Sacred Duty: Tamasaku Watanabe, Japanese Christian Minister

Sacred Duty: A Biographical Sketch of Tamasaku Watanabe, Japanese Christian Minister in U.S. Justice Department Internment, 1941-45*

Gail Y. Okawa
Department of English
Youngstown State University


My maternal grandfather, Tamasaku Watanabe, immigrated to the United States from Hiroshima, Japan. That act in itself did not distinguish him, of course, since he was joined by millions of immigrants from countries around the globe. For me, he was a physical presence once or twice a year when he came to Honolulu to visit us from another island—tall, quiet, and stoic. Formidable. A few years ago, decades after his death, I came across old cardboard boxes containing his papers (documents, photos, letters, and other writings). In 2002, I began a concerted effort to study those papers and to search for others in an attempt to know this man posthumously.

My search has involved spending months in the National Archives (both I and II) in Washington, D.C. and College Park, Maryland, because my grandfather, a Christian minister, was among the thousands of Japanese residents in the U.S. who were unjustly seized and imprisoned at the outbreak of the Pacific War—primarily immigrants (issei, the immigrant generation), primarily men, and primarily community leaders from the then-Territory of Hawai`i and the mainland. Although many were long-time residents of the U.S., discriminatory naturalization laws had excluded them from citizenship. Permanently aliens and now labeled “alien enemies” due to their immigration status as citizens of an enemy country, newspaper editors, clergy (Shinto, Buddhist, and Christian alike), business leaders, and teachers, among others, were rounded up immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and summarily imprisoned in 13 U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) internment camps and other U.S. Army facilities for as many as four or five years. None were ever charged or convicted of espionage. These “Justice Department camps” were unlike the now well-known facilities run by the War Relocation Authority (WRA) in response to Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. Instead, they were administered by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and located in such places as Missoula, Montana; Kenedy, Texas; and Fort Stanton, Old Raton Ranch, and Santa Fe, New Mexico (Burton, et al.; Kashima).

Decades later, in his official letter of apology to Japanese American survivors of the World War II camps, President Bill Clinton wrote that the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 acknowledged the wrongs of the past and offered redress to those who endured such grave injustice. In retrospect, we understand that the nation’s actions were rooted deeply in racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a lack of political leadership.[1]

But these are general, depersonalized reasons, real as they may have been and still may be. I have often wondered why and how my grandfather was arrested and interned. Although I have admittedly hesitated to probe this history—first, for fear of violating something highly private, and second, for fear of revealing family skeletons, I have chosen to share my grandfather’s experience here because it continues to have immediate relevance in these politically volatile and hysterical times since 9/11. I have also chosen to write this in the form of a letter to him in order to actualize my discoveries and feelings about his life in some way—to objectify him less, perhaps, by writing his biographical narrative to him.


Dear Grandpa:

You’ve been gone now for 35 years and I am myself growing older—in fact virtually the same age as you were when you were arrested on December 7, 1941, wrenched from your parsonage in Ola`a on the Island of Hawai`i, never to return to it. While you lived, I knew nothing of these years of your life. Now I read through the papers you left to us—to me—so carefully bundled and labeled in boxes for someone later to discover, and I feel oddly that I am knowing you for the first time.

How confused you must have been on that day in 1941 when the soldiers arrested you! You had immigrated to the United States in 1905 as a young man of 22, arriving in Seattle, then moving to San Francisco a year before the Great San Francisco Earthquake struck the city. Less for work than for study, your purpose was “learning [the] ministry of Christianity” (Watanabe, Petition) and in September 1912, you entered the San Francisco Theological Seminary to study the Christian faith. This you apparently did with enthusiasm and commitment as your notebooks and letters from mentors like Reverend Sturge reflect. A photograph, taken with Reverend and Mrs. Sturge and other Japanese Christians, captures a young man bound by earnestness and determination, ready to embark on a mission—to serve fellow Japanese immigrants and your Lord.

