“Revolution of 1954” became the popular term for the November 1954 Hawai'i territorial election that saw Democratic majorities in both the house and senate for the first time, upending decades of Republican rule. Many of the newly elected officials were Nisei veterans who were no longer willing to accept their second-class status in the Islands.
Nisei Veterans: "We Wanted Our Place in the Sun"
With the conclusion of World War II, many Nisei veterans returned to the Islands and faced the challenge of reentering civilian life. However, their experiences during the war had fundamentally changed these soldiers, and they were unwilling to accept their second-class status within society, particularly in light of the lives that had been lost in order to prove the loyalty of the Japanese community. The 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team accounted for sixty percent of Hawai'i's fighting forces and eighty percent of total Hawai'i casualties. Of the 7,500 men who joined either of these units, 5,000 were awarded medals, approximately 3,600 of which were for battle wounds. 700 hundred died, 700 were maimed, and another 1,000 were seriously wounded.
The Nisei who fought and died on the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific to defend the honor and loyalty of their people learned a great deal about Hawai'i and America in their experiences. Coming from an isolated island chain in the middle of the Pacific, they witnessed firsthand the racial segregation of southern towns while training in areas such as Camp Shelby, Mississippi. They observed the inferior position of poor whites who performed menial labor reserved for non-whites in the Islands, and saw the widespread discrimination experienced by African Americans. They also met the better-educated "kotonks," their fellow Nisei from the mainland who were also in the 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regiment, heard them describe the opportunities available on the mainland, and accompanied them when they visited their incarcerated families. "Most of all," according to one author, "they wondered quietly to themselves if they were fighting for mere acceptance or if, as warriors returning to Hawaii, they could assert their ambitions in politics and business." By fighting and dying on behalf of the United States to prove their loyalty—something no other ethnic group had been asked to do—Japanese American soldiers believed they had earned their rightful place as equals within society. 442nd Regimental Combat veteran and future Hawai'i senator Daniel Inouye explained this transformation:
“Well obviously after going through an experience of that nature where you saw your friends die every day, get wounded every day, keep in mind that we had more purple hearts per capita than any other regiment in the United States Army . . . we received more decorations for valor than any other comparable unit in the United States Army… it showed that we were involved in a lot of action . . . . and whenever you do involve yourself in action, there is a lot of blood and having spilled that blood . . . we weren't ready to go back to the plantations.”
According to Inouye, after having experienced the horrors of war, and having sacrificed countless lives in an effort to prove their loyalty, many Nisei veterans returned to the Islands with a new perspective and desire for change. "So we knew we were expendable," explained Inouye, "but we knew that we had to pay that price . . . and we were willing to pay that price . . . but once we paid that price we wanted our place in the sun."
This desire for political, social, and economic change led many veterans to support the Democratic Party and align themselves with other prominent Nisei who had emerged as leaders within the Japanese community during World War II. As a result of the absence of traditional Issei leaders who had been interned, and because of the war-spawned role reversal of traditional Japanese social patterns, prominent Nisei assumed the leadership roles within the Japanese community. They spearheaded organizations during the war such as the Council for Inter-Racial Unity, Morale Committees, and Emergency Service Committee. The latter organization led the way in demonstrations of loyalty and Americanization by in part encouraging Nisei with dual citizenship to renounce their Japanese citizenship. This group was mainly led by Nisei, including such prominent individuals as Supreme Court Justice Wilfred C. Tsukiyama, University of Hawai'i historian Shunzō Sakamaki, attorney Katsuro Miho, engineer Arthur Y. Akinaka, attorney Masaji Marumoto, and his one-time law partner Robert K. Murakami. During the war they had encouraged donations to blood banks and "Speak-American" campaigns, collected flowers from Japanese farmers for the graves of those killed on December 7, 1941, and removed Japanese signage. Their efforts were designed to focus the energies of the Japanese community on deflecting accusations of disloyalty.
Similar in aims to the Emergency and the Morale Committees was the Police Contact Group active on O'ahu during the early months of the war. It had evolved from a rally at McKinley High School in June 1941, which 2,000 people had attended. Following that event, a group of Nisei had gone to the Honolulu Police Department to volunteer their services. They were directed to a young police officer, John Burns, who organized them into a network of young Japanese Americans who would to serve as contacts in Japanese neighborhoods. As a result of his work with the Police Contact Group, Burns grew increasingly involved within the Japanese community and efforts to publicize the military contributions of Japanese Americans who had served in the Varsity Victory Volunteers, the 100th Infantry Battalion, and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. In the process, Burns established key political alliances and critical community support within the ethnic population. One author commented:
Bit by bit, the young police captain was backing into politics. His personal contacts were multiplying to the hundreds and thousands, ranging from his organizing campaigns to managing a Japanese baseball team, the Asahis (Morning Sun), who for wartimes' sake changed their name to the Athletics.
Through his efforts within the Japanese community, Burns became acquainted with prominent Nisei who became instrumental in his political aspirations, which came to fruition during the "Revolution of 1954" when Democrats seized control of the Territorial Legislature and ushered in a new era of social and racial equality in Hawai'i. The executive secretary of the Emergency Service Committee was Mitsuyuki "Mits" Kido, who in 1959 ran with Burns as a candidate for lieutenant governor. Kido first met Burns in the early days of the war and, by 1944, Burns, Kido, Edward Murai, Jack Kawano, and politician Chuck Mau met almost weekly to discuss plans for the postwar period. At that time, Kido recalled, "we asked each other, 'What the hell are we going to do when these kids come home'. . . . We said we would stand for equality of opportunity, regardless of race. We wanted acceptance as first-class citizens. Our second goal was to raise the standard of living and the standard of education." They settled on the Democratic Party as the vehicle for challenging the white oligarchy that had maintained its political dominance in Hawai'i through the Republican Party.
