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Manoa 14.2 (2002-2003) 100-103

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Koreans in Wartime Hawai'i:
An Introduction

Michael E. Macmillan

[Young Oak Kim]
[Moses Lee]

The outbreak of the Pacific war in 1941 rekindled hope among Koreans in Hawai'i that their homeland would soon be liberated and Japan would be punished for its aggression against the peninsula. But to their great surprise, Island Koreans were caught in a paradox: although well known as bitter opponents of Japan, they were, by virtue of Japan's annexation of Korea in 1910, regarded as enemy aliens and subjected to some of the same restrictions imposed on alien Japanese and Japanese Americans.

After the December 7 attack on Pearl Harbor, the martial-law regime replaced civil courts with military tribunals and controlled all aspects of daily life. Curfews were invoked and blackout regulations promulgated. Liquor, food, and drugs were controlled. Gasoline was rationed. The press and other forms of communication were censored. Rents and wages were regulated, and workers were frozen in their jobs. General Orders issued by the military governor controlled everything from traffic regulations and interisland travel to garbage collection and dogs.

For Japanese in Hawai'i, the start of the war had swift and fearful effects. Within three days, the army had detained 482 persons, most of them Japanese whose loyalty was suspect. In the months that followed, 1,875 residents of Japanese ancestry were sent to the u.s. mainland for internment. Koreans were not rounded up by the authorities, but the effects of martial law were no less real and immediate. Although the General Orders for the treatment of aliens did not mention Koreans specifically, military authorities regarded Koreans as subjects of Japan and therefore bound by the same regulations. Among other things, they were subject to restrictions on their commercial activities, real property transactions, and banking accounts. They were also required to carry nationality certificates issued to them under the Alien Registration Act of 1940. And they had to be off the streets during blackout hours, which began earlier for enemy aliens than did the curfew for the general population. In some cases, Koreans were denied permission to travel among the Islands.

A prominent physician, Y. C. Yang—later Republic of Korea ambassador to the United States—volunteered for the u.s. Army immediately after the Pearl Harbor attack and was commissioned. After he had worked for a number of days without compensation, however, the authorities realized that he was an alien and dismissed him.

A particularly embittering event occurred in March 1942, when alien Koreans employed on defense projects were required to exchange their white-bordered identification badges for black-bordered badges of the type previously issued only to persons of Japanese ancestry and used to restrict movement within defense areas. The workers protested and won a small concession: the words i am korean were stamped across the bottom of their new badges.

There was clearly a tacit understanding that for some purposes Koreans were to be distinguished from alien Japanese, but these exceptions were not stated in any published [End Page 100] regulations. Naturally, Koreans wanted a definitive clarification of their status. To be treated as a subject of Japan was a cruel blow to their pride in their national identity and in Korea's struggle against Japanese aggression—as well as an insult to the allegiance they had shown to their adopted home.

In the absence of official recognition of this loyalty, Koreans did their best to maintain the distinction between themselves and the Japanese. Many wore special identification cards and buttons prepared by organizations such as the United Korean Committee; others wore traditional Korean-style clothing.

At the same time, leaders of the Korean community conducted a campaign to bring about a change in their status. This low-key campaign—which included letters and cables to public officials, petitions, and newspaper editorials—began immediately after the outbreak of the war and reached a climax in the spring of 1943 in a well-publicized case in which a Korean civic leader, Syung Woon Sohn, was arrested for violating the...


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