Following your ordination by the Presbyterian Church of the U.S.A. and your graduation in April 1915, you began your ministry in Stockton, California, and then in 1920 moved to Sacramento, in both places serving at a Japanese Church of Christ. With your wife Yuki, whom you had married in September 1912 at the Japanese Presbyterian Church of San Francisco, you had four children, a son, a daughter, and two younger sons. My mother, Sumi, remembers that the youngest, given the English name Ernest, was struck by a Standard Oil truck and killed at the age of two. How agonizing that must have been for you and Grandma—losing a child! Yet, when the Hawaiian Board of Missions called you to the Hawaiian Islands, you packed up your family--Grandma and the three remaining children ages 9, 6, and 4, and made your way across the vast Pacific Ocean.

Arriving in Honolulu, Hawai`i, in late November 1922, you and your family stayed for a few days at a hotel popular with Japanese immigrants not far from Honolulu Harbor. My mother was only six, but still remembers that a child’s pearl necklace you had given her earlier broke on a wooden bridge nearby. You were able to retrieve a few of the pearls with the help of a passing stranger and eventually had it restrung for her, still a treasure, rich with story and feeling.

That December, you moved your family to the Island of Maui and began a long ministry at the Wailuku Japanese Christian Church, which lasted until 1935. A photograph from that period shows you smiling broadly in the back row with Sunday School students, Grandma, and other adults comprising the group, your “flock.” According to Nakamura in a 1957 newspaper article, you had held the longest ministry in the history of the church to that date and the strength of your faith and leadership was reflected in the strong commitment of your parishioners. You had a second- or third-hand “touring” car then, assigned to you by the Hawaiian Board, but it had no windows. My mother recalls that when it rained, you had to jump out and put up celluloid windows to keep things dry! Your dedication to your work was eventually rewarded in 1927 when you were commissioned “Pastor—Evangelist” by the Hawaiian Evangelical Association.

After a 13-year residence as pastor of the Maui church, you were transferred to Ola`a on the Island of Hawai`i in early 1935 and began your fourth ministry at the Ola`a Japanese Christian Church, serving Japanese laborers who worked on the nearby sugar plantations (Brazier and Thompson). During this time, the Japanese Consulate appointed you to serve as its representative in this remote location, keeping routine records, helping immigrants with affairs related to their Japanese citizenship, and facilitating the expatriation of American-born children of immigrants.[2]

Unbeknownst to you, the politicians and military leaders of various countries were stirring the war pot and making plans. In the same year that you went to Ola`a, according to Michael Slackman, George S. Patton, Jr., then a Lieutenant Colonel, began serving as chief of U.S. Army intelligence in Hawai`i, a position he held until 1937. In his article “The Orange Race: George S. Patton, Jr.’s Japanese-American Hostage Plan,” Slackman describes a “secret plan” prepared by Patton between 1935-37, which “calls for the seizure of prominent Japanese-Americans and resident Japanese aliens as hostages . . . in the event of war with Japan” (1-2). It is telling that the term “Orange” was “used by American military planners before World War II to denote Japan” (5), and that Patton used it to designate both resident aliens and U.S. citizens of Japanese heritage, alike. He lists a total of 128 hostages, including leaders you knew from the Christian community.[3] Your name was not on Patton’s list, but you would be hurt, as I was, to learn about the racial prejudice underlying his assumptions—the belief that, as Slackman puts it, “ethnicity was the most important factor in assessing their [the Japanese] loyalty. Citizenship, length of residence, and other manifestations of loyalty to the U.S. [such as previous military service] counted for nothing . . . . an outlook that elevated genetic accident to political principle” (16). It was guilt by reason of ethnicity.

It is even more disheartening to learn that Patton was not alone in his view among the U.S. military and leadership. President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936 ordered the Navy to keep a list of every Japanese or Japanese-American “who meets . . . Japanese ships [in Hawai`i ports].” Those on the list, wrote FDR, “would be the first to be placed in a concentration camp in the event of trouble.”