After the war ended, Burns resigned from the Police Department, intent on reorganizing a party that had never controlled an elective body in the history of Hawai'i. Key to his success was the alliance Burns formed with a young Nisei veteran, Daniel Inouye, who convinced Dan Aoki, president of the 442nd Veterans Club, that the energies of its members could be used to improve the social and political status of Japanese in Hawai'i. By 1948, after serving six years as O'ahu's Civil Defense director, Burns had gathered enough support to become the O'ahu chairman of the Democratic Party. In the fall, he entered the nearly impossible race for delegate to Congress against the popular Republican incumbent, Joseph Farrington. Burns lost, but he had established a core group of supporters: Matsuo Takabuki and Mike Tokunaga, Nisei veterans who had been raised on the plantations and became key party leaders; William Richardson, a part-Hawaiian who envisioned a Japanese-Hawaiian voting bloc to weaken white political control; and Sakae Takahashi, who was a veteran of the 100th Infantry Battalion and who in 1950 won a seat on the Honolulu Board of Supervisors and became the first Japanese American treasurer of the Territory.
As Burns rose from O'ahu chairman to territorial chairman of the Democratic Party, his supporters similarly gained in numbers and political positions as they "indefatigably exploited the accumulated resentments of Japanese, Chinese, Hawaiians, and Filipinos against the injustices, real and imagined, of the past." Many were inspired to break the influence of the Islands' haole (white) oligarchy who dominated the plantations and political and economic life of Hawai'i. They became aligned with other whites such as Thomas P. Gill, O. Vincent Esposito, and Frank Fasi who as rising entrepreneurs and professionals found few opportunities in Big Five companies. Many other middle class professionals—realtors, lawyers, contractors, and others with jobs closely associated with politics—regarded the Democratic Party as a potential vehicle for economic success. The rise of the Democratic Party was also facilitated by the support of prominent Democrats such as Alan Saunders, Dr. Gregg Sinclair, Governor Oren Long, and Thomas Murphy of the University of Hawai'i who openly maintained their political affiliation after arriving in the Islands. Collectively, with the support of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union leadership who rallied their membership against the Republican Party, the Democratic Party in Hawai'i became revitalized as a formidable multi-ethnic challenge to the Republican Party.
In 1954, thirteen years after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the now vital Democratic Party achieved victory, securing solid majorities in both houses of the legislature. After helping to secure statehood for Hawai'i in 1959, Burns would be elected governor in 1962 after defeating Governor William Quinn in a landslide. The vote was tallied at 114,000 for Burns and 82,000 for Quinn. Burns's victory proved emblematic of the growing political influence in Hawai'i of the Democratic Party, and of the rise of Japanese American veterans such as Daniel Inouye, Spark Matsunaga, and George Ariyoshi. For many, the 1950s marked a new era dominated by Nisei who had capitalized on the educational opportunities provided by the GI Bill and who had taken advantage of political and economic opportunities.
In the postwar period many Nisei entered professional occupations and became teachers, doctors, and lawyers, while others took advantage of the tourism boom in the 1950s to enjoy unprecedented profits from businesses catering to the burgeoning tourist industry. The rise of the second generation in education and business was also mirrored in their political assent within the Democratic Party as Nisei began to dominate political positions in Hawai'i as a result of the Revolution of 1954. Still today Hawai'i is controlled to a great extent by the Democratic interests that can be traced to the political activism of Nisei veterans who wanted to create a more egalitarian society.
Authored by Kelli Y. Nakamura, University of Hawai'i
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1. Research for this article was supported by a grant from the Hawai‘i Council for the Humanities.
8. "Katagiri Due for Presidency of Civic Group," Honolulu Star Bulletin, June 27, 1940, 2; "New Citizen Conference Concluded," Honolulu Star Bulletin, July 21, 1941, 3; "Civic Group Will Install New Officers," Honolulu Star Bulletin, July 11, 1942, 9. Shunzō Sakamaki was the son of Jūzaburō Sakamaki, bombing victim during the 1920s strike. He was also chairman of the University of Hawaii History Department and served as dean of the University Summer Session for sixteen years. Robert Murakami was the defense attorney for Myles Fukunaga who was charged, sentenced, and executed for the brutal murder of Gill Jamieson.
12. Edward Murai had helped Burns organize the Police Contact Group and Jack Kawano was an International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) organizer who provided critical labor support when Burns and other Nisei ran for political office. Coffman, Catch a Wave, 23.
15. Coffman, Catch a Wave, 24. For more information on Matsuo Takabuki consult, Matsuo Takabuki, An Unlikely Revolutionary: Matsuo Takabuki and the Making of Modern Hawai'i (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1998).
17. For more information on the postwar rise of the Nisei, consult Dorothy Ochiai Hazama and Jane Okamoto Komeiji, Okage Sama De: The Japanese in Hawaii 1885-1985 (Honolulu: Bess Press, 1986), 177-218.
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