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  • From Race to Ethnicity: Interpreting Japanese American Experiences in Hawai‘i by Jonathan Y. Okamura
  • Michael Jin
From Race to Ethnicity: Interpreting Japanese American Experiences in Hawai‘i. By Jonathan Y. Okamura. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa Press, 2014. xii + 255 pp. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $42.00 cloth

This insightful book makes an important contribution to the study of Japanese American experiences in Hawai‘i. From Race to Ethnicity asserts that “race was the dominating organizing principle that structured social relations in Hawai‘i” during the first century of Japanese American history in Hawai‘i until “ethnicity” replaced race as the factor that shaped the relations of power in Hawaiian society by the 1970s, when Japanese Americans emerged to rival the haoles (whites) as one of the most dominant groups (p. 2). Organized into two parts, the overall structure of the book hinges upon this transition “from historical race to contemporary ethnicity” (p. 1). Part I uses the analytical framework of race to chart the historical experiences of Japanese Americans in Hawai‘i from the 1880s to the early 1970s as one of the marginalized racial groups. From the early years of Japanese American history on the islands, the haoles manifested their dominance through various legal, political, economic, and cultural oppressions to crush Japanese American resistance to institutional racism and the anti-Japanese movement. In a poignant and gripping reconstruction of the Myles Yutaka Fukunaga case, Okamura takes readers back to 1928 when the twenty-year-old Fukunaga was tried and executed for kidnapping and murdering Gill Jamieson, a young boy from a prominent haole family. The prevailing anti-Japanese sentiment in Hawai‘i helped mobilize the citizens of Honolulu to arrest and punish Fukunaga for killing a white boy. Through Okamura’s exhaustive research of legal papers and other primary documents, we learn that the hasty murder trial and execution [End Page 206] that denied Fukunaga due process served as a microcosm of the “dual system of justice” in the white man’s world that rendered Japanese Americans defenseless (p. 78).

However, the book also demonstrates that from the days of the early plantation society, Japanese American men and women resisted racial oppression through labor organizing and movements to revitalize their cultural identity. In this way, Okamura’s work demonstrates the complex interplay between race, class, and gender in shaping the emergent Japanese American ethnic identity. These collective experiences of struggle and resistance laid the foundation for the Japanese American community’s transition from a racialized minority to a powerful ethnic group during the quarter century after World War II. The driving force behind the Japanese American community’s political and economic prominence by 1970 was the activism of Japanese American labor organizers and the rising Japanese American political actors in the Democratic Party on behalf of other marginalized groups in Hawai‘i during the 1950s and 1960s.

By the 1970s, Japanese Americans in Hawai‘i wielded the powerful economic and political influence that challenged haole supremacy, making race no longer the dominant organizing principle in Hawaiian society. Part II examines how ethnicity has enabled Japanese Americans in contemporary Hawai‘i to retain their political representation and economic privilege. Once Japanese Americans achieved the status as one of the most dominant groups in Hawai‘i, ethnicity continued to serve their access to political and economic power, culminating in the election of the three-term governor George Ariyoshi from 1974 to 1986. Meanwhile, the same access to economic, education, and political resources has remained difficult to achieve for other ethnic groups, such as Filipino Americans and Native Hawaiians, who “continued to occupy a subjugated status in Hawai‘i” (p. 109). In this context, the anti-Japanese movement in the haole-dominated past has been transformed into the “anti-Japanese backlash” from these marginalized groups, who had been allies of Japanese American labor movement and political campaigns (p. 105).

The author suggests that the firmly entrenched socioeconomic power of Japanese Americans in Hawai‘i since the 1980s has made the participation and representation in electoral politics no longer a primary mode of retaining political power. To Okamura, this also represents a moment when less Japanese American...


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pp. 206-208
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