—World War II occurred seventy to seventy-five years ago, far beyond the memories of most people alive today. Even today’s elderly who lived through more than a year or two of that war have little knowledge of the period beyond their own anecdotal experiences and those of relatives or people they knew.
All other information they received at the time was through heavily censored and biased outlets, whether they be government or commercial. As in most nations, history in schools is taught from the beginning and works its way forward, rarely getting within twenty years of the present before the term ends. That left the next generation also untutored about the war.
Thus untutored, they have no point of historical reference to the demagogue-driven racism and xenophobia that is rearing its ugly head again in America. A major presidential candidate has sincerely called for interning an entire group of people just because of their religion. He is Donald Trump and they are Muslims.
War on America
December 6, 1941 was a Saturday night in Hawaii. At far outposts in the Pacific, personnel working with the US radio intelligence network called “Magic” intercepted and deciphered a message stating an attack on Hawaii would be launched the next morning.
The War Department in Washington received the message about 5 a.m. Sunday Hawaii time, but it took another four hours before it was relayed to Hawaii. Too late.
A minute or two after 7 a.m. on Oahu, a month-old north-shore outpost at Opana had a new-fangled gizmo called “radar” registering dozens of blips judged to be more than 100 miles out to sea, but headed toward the island. A junior officer at the radar command center on the other side of the island next to Pearl Harbor had confidential information that a flight of a dozen B-17 American bombers was due to arrive at about 8 o’clock that morning from California, so he told the men at Opana 20 minutes later not to be concerned about the blips.
Ten minutes after that, at 7:30 in Hawaii, the president and military leaders in Washington were advised that code breakers reported that Japanese diplomats received orders to break off their negotiations. To the administration, that was interpreted as a signal of war. Given the previous intelligence about a pending attack, a coded message was relayed to the US commander in Hawaii. He did not receive it until hours later. Too late.
At 7:48 a.m. (1:18 p.m. on the East Coast of the mainland under the time-zone system of the time), Hawaiians already awake or awakening included 51-year-old Shinri Sarashina, who since sending his family back to Japan in 1937 lived in a Honolulu boarding house just north of the downtown section of city.
On a weekday, Shinri usually joined his 10 housemates at the large dining table for breakfast. The household included Seiyo and Taiko Ishimaru, the landlords and their four children 11 years old and younger, and Shinri’s fellow boarders, four women ranging in age from 22 to 33. All were Japanese and they generally chatted in the language through breakfast.
This morning was a Sunday and as a man of habits, Shinri arose in time to be at the Honpa Hongwanji temple two blocks from the boarding house well before 8 a.m. to prepare for services for the children of the parishioners, their version of Sunday school that preceded the regular service for adults at nine.
This Sunday was a special one because December 8 is celebrated by all Buddhists as Bodhi Day, the day 2,500 years ago when Siddhartha Gautama sat under a fig tree all night until he understood the meaning of life and, with that enlightenment became the Buddha who would spread the messages of generosity, compassion and peace in general. Rather than attempt to celebrate Bodhi on a work day, the Honpa Hongwanji decided to combine it with Sunday services.
Shinri served as an administrative assistant to the elderly Bishop Gikyo Kuchiba, head of the Betsuin Honpa Hongwanji that served as headquarters for all Shin-Buddhist temples and missions in the territory of Hawaii. Kuchiba answered only to global headquarters in Kyoto, Japan. As Hawaii headquarters, Honpa also had five lower-ranking priests who would be on duty for the larger crowd expected.
This Sunday morning, the service for fidgety children was set to last little more than half an hour. Normally after the service, some of the children who lived nearby would leave for home and a day of play, some would wait to be picked up by their parents and only a few would remain to join their parents at the regular service beginning at 9 a.m. and lasting less than an hour. Today, however, many of the children would want to join in the mainly ceremonial Bodhi Day celebration, so there would be more of them than usual in attendance.
Bishop Kuchiba usually led the adult service, and this December 7 Sunday it was Shinri’s turn to lead the children’s service. The first of what would become nearly two dozen children arrived for the service shortly after 7:30 that morning.
As the children arrived at the temple, up in the sky, nearing the north shore and with a clear view of the sleepy island on the horizon, Japanese Commander Mitsuo Fuchida ordered his telegraph operator at about 7:40 to break radio silence and tap out two katakanas, Japanese syllables. The first was “to, to, to,” the second “ra, ra, ra.”
On the Ground
The Pearl City Hongwanji likely tried to telephone the Honpa headquarters during the first wave of the attack, and Bishop Kuchiba was just as likely to try to call the Pearl City temple to see if it everyone was all right, and then to try to get a call through to Kyoto to find out what was going on and what he should do.
Not long after the bombs and machine-gun fire began, the US military ordered the local telephone company and its operators to preserve the lines for emergency calls only, most definitely not to put through any calls to Japan. Honolulu and area residents were left in a communications blackout.
Without telephone service, and orders for all but military and emergency personnel to stay off the streets and remain where they were, the priests and those already present at the Honpa Hongwanji, mostly children, were trapped. There were no portable radios in those days, so the children nearing the temple for Sunday school probably kept on going, seeking the safety of the temple.
Those reaching the temple, along with adults who managed to make it through the streets to reach it, took shelter in the temple’s basement where its offices were located. There was no way to get the word out that services were canceled, as if the notice would have to be made.
Some of the children managed to leave and head for their homes not far away along with some of the adults who dared to defy the orders to stay off the streets. At any rate, Shinri was left with half a dozen of the children who had arrived for his children’s service. All, including the priests, remained in the basement for the duration of the fireworks until they ended shortly before 10 a.m., and all the Japanese planes had left. Most of the gathered were fixed on the room’s radio blaring a blow-by-blow account of the chaos outside.
The instinct for these Japanese men of the cloth was the same as anyone else’s, to gather around a radio to try to learn what was going on and what they may have to do. That might mean having to head elsewhere for safety or, in their case as members of the same ethnicity as that morning’s attackers, to flee from likely recrimination.
That “fight-or-flight” instinct would be natural in their case because all had heard in recent months and years of neighbors and other acquaintances questioned by the FBI about each of them and about the prominent members of the Hongwanji. That squared with other tidbits that indicated the priests might be under suspicion as Japanese citizens. At least, they believed, they were under some type of surveillance.
By 10:30 a.m., as doors opened to the outside, the sound of attacking planes had disappeared, but the air remained filled with sirens of all sorts. It also was filled with the acrid smell of gunpowder cordite. All radio listeners now acutely aware their attackers were Japanese, the situation had to be especially unsettling to the Japanese in Honolulu, especially those gathered in a temple that already was suspect in the eyes of authorities.
Japan-born people, including the priests, were known as Issei with a reputation of intending to return home eventually and not settle abroad and become citizens. Even those who might want to become citizens at that time were not allowed to under US law. For the priests, their duty was to perform much as missionaries: tend to their various flocks abroad and eventually return to Japan and their own temples.
Kuchiba, their bishop here and, as their sect’s highest-ranking priest in Hawaii, now had a target on his back and their fate soon would be tied to his.
For the next four hours, the small groups left at the temple became steadily smaller as people decided to take their chances and get back home to their own families. Except for a few temple staff members and the seven priests, few parishioners remained.
But, those left included six children who had arrived for Shinri’s service before all hell broke loose. As their priest, he felt it his responsibility to make sure they were safe and to reunite them with their families.