Film looks at low WWII
isle internee numbers

A filmmaker focuses on how communities
protected local nisei

More than 120,000 Japanese Americans were ordered into internment camps during World War II, but despite their large numbers, few in the territory of Hawaii were forced to leave their homes.

Filmmaker Tom Coffman is working on a documentary that explains why, and explores how communities working together on behalf of local Japanese Americans influenced both Hawaii's and the nation's history.

"I believe this laid the basis for statehood," said Coffman, an author and former political reporter.

An interracial group started meeting in Hawaii in 1939 in anticipation of war, fearing the effect on the U.S. territory would be devastating, Coffman said.

"Their premise was that how well we get along during the war will determine how well we get along after," he said. "The greatest sense of urgency came from the Japanese community, but overlooked are the Caucasian community, business community, Chinese community."

The group, including Shigeo Yoshida, an educator whose un-archived and un-categorized files Coffman found at the University of Hawaii, began working as the Council for Interracial Unity. Coffman said the council combined "pragmatism and idealism."

"The group struck on the idea of involving military intelligence and the FBI," Coffman said, noting that intelligence agencies had been keeping watch on the Hawaii populace.

The group made contact with Robert Shivers, the head of the Honolulu FBI office who was charged with determining whether the estimated one-third Japanese population would be loyal to the United States. The group enlisted Shivers in their cause and surrounded him with advisers who were nisei -- second-generation Americans of Japanese ancestry.

When young nisei went to the police department and volunteered their service in event of war, they were assigned to Lt. John A. Burns, who began organizing a communication and morale-boosting network.

Burns, a Democrat who went on to be elected governor in 1962, three years after statehood, was assigned to assist the FBI with interrogations.

Burns wrote in a Honolulu Star-Bulletin column that Japanese Americans in Hawaii were loyal to the United States and that it was in America's interest to cultivate that loyalty.

"It was a gutsy move; it put him personally at risk," Coffman said.

Members of the group also became instrumental in the formation of the Army's storied 442nd Regimental Combat Team, comprised of mostly Japanese Americans. The unit became one of the most decorated in U.S. military history.

Coffman said he has been working on the project for about 10 years, including spending a month one summer at the National Archives collecting archival film. It started with his book "Catch a Wave," which chronicled Burns' final campaign for governor in 1970.

The effort accelerated with Coffman's work at the Japanese Cultural Center and his research on his last book, "Island Edge," which traces Hawaii's history from annexation to the 1980s with emphasis on the contribution of Japanese Americans.

Most of the approximately 15 interviews have been done, and the documentary's script has been written. Film directors Bob Bates and Ryan Kawamoto are helping to film some of the interviews.

"The archival film is good but the live interviews authenticate it," Coffman said. "They tell the stories that put you there. We're lucky we still have some of the people around."

Coffman hopes to complete the documentary by next fall.

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