Although Patton’s report was “discarded as an operational plan” (Slackman 6) in 1940, shades of it appeared in the plan that did become operational in 1941. By November 21, 1941, a document titled “Memorandum: Seizure and Detention Plan (Japanese)” and stamped “SECRET” on each page had been drawn up by Lt. Colonel George W. Bicknell and his staff, including extensive lists of Hawai`i’s Japanese immigrants who, like you, were barred from U.S. citizenship, as well as U.S.-born Japanese who were, of course, citizens, all of whom would be apprehended in case of war.[4] This became known as the “ABC List” and included Japanese consular agents, and aliens or American citizens who were religious leaders, language school teachers, merchants, and other civilians.

Even earlier in the year, as tensions between the U.S. and Japan intensified and assets of citizens of Japan were being frozen, you were asked by Norman Schenck, General Secretary of the Board of the Hawaiian Evangelical Association, to provide an affidavit attesting to “the ownership, purposes, activities, finances, and operations of the Ola`a Japanese Christian Church” (Watanabe, Affidavit). So you were not naive to the events of the day, but you believed in the validity of the democratic process. You complied with the request on August 9, 1941, as the minister and head of your church. So dedicated were you to teaching your parishioners “the Christian Gospel and the fundamentals of Christianity; to train[ing] them in the fundamentals of the Christian moral and ethical code” and “the highest ideals of Americanism” (Watanabe, Affidavit), that you must have been shocked and confused to be treated otherwise—as disloyal, as subversive, as sinister.

Though you were simply working for “the benefit of the people of Ola`a” (Watanabe, Affidavit), I know now that you were on Bicknell’s “A-list” of Japanese consular agents. Thus, you were apprehended on December 7th , even before Congress declared war with Japan on December 8th—a fact that compounds the injustice and unlawfulness of your arrest, for you were not yet, by definition, an “alien enemy”: “a citizen of a country with which the United States is at war.”[5] Interestingly enough, many of the documents in your official files in the National Archives cite December 8th quite deceptively as your arrest date. As your warrant states and you describe it later in your petition for release, “I was apprehended on the 7th of December 1941 at my parsonage in Ola'a, Hawaii, T.H. and taken into Kilauea Military Camp, Hawaii, and detained there until the time of removal to Sand Island, Honolulu, T.H. on the 23rd February 1942. . . .I believe a formal hearing was held on or about 21st [February] 1942 at Kilauea Military Camp, Hawaii T.H. by the Local Board of Investigation Committee . . . ” (Watanabe, Petition).

Reading your hearing in the National Archives made me feel both intensely angry and intensely sad. You had four members on your hearing board: Frank McLaughlin, the president of this board, and members Alex J. Porter, Gavin A. Bush, and Captain Lorenzo D. Adams, executive and recorder. Capt. Adams was the officer who signed off on your arrest report, so the familiar name for me may have been a familiar face for you. I hope so. Rather than relying on a translator, you chose to speak for yourself and rely on your own abilities to speak and understand English, even under duress, reflecting your confidence and faith in the language and the American justice system. Many of the questions were routine, although one of the members seemed to want you to take sides on who should win. You did not give the simplistic question a simplistic answer, but said, “In my work as Christian minister I say, I am very sorry . . . I don’t like the war . . . only I want [peace] to come quickly” (Watanabe, Hearing). The vote went in your favor: three for release; one, McLaughlin, for internment for the duration of the war. Unfortunately for you, however, Hawai`i was under martial law then and the Military Intelligence Board supported the minority vote. You were to be interned.

