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Tuesday, May 3, 2005


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PHOTO COURTESY OF PBS HAWAII
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY DAVID SWANN
/ DSWANN@STARBULLETIN.COM
The producers of "Biography Hawaii" make the case that Koji Ariyoshi came to appreciate "the human side of the Communists" in China by socializing with their leaders, including Mao Zedong himself.




Koji Ariyoshi was
key labor figure

What were Koji Ariyoshi's gut feelings about communism and the People's Republic of China? Was he a wholehearted supporter of Maoist genocide? Was he an idealist who embraced Mao's promises of a better world in the same way that an earlier generation of American leftists bought into the myth of Stalin as benevolent leader of a "socialist workers' paradise"?

"Biography Hawai'i: Koji Ariyoshi" airs at 8 p.m. Thursday on KHET/PBS

Or, was Ariyoshi a progressive pragmatist who would accept help from any quarter in the struggle to end white minority rule in Hawaii and ensure a better life for people of all races and ethnic backgrounds?

Given the extent to which Ariyoshi's political beliefs affected his life and his high-profile persona, these are legitimate questions.

But producer Chris Conybeare chooses to leave the questions unanswered in "Biography Hawai'i: Koji Ariyoshi," a reverent look at this prominent figure in the local labor movement.

Ariyoshi was an early participant in the struggle to unionize island workers in the 1930s and '40s. He was convicted and then acquitted of charges of conspiring to overthrow the U.S. government in the 1950s. He then lived long enough to help shape the University of Hawaii-Manoa Ethnic Studies Department and secure its survival. He also enjoyed broad public acceptance after the governments of the United States and China found it useful to establish diplomatic relations in the early 1970s.

The producers acknowledge that they relied heavily on Ariyoshi's published political memoirs as source material. That might be why the only vaguely critical comment comes when the narrator mentions that by 1958 the ILWU felt there was too much of a "heavy left-wing slant" to his writing.

Amid the producers' adulation, Ariyoshi emerges as his own best spokesman. Much of the third-person narrative is written in a style that suggests it was vetted in Beijing, but when Dann Seki portrays Ariyoshi, we meet an articulate and insightful philosopher and social activist.

Seki's segments show that Ariyoshi was uncompromising in his support of people seeking to improve their lives, and as concerned about the plight of white sharecroppers in the American South as in working-class people in Hawaii.

The purpose of ethnic studies is not to justify contemporary grievances, he explains, but to learn from the past and gain confidence in building a better future.

The man Seki brings to life is much more interesting and admirable that the saintly figure described in the narration. Similarly, the most compelling of all the "talking heads" is Ariyoshi's son, Roger, whose descriptions of his father are free of ideological agenda. He presents vivid images of the price his family paid for his father's steadfast adherence to his political beliefs.

Koji Ariyoshi was born to immigrant coffee growers in 1914, helped his mother pay off the family debts after his father died and joined the ILWU in the late 1930s when the struggle to unionize was intensifying.

He attended UH-Manoa and earned a scholarship to the University of Georgia, where he observed the impact of race laws on African Americans and learned that many Caucasians were also victims of the capitalist system.

Ariyoshi was working as a longshoreman in California when the United States entered World War II. He was interned at Manzanar, enlisted in the Army and was sent to India, then China. He took an immediate dislike to the corrupt government of Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang in Chungking. On the other hand, he liked everything the communists showed him, from their treatment of workers and peasants to their program to convert captured Japanese soldiers to their cause.

Upon his return to Hawaii, Ariyoshi declined offers of work with the Big Five. Instead he was involved with the Committee for a Democratic Far East Policy about the time the Korean War began. He was arrested in 1951 and charged with conspiring to overthrow the U.S. government.

The narrator notes that membership in the Communist Party was not illegal at the time. But given that the United States and "Red China" were engaged in an undeclared war in Korea, the narrator's description of American concerns about communist subversion as "hysteria" and an "irrational fear" seems myopic -- unless this is a direct quote from Ariyoshi's memoirs.

Ariyoshi's story is an important one. His outspoken commitment to social equality and the struggle to improve the lives of Hawaii's working people deserves to be recognized. The producers would have done better to devote more time to Ariyoshi's own observations, giving the audience credit for being intelligent enough to assess and digest them.

The producers note that Ariyoshi warned years ago that the American government might seek to quell domestic unrest by starting a war in some other part of the world, an observation that has "great relevance at the moment." Yet if he ever expressed concerns about Chinese policies in Tibet, or the staggering human cost of Mao's Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, there's no mention of that here.

Few great men are perfect. Theodore Roosevelt was simultaneously an ardent conservationist and a white supremacist. Franklin Roosevelt fought Nazism in Europe but did nothing to dismantle the web of Nazi-style race laws in this country. Perhaps Ariyoshi addressed the Cultural Revolution and other communist fallout in China more forthrightly in his memoirs. Maybe the answers are there.



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