This was an excellent, thought-provoking look at a little-known historical event which had far-reaching consequences that continue to ripple through today’s headlines. The Ni’ihau Incident was used as a justification for the US government’s policy of imprisoning Japanese-Americans during World War II. Historians today recommend the usage of the phrase “concentration camps” for these places where our own citizens were confined, rather than the softer, more sterilized “internment camps.” But even actor George Takei, who was a victim of that confinement, has said that at least he, as a 5-year-old child, was not taken away from his family during that imprisonment. It is not my intention to make this a political blog, but the subject matter–seemingly so far away in topic and locale–seems very pertinent to recent headlines and arguments over whether the camps holding migrants along our southern border are, indeed, concentration camps or not.
I am reading my way across the USA–5 or so books from each state, with an emphasis on those where the setting becomes another character, or where we learn something about the geography, history, and/or people of the state. Right now we are in Hawaii–this time on Ni’ihau.
Ni’ihau is different from the rest of Hawaii. It’s the most western in the chain, which means it was the first of the islands formed. Its climate is also different–it is very dry and dusty, because it is in Kaua’i’s rain shadow and isn’t tall enough to catch much tradewind rainfall itself.
For centuries the dry years had forced people to make the treacherous canoe ride to Kaua’i and settle there instead, often never returning. Kaua’i was lush and green. Its Mount Wai‘ale‘ale was the wettest place on earth, receiving five hundred inches of rain a year. Only sixteen miles leeward, Ni’ihau was a flaking, discarded peel of sand and lava. It was smaller than its neighbors, only eighteen miles long, and curled like a lemon rind. The wind was strong, rain was rare. Hawaiian lore stated—and science later confirmed—that Ni’ihau was the first of the island chain to push its way from the ocean floor. Its explosive, frothy, molten birth seemed inconceivable now. It was an island of muted color, understatement, and calm.
And it’s isolated–mainly because it is privately-owned. The island was purchased in 1864 by Elizabeth Sinclair, along with land on Kaua’i, and has been owned by her descendants–the Robinson family–ever since.
Kamehameha V began to tire of the island and, with its taxes unpaid and its inhabitants angry, he wished to unload it; he was glad to show this haole—white foreigner—not only available parcels on Oahu and Kaua’i, but also the whole of Ni’ihau. It just so happened that 1864 was a wet year for Ni’ihau. The land was green, the springs were abundant. … Ni’ihau sounded like paradise. She promptly offered $ 6,000 for the whole island. The king countered with a demand for $ 10,000, pointing to its lush beauty, its fecund soil. Eliza Sinclair agreed. Yoshio Harada had always liked this story; it was, he thought, one of the few times that the white people got their shirts taken by a brown people.
In 1915 the island was closed to outsiders, and residents were discouraged from leaving, even to visit family. Part of the original purchase agreement stated that the new owners would protect the Hawaiian culture, and this isolation is credited with helping preserve the Hawaiian language and traditions. However, this isolation was, at least in part, what led to the actions of the Japanese couple, Irene and Yoshio Harada, who were living on the island during the events of East Wind, Rain by Caroline Paul.
But on Ni’ihau, the islanders were cut off from the world. The Robinsons banned newspapers and telephones and radios on the island. They discouraged literacy and the English language—both were considered conduits of evil ideas and thoughts. People rarely left the island, and those who did had to ask permission to return, which was rarely granted. Church was the centerpiece of life on Ni’ihau. Since a posting on Ni’ihau was considered too harsh and isolated, a minister came from Kaua’i every month or so… Every Sunday was full of song and a long sermon intoned from the Hawaiian Bible by Howard, the only man who could read effectively. On all other days of the week work stopped intermittently and the villagers got to their knees; under the Robinsons’ insistence the Ni’ihauans prayed five times a day.
There is still no telephone service on Ni’ihau. No running water or plumbing, and no power lines–although there is some solar powered electricity, and reportedly some residents have radios and televisions. The low rainfall and lack of infrastructure necessitates the occasional evacuation of the residents to Kaua’i due to drought. Apparently, residents are allowed to leave Ni’ihau now, for work, school, and errands on Kaua’i.
Paul does a good job of answering the question, “Why would a Japanese-American Nisei couple–American-born citizens–help a downed Japanese pilot who had just attacked an American military base?” The impact of racism on those who are mistreated can be long-lasting and its consequences unforeseen–another lesson that Trump and his supporters might consider when contemplating punitive measures against those of a particular religious background.
She also does a fair job of showing how “foreign” this reaction seemed to other Japanese-Americans in Hawaii, from the workers on the Robinson’s ranch in Kauai, to the Japanese-American Kauai police officer, to the long line of Issei and Nisei waiting to donate blood. In the end, Paul makes it pretty clear that her characters acted the way they did in large part because of the isolation of Ni’ihau, not solely due to the discrimination they faced. Humans have a very strong instinct for survival. The only source of information available to the Haradas during the “Incident” was the Japanese pilot, Nishikaichi, himself, whose thinking Paul shows here:
There were no plans to take over the Hawaiian Islands. Japanese interest was in one thing only these days: fuel. The United States had led international sanctions against Japan for the past few years, and now fuel, a precious resource for a nation with ambition, was scarce. Military operations in China and elsewhere were threatened, and living conditions in his homeland had deteriorated rapidly. … Still, there were fuel reserves scattered about the Orient, which the Japanese nation deserved. The Son of Heaven had rightly decided to decimate the Pacific Fleet, based in Pearl Harbor, knowing that once these battleships and fighter planes were out of the way, the eastern oil ports would be easily taken. Hong Kong, Thailand, the Philippines, these were the targets Nishikaichi had heard about. But clearly this man Yoshio understood none of that. He’d heard of Pearl Harbor’s devastation and destruction and logically thought that this island was next. … [He] took a deep breath. Then he lied.-They should arrive any day, he said. To make this island Japanese. If you are to fare well in that, you must help me in my mission.
While the Haradas were portrayed very sympathetically, the portrayal of the Ni’ihauans in Paul’s book was rather paternalistic. They came across as slow and mostly unable to think or act without input and approval from their “Old Lord” Robinson. Now, granted this novel was written mostly from the point of view of the Japanese couple, so this could be seen as their view of the Hawaiians, and, in the end, it was the actions of the Hawaiians that saved the day–which Paul also makes clear. But the fact remains that the narrative buys into that stereotype of Hawaiians (and native people in general). By telling the story almost solely from the point of view of non-Hawaiians she risks perpetuating the stereotype, even though she tries to refute it.
As bad as things got for the Japanese Americans, things were sometimes worse for the Hawaiians. All over the islands they were treated as a vanquished people would be, with a kind of pity and condescension, while at least the nisei inspired fear and some respect because of their obvious education and their sheer numbers
Paul says in her Author’s Note that she received no reply to her request for access to the island to speak to the residents, but asserts that by chance she actually met a relative of Ella and Ben Kanahele at a blackjack table in Reno. She claims that he confirmed her version of the end of the novel–which differs significantly from official versions. I have to admit that her version makes a bit more sense–given Ben’s condition, the official account seems a super-human act–although Paul’s story of corroboration is a bit far-fetched as well.
Overall, I’m glad I added this one to our reading list for Hawaii. It gave us a view of a “Forbidden Island” that most people don’t get to see, and a historical event with far-reaching consequences. Again, if I were recommending one book to read for Hawaii, this probably would not be it, but it added some new perspectives and deepened our understanding of Hawaii.