Your notes tell us the arduous route of your journey from Kilauea Military Camp to Santa Fe Internment Camp over four long years:

Kilauea Military Camp: 1941-12-7 to 1942-2-23
Honolulu Immigration: 1942-2-24 to 1942-3-4
Sand Island [O`ahu, Hawai`i]: 1942-3-4 to 1942-5-23
Angel Island [California]:1942-6-1 to 1942-6-4
Fort Sam Houston Internee Camp [Texas]:1942-6-7 to 1942-6-17
Lordsburg Internment Camp [NM]: 1942-6-18 to 1943-6-22
Santa Fe Internment Camp [NM]:1943-6-23 6

In theory, the Geneva Convention of 1929 was the operative document in the Department of Justice internment camps since people like you were designated as “alien enemies,” but since the document was originally intended for prisoners of war, its application was still a matter of interpretation and seemed to depend on the camp commander. Its tenets gave you as civilian internees (CIs) the right to self-government, involving the election of your own leaders, who would then communicate with the camp officials. At the Santa Fe Internment Camp, which was composed exclusively of men and which was the largest of the Japanese camps, you were at one time elected chief of your barracks. Your papers reveal that you wrote copiously in Japanese at both Lordsburg and Santa Fe—an official roster of names, records of barracks activities, librettos of Noh plays, short articles in church newsletters. At some point, you composed a play titled “An Evening in Bethlehem,” presumably for Christmas services.

Some internees were brave by opposing the injustice; some were brave by enduring it while maintaining their personal integrity. Though I don’t know how you really felt while you were interned, I can surmise that your continued ministry to others in the camps sustained you to a large extent. Among your many papers, I found a hand-written message in English and Japanese: In English, the title is “I am really on the path” and I suspect that you copied it down because it struck a chord. At any rate, it is worth quoting here because it must have had great meaning for you to take pains in translating it into Japanese, perhaps for your parishioners:

I am really on the path.....

If I always look for the best in each person, situation, and thing.

If I forgive everybody without exception, no matter what he may have done; and if I then forgive myself whole-heartedly.

If I regard my job as sacred and do my day’s work to the very best of my ability (whether I like it or not).

If I take every means to demonstrate a healthy body and harmonious surroundings for myself.

If I take every opportunity wisely to spread the knowledge of truth to others.

If I devote at least one hour a day to prayer, meditation and Bible reading.

If I practice the Golden Rule of Jews instead of merely admiring it. He said “whatsoever you would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.” The important point about the Golden Rule is that I am to practise [sic] it whether the other fellow does so or not.

This suggests that you may have seen your internment experience as the greatest test of your faith and dignity as a human being.

You wrote many letters home to your family, all censored and stamped “Detained Alien Enemy Mail EXAMINED” and probably revealing less than otherwise. I have been fortunate enough to read those saved by my mother and uncle in which you assure them of your well-being in an effort not to worry them. In my mother’s letters, I learned for the first time how involved you were in my earliest years through your comments on my baby pictures. But there must have been times when the isolation and loneliness and cold of Santa Fe winters became difficult. In February 1944, along with around two hundred other men, you signed a petition written to the Military Governor of the Territory of Hawaii, “asking for an immediate transfer of all of us from Santa Fe Detention Camp to some similar internment camp or camps located and maintained under your command in Hawaii” (Shigenaga, et al.). After over two years of incarceration on the mainland, you wanted to go home. The signatures themselves, primarily written in English, many with the beautiful penmanship of the Palmer Method, are moving for they represent the assertions of each man, preserved collectively in this way for us.

In May 1945, you finally wrote your own petition to the Office of the Provost Marshal General, requesting release from internment and return to Hawai`i: “Although I am foreign born and not eligible to be [a] naturalized citizen of this country, am an American citizen by spirit since I have lived nearly two third[s] of my life in this country . . . . I did not apply for the repatriation, because it was my intention to go back to Hawaii no matter how long that will take to become reality”.[6]  Your reference to being an American citizen in spirit highlights your loyalty in the face of racist exclusion, and though this is a very public and official document, I have come to understand something of the events of your life and your perspectives on life through it.

