74 years later: How recalling Honouliuli's dark past is forging its future

74 years later: How recalling Honouliuli's dark past is forging its future
Archive photo of the Honouliuli internment camp (Image: Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii)
Honouliuli today (Image: Hawaii News Now)
Honouliuli today (Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Office of Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa)
(Image: Office of Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa)

KUNIA, OAHU (HawaiiNewsNow) - At the height of World War II, Shigeo Muroda was apprehended from the Waianae plantation he worked on and sent to a detention camp on Sand Island.

The plantation carpenter and founding member of the Hongwanji Buddhist temple in Waianae, along with hundreds of Japanese-Americans suspected of disloyalty, were then whisked away to an isolated gulch, with no view and barely any wind, tucked away in Central Oahu.

For the next few years, Muroda and other detainees would live their days — separated from their families — at the Honouliuli internment camp, which became known to many prisoners as jigoku dani, or "Hell's Valley," because of the excruciating heat and moisture trapped in the gulch.

The internment of thousands of Japanese-Americans during the war was seen as one of the darkest periods in U.S. history — marked by years of racial prejudice. But generations later, Muroda's granddaughter would exemplify the resilience of the Japanese-American population by securing a spot in Hawaii's Congressional delegation.

Growing up, U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa knew very little about her grandfather's experience at Honouliuli — in part because he would rarely talk about it.

This was a mentality she referred to as the Japanese phrases shikata ga nai — meaning that's just the way it is — and gaman — just grin and bear it.

It wasn't until many years later when she learned more about her grandfather's job as a mess hall sergeant and how he would prepare snacks for the prison guards after their shifts. "That was the way they were," Hanabusa said, about her grandfather's generation and the prisoners at Honouliuli.

"It is almost like they were so accepting of the fate that was dealt to them, and that was what they were going to do."

Life in 'Hell's Valley'

This month marks 74 years since Honouliuli opened, and today, it's still hard to imagine what life was like there for the 4,000 prisoners of war and 400 civilian internees, many of whom were of Japanese-American ancestry.

What's left of Hawaii's largest and longest-used confinement site is essentially concrete slab foundations, a rock wall and an aqueduct — all barely visible through the dense vegetation of overgrown grass and trees.

But more than two years after President Barack Obama designated it as a national historic monument, Hanabusa — whose paternal grandfather, Minosuke Hanabusa, was incarcerated in Santa Fe — believes both of her grandfathers' stories and the stories of other internees can finally be told.

"I think that's really the treasure of Honouliuli," she said. "It's when you hear the stories that you can almost see the place come alive again and see what it was all about, and that's why I think that it's important that it has that designation."

Since Honouliuli was designated as a national monument in February 2015, the National Park Service has been tasked with transforming this 440-acre plot of land in Kunia — donated by agricultural company Monsanto — into a visitor experience, where the public can see and experience what life was like for the internees.

"History is so bound to why a place is the way it is today," said Rebecca Rinas, a planner for the National Park Service. "A memorial site is essentially an immersive experience. You're at the site where something happened. You can still see remnants of that. It's this tangible connection. I think these spaces are just so important."

Rediscovering a forgotten past

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7 1941, martial law — as opposed to President Franklin Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066 that applied to the mass incarceration of Japanese-Americans on the mainland — was declared within hours in Hawaii.

That's when government officials began arbitrarily rounding up Hawaii residents, like Muroda, who they felt were a threat to national security.

The internees, many of whom were influential leaders of the Japanese-American community, such as business or religious leaders, were brought to the U.S. Immigration Station and the Sand Island Detention Camp, then later sent to internment camps on the mainland or Honouliuli.

The actual civilian prison compound at Honouliuli closed in 1945, but the camp may have been used through 1946 for the transfer of prisoners of war and other military activities. Since then, however, the site had been left virtually untouched and faded from the public eye, along with the memories.

It wasn't until 1998 when more information emerged after a KHNL reporter contacted the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii to get more information. Then in 2002, a team of researchers and JCCH volunteers re-discovered the site on property owned by Monsanto.

This begs the question: Why was Honouliuli forgotten about for so many years?

Hanabusa believes it was because of that shikata ga nai mentality that many of the internees had.

"The people who were there, like my grandfather, didn't talk about it," Hanabusa said. "If they were activists, you would've expected them to say something or do something about it, but it's their 'shikata ga nai' attitude, which was a value of how they felt, and I think that's the reason why, and they also wanted it to be behind them."

The internment camp, buried deep in the gulch of Kunia and hidden from public view, evoked a sense of isolation and disorientation — with stories of family members boarding a bus in downtown Honolulu and being blindfolded when visiting internees at Honouliuli. But for many of the prisoners, including Hanabusa's grandfather, they simply carried on as if this was a part of daily life.

One such story Hanabusa remembers her grandfather sharing with her was when he would trade bread for rice with some of the European detainees because rice was of more value to him.

'We've lost a lot'

In order for stories like these to be properly told, Hanabusa — who's also a ranking member of the subcommittee on Federal Lands on the House Natural Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over the National Park Service — said the public needs to see physical representations of the place, like the barracks, tents and even the mess hall her grandfather spent so much time in.

But she added that NPS needs to be extra careful about how it conveys those stories.

"Unfortunately, because it took so long, and because they didn't talk about it, I think we've lost a lot," she said. "I think most of it is oral history now. And that's why I would like to see the National Park Service be very careful about the preservation of those stories and have a role for the Japanese Cultural Center and the docents, who did the heavy lifting, to get it to this point."

Preventing injustice

Rinas, who's currently the only full-time NPS worker dedicated to Honouliuli, said it could take more than five years before the site can officially open to the public.

Right now, NPS has been collecting data — through archaeological surveys and on-site features through a consortium of faculty and students from the University of Hawaii West Oahu as well as volunteers from the JCCH — to uncover features associated with World War II.

Transforming the site into a public experience is a complicated and massive undertaking that's expected to require years of planning. There are the access issues and how the public will get to the site. There's the impacts to cultural and natural resources. And there's the funding complications, along with questions about how multiple stakeholders (from the Board of Water Supply to JCCH to community leaders) will work together.

"All of these strategies need to be explored in more depth, and they need to be evaluated from so many different standpoints," Rinas said.

In the meantime, Hanabusa says there's no time like the present — while the United States is considering stricter immigration policies and a tough travel ban — to recall the lessons of Honouliuli.

She said even though the internees during World War II rarely spoke of their experiences, Honouliuli continues to serve as a symbol of how rights can be trampled on during wartime.

"I think that it's only when we have a memory of what happened," she said, "that we can ensure that this type of injustice doesn't happen again."

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