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  • Grandfather to Grandson:Perspectives on a Life
  • Seiyei Wakukawa

Seiyei Wakukawa was a brilliant Japanese American scholar, journalist, and social activist whose life spanned most of the twentieth century. He was born on June 10, 1908, in the small village of Nakijin, located in the Kunigami district of Okinawa. The youngest of seven children, he was two years old when his father died. Seven years later, his mother moved to Hawai'i to be with the children of hers who had immigrated there, and he was left in the care of his relatives in Okinawa.

In 1920, when Wakukawa was twelve, he journeyed by boat and train to Kobe, then on to Hawai'i to join his mother and others in his immediate family. At age eighteen, he graduated with honors from Hawaii Chugakko, a Japanese-language middle school, and two years later he graduated with honors from McKinley High School in Honolulu.

Immediately after graduation, Wakukawa enrolled at the University of Hawai'i, living frugally and supporting himself by working part-time as a translator and reporter at the bilingual newspaper Nippu Jiji (formerly the Yamato, and later the Hawaii Times). Despite the burdens the Depression placed on him and his family, he completed his four-year degree in three years, graduating with honors and a perfect academic record in political science and history.

As an undergraduate, Wakukawa became intensely interested in foreign affairs, particularly after listening to a series of lectures given by the eminent Okinawan scholar Iha Fuyū, a pioneer of Okinawan ethnography and linguistics who was invited to Hawai'i in 1928. At this time, Iha was one of the few Okinawans to have graduated from the prestigious Tokyo Imperial University. In 1911 he had published a landmark study of Okinawa, Ko Ryūkyū (Ancient Ryūkyū). Iha's research had established that Okinawan and Japanese cultures shared common roots and a common heritage. By disseminating this research, he sought to reawaken the self-esteem of Okinawans, who were openly derided-in Hawai'i as well as in Japan's northern islands-as linguistically, culturally, and racially inferior to mainland Japanese. Iha's scholarship affected Wakukawa deeply. Decades later, he said of Iha, "I was tremendously [End Page 140] enlightened and came to know Okinawa thanks to my contact with such teachers. It awakened in me an understanding of the native land that bore me … and a sense of devotion."

Two months after graduating from the University of Hawai'i, Wakukawa went to Japan for advanced study at Tokyo Imperial University. His research focused on public administration, Japanese colonial policy toward Taiwan and Korea, and the Japanese farm-tenancy system. Returning to Hawai'i a year later, he became employed in journalism full time.

By 1939, he had left journalism and was supporting himself with several jobs. But much of his energy was given to the establishment of associations devoted to the welfare of Okinawans in Hawai'i, and to the publication of immigrant histories, such as History of Japanese in Hawaii (1938), written by his brother Ernest. The publication of another book, The Role of Okinawan Immigrants in the Development of Hawaii, was aborted by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

When the attack came, Wakukawa was running a residential hotel. His brother Katsuzo, six years his elder, was in Washington, D.C., as a Special Attaché of the Japanese Embassy in the United States. It wasn't long before Wakukawa was interrogated by the FBI about his travel to Japan, his large collection of Japanese books, and his brother's employment at the embassy. In 1942, Wakukawa was taken into custody and placed in the Lordsburg Internment Camp in New Mexico. Almost immediately, he wrote a letter directly to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, protesting his internment and asserting that he could be of better service to his country by teaching the Japanese language to Americans. Though he got no formal response, he was released three months later and sent to teach Japanese at the University of Chicago, Columbia, and Harvard. At Harvard, he continued to research Japanese social issues.

In 1947, Wakukawa became director of the Okinawa Relief and Rehabilitation Foundation (Okinawa kyūsai...


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