In August 1945, as the world knows, an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in the prefecture of your birth. Though the war with Japan “ended” soon after that, you were not returned to Hawai`i until three months later in November 1945. The legacy of your experience and that of others like you who endured internment must be in what we who follow can learn from your political misfortune and your personal fortitude. We must be vigilant to the acts and words today echoing those that surrounded your unjust and unwarranted incarceration. And we must understand that though you were silent like so many others about this difficult time in your life, you were no less affected by the degradation, no less courageous for bearing it. I wish I had attempted to know you then; I feel that I am beginning to know you now. Maybe it’s not too late.

Your granddaughter,


July 2003


Sources Used:

Bicknell, George W. “Memorandum: Seizure and Detention Plan (Japanese).” Army Contact Office, Honolulu, T.H., November 21, 1941. FBI file number 100-2-1777.

Brazier, Philip, and Bob Thompson. “A Brief History of Puna Congregational Christian Church.” Building God’s Family One Heart at a Time (a program celebrating the 90th anniversary of the church). Kea`au, Hawai`i, 5 May 2002.

Burton, Jeffrey F., Mary M. Farrell, Florence B. Lord, and Richard W. Lord.Confinement and Ethnicity: An Overview of World War II Japanese American Relocation Sites. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, 1999.

Clark, Paul F. Those Other Camps: An Oral History Analysis of Japanese Alien Enemy Internment during World War II. Fullerton, CA: California State University, 1980.

Clinton, William J. Letter to Japanese Americans Interned during World War II. Washington, D.C., 1 Oct.1993.

Kashima, Tetsuden. Judgment Without Trial: Japanese American Imprisonment during World War II. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2003.

Nakamura, William. “Rev. Watanabe To Be Honored Sunday Morning,” Maui News, Feb. 1957, np..

National Japanese American Historical Society, American Italian Historical Association, German American Education Fund. “The Enemy Alien Files: Hidden Stories of World War II,” exhibit at the American Immigration Law Center, Washington, D.C., Fall 2002.

Shigenaga, Shigeo, et. al. Petition, Santa Fe Internment Camp, Santa Fe, New Mexico, Feb. 1944. National Archives and Records Administration II, Record Group 389, Box 5, File: Hawaiian Aliens.

Slackman, Michael. “The Orange Race: George S. Patton, Jr.’s Japanese-American Hostage Plan,” Biography 7 (Winter, 1984), 1-49.

Watanabe, Tamasaku. Affidavit, Ola`a, Hawai`i, 9 Aug.1941. Tamasaku Watanabe Papers, Gail Y. Okawa Collection, Honolulu, Hawai`i.

Watanabe, Tamasaku. Hearing, Hilo, Hawai`i, 13 Feb. 1942. National Archives and Records Administration II, Record Group 389, Entry 461, Box 2643.

* A version of this essay was previously published as “Letters to Our Forebears: Reconnecting Generations through Writing,” English Journal July 2003: 47-51, which serves as the basis for the second chapter of a book-length study More Than a Mug Shot: Hawaii’s Japanese Immigrants in World War II U.S. Department of Justice Internment.

[1]. President William J. Clinton, Letter (to Japanese Americans interned during World War II), Washington, D.C., October 1, 1993.

[2]. Because the Japanese government considered the American-born children of Japanese parents to be Japanese citizens, legal expatriation documents had to be filed for dual citizens to claim exclusively U.S. citizenship. This was essentially humanitarian work.

[3]. Referring to the arrest of hostages, Patton bases his selection on “two criteria: those ‘most inimical to American interests’ and ‘those whom, due to their position and influence in the Orange [Japanese] community, it is desirable to retain as hostages’” (Slackman 6).

[4]. See Paul F. Clark, who reports that the Department of Justice “had started to formulate its alien enemy program much earlier than . . . July 1941” (8), that lists were being prepared of persons of German and Japanese nationality, and that internment facilities were being constructed as early as January 1941.

[5]. National Japanese American Historical Society, et. al.

[6]. Tamasaku Watanabe, Notes for Petition, Santa Fe Internment Camp, Santa Fe, New Mexico, May 1945.