- No Sword to Bury: Japanese Americans in Hawai'i during World War II
In his book, No Sword to Bury: Japanese Americans in Hawai'i during World War II, Franklin Odo, a pioneering historian of Asian American history who currently directs the Asian Pacific American program at the Smithsonian Institution, tells the story of a little-known group of Japanese American volunteers in Hawai'i during World War II. These volunteers, who called themselves the Varsity Victory Volunteers (VVV), were 169 young Nisei men of Japanese ancestry. They were declared unfit to serve in the United States Army after Pearl Harbor because of their assumed ties and loyalty to Japan. To combat such images of themselves, they volunteered to perform non-military manual labor in Hawai'i for one year during World War II. Many of the VVV members eventually went on to serve in the famous all-Japanese American Army Unit, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, or as Japanese language interpreters in the Military Intelligence Service. Although the question of Japanese American loyalty and their rights during World War II is one of the central issues in this book, Odo's main concern is not with the injustice of the internment, for the Japanese Americans of Hawai'i escaped the tragic fate of mass incarceration their counterparts on the West Coast had to endure. Rather, Odo's primary goal is to challenge the stereotypical ways in which Japanese Americans have been singularly construed as the model minority of all model minorities, the genesis of which, Odo contends, is found in wartime Hawai'i. Even though they were spared mass incarceration, how Japanese Americans in Hawai'i under close scrutiny maneuvered through this racially volatile time is an important history to investigate. By telling the life stories of the VVV members before, during, and after World War II, Odo hopes to dispute, or at the very least to muddle, the convenient narratives of Japanese American model minority status [End Page 103] predicated on hard work and sacrifice and "to suggest that World War II was the incubating period for the contemporary model-minority myth" (4–5).
In this sense, Odo is among the best of historians who work backwards from the present, wanting to find explanations in the past to understand and solve the problems of present conditions. At the heart of Odo's book is his insistence that the history of World War II Hawai'i – and the lives of the VVV members in particular – provides a crucial historical window to probe and challenge the idea that Japanese Americans' passivity and uncritical adoption of Japanese culture explains their postwar mobility and current Japanese American model minority status (266). To advance this argument convincingly, Odo needs to demonstrate two conditions: one, that wartime Hawai'i differed from the wartime continental United States, as Odo consciously points to Hawai'i as an example, and, two, that the VVV members carefully weighed their options and made decisions that best fit their overall needs. In other words, to dispute what he calls "simplistic" and "commonly held assumptions" about the passivity and sacrifice of the Nisei during World War II and thereafter (4–5), Odo needs to render considerable agency to the thoughts and actions of the VVV members.
One of the factors distinguishing wartime Hawai'i from the wartime continental United States, according to Odo, is the presence of prominent non-Japanese Asian community leaders, such as the Chinese American leader Hung Wai Ching, and other sympathetic haole (white) community leaders, who understood the grave stakes involved in productively incorporating Japanese Americans into wartime Hawaiian society. Therefore, the heroes of Odo's story in some ways are not the Japanese American Nisei volunteers themselves but the civilian community leaders who had the forethought to make racial harmony the key social and political issue during the war. Odo credits committed and shrewd civilian haole leaders like John Young, Bob Shivers, Kendall Fielder, Charles Hemenway, Charles Loomis, Miles Cary, Stephen Mark, Leslie Hicks, and Riley Allen for...