Threads of Empire: Militourism and the Aloha Wear Industry in Hawai‘i
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Threads of Empire:
Militourism and the Aloha Wear Industry in Hawai‘i

In 1946 my grandparents, Raymond and Mildred Sasaki, founded Malihini Sportswear Incorporated, an aloha wear garment manufacturing firm, in Honolulu, Hawai‘i. Between 1946 and 1980 Malihini Sportswear grew to become one of the larger producers of aloha wear in the islands.1 Twenty years after the war, Malihini’s garments could be found in retail chains across the nation, including Lord and Taylor, May Company, Sears, and JC Penney, as well as in US military installations in Guam, Japan, Okinawa, and the Philippines.2 While the Cold War–era growth of Hawai‘i’s tourism industry greatly benefited this particular Nisei-owned (second-generation Japanese American) family business, it was its connection to the US Armed Forces that directly increased Malihini’s sales and enabled it to become one of the few large Japanese American–owned firms in the islands.3 After forging a relationship with buyers for post and base exchanges during World War II, the Sasakis used their connections to place their aloha shirts in military outposts across US colonial possessions in the Cold War Pacific. As the US Empire expanded, Malihini Sportswear mirrored this growth with its own sizable increase in profits.4

Reflected in this narrative of a family-owned “aloha wear” garment company are two phenomena that were brought together in the aftermath of World War II: militarism and mass tourism. Hawai‘i’s present state as a “tourist’s paradise,” a land seen as attractive, welcoming, and safe, is partly a result of the confluence between the tourism and military industries in the islands, which both maintain a codependent relationship with the modern American Empire.5 Vernadette Vicuña Gonzalez points out that despite Hawai‘i’s position as the most militarized state in the nation, the violent histories of colonialism and forced occupation of the former kingdom are rendered invisible in the everyday through narrative practices of uplift and touristic hospitality.6 As colonial modes of domination in modern Hawai‘i, militarism and tourism are so intertwined that they form the “taken-for-granted routines and logics of both local and global life.”7 [End Page 643]

This essay examines the mutually beneficial relationship between militarism and tourism through recovered histories of local practices of garment production and consumption that were fostered by the aegis of imperialism. Today, almost everything in Hawai‘i “communicates through a system of codes that tourism, and the … institutions that support tourism, have constructed over years of selling Hawai‘i as paradise.”8 Within this semiotic framework of Hawai‘i as the ultimate tourist destination, the totality of the islands, including the multiracial population, is coded to fit within a paradisal discourse. Following Christina Klein, I begin with the premise that the “exercise of political, economic, and military power always depends upon mechanisms of ‘culture,’ in the form of creative use of language and the deployment of shared stories.”9 Starting in World War II and continuing into the Cold War, the islands became “a space where the world was invited to check out American race relations and American possibilities.”10 Aloha wear and depictions of militarized bodies embodying the garments emerged as one of the primary vehicles used to deploy a shared story of racial inclusion and touristic fantasy. Through excavating Malihini Sportswear’s business history and its ties to the US military, this essay examines aloha wear’s production, consumption, and fetishization to illuminate one of the processes of “militourism” that has yet to be fully revealed.

As a second method of exploring the implications of militourism, I posit that the Armed Forces’ marketing of the territory as a multiracial paradise created opportunities that allowed for the economic, political, and social mobility of Japanese Americans in Cold War Hawai‘i. Building on Adria Imada’s argument that popular cultural phenomena often helped broker Hawai‘i’s incorporation into the postwar United States, I argue that a discourse of aloha, produced in part by the US Military Command and aloha wear garment manufacturers, tied the moment of Japanese American advancement in the islands with “militourism” and “militarized tourism,” as they...