt’s executive order that applied to the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans on the mainland, martial law was declared in Hawaii within hours of the bombing. A mass incarceration was nearly impossible because of Hawaii’s large Japanese population, which was vital to sustaining the economy.

[READ MORE: Internment or incarceration? Why words matter to describe the Japanese American wartime experience]

That’s when government officials began rounding up Hawaii residents who were feared to be a threat to national security — many of whom were business or religious leaders. They were first taken to the U.S. Immigration Station and the Sand Island Detention Camp, then later sent to Honouliuli or camps on the mainland.

Honouliuli during World War II
Honouliuli during World War II(Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii)

Wakatsuki said it’s vital for NPS to shed light on these nuances that set Honouliuli apart from camps on the mainland — because the details are just as important as the broader World War II story.

She brings up an anecdote of one of her good friends, whose uncle was incarcerated at Honouliuli. At the time, her friend was just a teenager living on Maui and would check up on her uncle at Honouliuli on Oahu. But all she remembered was how her shoes got dirty. Wakatsuki said this exemplifies the need to keep these stories alive — because as time goes on, the memories are fading.

“That’s why preservation of the history is really important because of how the people are passing,” she said. “We need to make sure that we learn about these histories.”

Hanako Wakatsuki was named first superintendent of the National Park Service in March.
Hanako Wakatsuki was named first superintendent of the National Park Service in March.(National Park Service)

After closing in 1946, Honouliuli, hidden away from public view in Kunia, had been left virtually untouched, with nothing left but concrete slab foundations, a rock wall and an aqueduct behind dense vegetation of overgrown grass and trees.

Perhaps one of the biggest reasons why it was long forgotten was because no one spoke of it.

“A lot of it also comes down to generational trauma, because they’re traumatized so they don’t want to talk about it and then don’t talk about it to others, and then it manifests in different ways,” Wakatsuki said.

It wasn’t until 1998, when a KHNL reporter sought more information about the site. That prompted a team of researchers and Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii volunteers to relocate the site.

President Barack Obama designated Honouliuli a national monument in February 2015, and the National Park Service was tasked with transforming the 440-acre plot of land — donated by agricultural company Monsanto — into a park unit for visitors to experience. In 2019, John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act redesignated it as Honouliuli National Historic Site.

Over the past five years, NPS and its partners — including the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii, the University of Hawaii at West Oahu, the University of Hawaii at Manoa and Bayer — have been working collectively on an overwhelming amount of planning and preparation, everything from taking inventory of the flora and fauna to collecting data on resources at the site.

Wakatsuki acknowledges that “it may seem like not a lot of progress had been made from the outside, but on the inside, there’s been a lot of movement.”

Overgrown grass covers part of a concrete wall at Honouliuli.
Overgrown grass covers part of a concrete wall at Honouliuli.(National Park Service)

NPS just finished its P3 process that took about a year to complete, and is now working with partners on obtaining more documentation that includes figuring out access to the public. Then, they will proceed with the general management plan, which involves gaining community input on how they envision the site.

“We need the feedback from our visitors and potential visitors and constituency groups to kind of help us paint that picture ‘cause some people may want a visitor center, they may want walking trails, they may want all these things, but it just kind of depends on what the public wants and what the constituency groups would like to see with the stakeholders,” Wakatsuki said.

Wakatsuki also couldn’t provide an estimated timeline of completion, but she did point to development of Minidoka National Historic site as an example of the amount of time it would take to complete a site like this. Minidoka was established in 2001, but it just opened its visitor center last year.

“It took us 19 years to go from being designated to actually having visitor services and a brand new visitor center, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t have access,” she said. “What we ended up doing, in between, we had a temporary visitor center, we still did programming of educational programs and public tours.”

She does, however, anticipate that work on Honouliuli will be done faster than Minidoka.

Funding comes from a budget that was allocated for the project, but getting additional dollars through an internal NPS grant system will be dependent on development of the general plan, which will likely take a few years.

Tall grass covers an aqueduct at Honouliuli.
Tall grass covers an aqueduct at Honouliuli.(National Park Service)

And just last month, U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz introduced a bill that would provide $38 million to preserve Japanese American Confinement Sites, including Honuliuli, as well as create a $2 million grant program to promote public education of Japanese American internment during World War II.

Amid a rise in Asian American hate crimes, Wakatsuki said it’s more important than ever to have sites like Honouliuli to educate people of race in America and the anti-Asian sentiment that existed during the war. Although a mass incarceration didn’t happen in Hawaii, Wakatsuki said Honouliuli can help people gain awareness on a holistic level that some of the anti-Asian sentiments did lead to the incarceration of those on the mainland.

But Wakatsuki’s ultimate hope for the site: that people learn the human stories of Honouliuli so that they can really understand what happened at this long-lost internment camp — a piece of history that’s so essential to America’s story.

“I always like to think personally that our mission in life is just to be a better version of ourselves,” Wakatsuki said. “And if we don’t know our past, how can we become better in the future? "

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