New film answers why most Hawai’i Nikkei weren’t interned during WWII

A new film by one of Hawai’i’s most respected political observers provides a detailed explanation why the government during World War II did not mass intern Americans and immigrants of Japanese ancestry living in what would become the 50th state.

The First Battle: The Battle for Equality in War-Time Hawai’i, a docu-drama written, produced and directed by Tom Coffman and presented by the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai’i, premieres Sept. 5 at the Hawaii Theatre. A trailer is available at

“Why was there no mass internment in Hawai’i, where the large Japanese community potentially posed a security threat, in contrast to the West Coast, where the tiny Japanese community posed none?” posed Coffman.

General thinking was that there were so many Japanese Americans in Hawai’i that imprisoning them would have ruined the economy. More than 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry — most American citizens — were wrongly interned on the Mainland. The Japanese and Japanese American population in Hawai’i numbered around 160,000. The Japanese American internment is widely considered one of our country’s biggest mistakes.

Coffman says that First Battle will show a behind-the-scenes battle involving the “Council for Inter-racial Unity,” which was organized in Honolulu in 1939 to support Hawai’i’s large Japanese-ancestry community. On Dec. 7, 1941, the council set Hawai’i’s Japanese community on a different course than their counterparts on the West Coast.

“It is a David-and-Goliath story, a reminder that the contest does not always go to the obviously powerful; but to those of humble status, who are clear-minded and focused,” said Coffman. “(The film) is about the networks of people — principally nisei (second generation Japanese), their acquaintances and allies — who resisted the pressure for internment.”

First Battle focuses on the interaction between two previously little-known individuals: council member Shiego Yoshida, played by Eric Nemoto, and a YMCA executive named Hung Wai Ching, played by Gary Ontai. The film shows how the pair had an impact on FBI agent Robert Shivers (played by Edward Sclafani), who arrived in Honolulu a few years before the bombing of Pearl Harbor to investigate the loyalty of Japanese Americans.

Coffman weaves together interviews archived during the past ten years, including an interview with Ching who passed away in 2002, and reenactments of scenes. The film is informed by the personal albums, correspondences and effects of Yoshida, Ching and Shivers, which Coffman acquired.

The film “will change how viewers see Hawai’i,” said Coffman.

Says the website: “More than a Japanese American story, The First Battle is an American story about how a multi-racial community worked with a vulnerable minority in time of great crisis. The story speaks to our time. As an historical proposition, it will expand people’s understanding of modern Hawaii, how it came to be, and how it has contributed to America.”

Bruddah Keet has been a fan of Coffman since reading his book, “Catch a Wave, A Case Study of Hawaii Politics,” while student president at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. The book was his first lesson in Hawai’i politics and influenced his involvement in numerous political campaigns and jobs with two Hawai’i governors and a state Senator.

The film has been endorsed by the Center for Asian American Media, U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye, former Hawai’i governor George Ariyoshi, and the Japanese American Citizens League. The Center for Asian American Media is also distributing the film.

“This is a story that deserves to be told in detail,” wrote Sen. Inouye in a letter endorsing the film. “It is a project that deserves the widest possible support.”

Coffman is encouraging donations to an education and distribution fund for the film. Tax-deductible contributions can be mailed to: The First Battle, c/o Community Development Pacific Inc., 1833 Vancouver Place, Honolulu, HI 96822. Donors giving $100 or more will receive a DVD copy of the film.

If you would like to help support a showing in your community, contact Coffman via email at Visit to learn more about the film.

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