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BOOK REVIEW | 'Hideo Okamoto: Exchange Prisoner and War Plan Orange' by Claude Morita

Hideo Okamoto is presented as a successful Japanese-American businessman in this haphazard WWII history volume that overlooks facts crucial to its credibility.

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Book cover, 'Hideo Okamoto: Exchange Prisoner and War Plan Orange' by Claude Morita. (Courtesy University of Hawaii Press)

Author Claude Morita's book is a turbid stream of consciousness with bits of disparate historical points bobbing about. Hideo Okamoto is the nominal center for Morita's stream, but there are many tributaries. 

Some include a declassified Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) report on the "Japanese Tokyo Club Syndicate, with Interlocking Affiliations," Morita's musings on America's wartime "concentration camps," and a listing of Japanese residents of the Crystal City, Texas (Family) Internment Camp. There are many other bits of history that deserve further attention, but for now these will do.

Hideo Okamoto emigrated to the United States in 1903, joining his apparently well-established father and older brother. (What his father and older brother did in the US is not stated in the book.) 

The younger Okamoto owned a "hand-painted silk lampshade" business. His fortunes rose and then fell with the Great Depression. But, we read, Okamoto recovered quickly, both "financially and emotionally." He found work with an import-export company headquartered in Japan. Okamoto "wore Palm Beach suits and played golf." And he walked around town with a cane "fitted with a diamond in the handle," Morita tells us. 

Hideo must have done rather well for himself. Photos of Okamoto's family show his wife in a full-length fur coat. How Okamoto acquired his business and his business dealings are not elaborated.

A Country Prepares for War

Japanese consulates in America advised Japanese citizens to leave. That was following President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's re-election in 1940, and given FDR's ongoing hostility against Japan. In January 1941, Okamoto sent his non-naturalized wife and his American-born daughter to Japan. 

Japanese businesses and their staff were also advised to leave as soon as possible, but Okamoto remained. What Okamoto did up until the bombing of Pearl Harbor is not explicitly mentioned in the book. However, his options would have narrowed. FDR had a series of economic sanctions in place against Japan. Those culminated with the freezing of Japanese assets in America on July 26, 1941. 

At any rate, shortly after "the date which will live in infamy," he was picked up by the FBI for what Morita says was an "imagined political crime." 

One should remember that Okamoto was in fact an alien. He was not a citizen. Therefore, he was subject to the Alien and Sedition Acts and FDR's Enemy Alien Control Program. Okamoto was held in assorted prisons and "concentration camps" until June 1942. At that time he and other Japanese aliens were exchanged for Americans held in Japan. Okamoto lived out the rest of his life with his family in Japan.

MS Gripsholm was the American ship used in the war-era exchange of families and prisoners with Japan. It carried Okamoto, among others, to Japan in the exchange. Credit: PUNIP Cruises)

Okamoto's Story an Exception

The stories we usually hear of the Japanese diaspora, like those in the Territory of Hawaii, depart considerably from Morita's tale. For example, the first line of work my grandfather took up when he arrived in Kauai in 1905 was cutting sugarcane. When he was old enough, my father went into the cane fields, too. 

By contrast, Japanese-speaking Okamoto graduated from an American junior college with a degree in business. By comparison, Grandfather was just able to spell his name in kanji. Grandfather never had time for golf, as he and Grandmother had six children to raise. (Four of them survived to have families of their own.) 

Morita apparently chose Okamoto as a symbol of early twentieth-century Japanese-American success despite American "racism." But is Morita's choice really representative of Japanese Americans at the time? One should carefully consider this question before answering. 

The Questionable Enterprise of 'Social Clubs'

One should also consider, with a healthy dose of skepticism, Morita's claim that US officials were "imagining" charges against Okamoto. We read that Okamoto was a member of the "Toyokan" of New York, which Morita dismisses as nothing more than a social club. 

However, the ONI's "Japanese Tokyo Club Syndicate, with Interlocking Affiliations" report suggests something more. With possible connections between the Toyokan and the Toyo Club of Seattle and Tokyo Club of Los Angeles, and with tensions with Japan reaching alarming levels in Asia and the Pacific, US officials, in fact, had several grounds for concern. 

To steer new Japanese immigrants away from long-established Chinese dens of vice, first-generation Japanese in America in the early twentieth century formed their own "social clubs." They were houses of drinking and gambling. While these "clubs" engaged in philanthropy within the Japanese community, they were also a cover for massive criminal activity. Prostitution, drug dealing, extortion, and control of businesses such as fishing and cannery operations. And smuggling, which included firearms. All of these and more fell under the purview of the "social clubs." 

The Japanese "social clubs" also promoted pro-Imperial Japanese "propaganda." The ONI suggested that these clubs took direction from Japanese consulates and from Imperial Japanese military officers. Furthermore, the ONI identified some "social club" members as possible agents and saboteurs.

Concern Over Loyalties

Also worrying to American officials were observations that residents of Japanese ancestry in Southeast Asia and the Philippines welcomed the Japanese military when they arrived at the outbreak of World War II. Those of Japanese ancestry who were not very welcoming were bullied by Japanese loyalists.

American intelligence began decoding encrypted Japanese diplomatic cables beginning in late 1940. Among other cables concerning intelligence missions against America, the Japanese government instructed "caution" in utilizing both non-naturalized and American citizens of Japanese ancestry for the purpose of espionage, lest they be subject to "persecution.

The Japanese government and academic elites believed that persons of Japanese ancestry could be turned. Prewar Japanese academics and government officials sternly lectured the Japanese in America: "You owe your allegiance, of course, to the United States, the country of your birth. At the same time, you are closely bound by the ties of blood to the people of Japan; the land of your fathers." 

"Proper knowledge," boasted a Tokyo academic, would "infallibly drive the Nisei [people of Japanese ancestry born in the US, thus, American citizens] to collaborate with their racial homeland of their own volition…" 

Reckless Dismissal of Prewar Concerns

Finally, in addition to spectacular naval victories in the South Pacific following Pearl Harbor, the Imperial Japanese Navy conducted infrequent hit-and-run attacks against US ships and military installations along the United States' West Coast up to October 1942. In September 1942, for the first time ever, the continental US was bombed by enemy aircraft. That was by a seaplane launched from the Japanese submarine I-25. 

Less spectacular, but not for lack of effort, was the Imperial Japanese Navy's pre-war attempt to collect intelligence within the US.

When the above are taken into consideration, it should be clear that American military and intelligence agencies and West Coast politicians were understandably fearful of a possible Japanese strike. They were fearful, too, of potential collaboration by less-than-patriotic Americans. To call American government concerns "imagined" is absolutely reckless.

View of Victory Huts at Crystal City (Family) Internment Camp, looking south (source: UTSA's Institute of Texan Cultures)

Crystal City Internment Camp

Other items in Morita's book have nothing to do with Hideo Okamoto. Nonetheless, they invite reflection. 

For example, Morita includes pages and pages of information on Japanese residents of Crystal City Internment Camp. Okamoto spent no time in Crystal City. It was an "Alien Detention Station" run by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), an agency of the Department of Justice. When it opened on December 12, 1942, the first residents of Crystal City were persons of German or Italian ancestry. The first people of Japanese ancestry arrived on March 17, 1943 ー well after Pearl Harbor.

Crystal City was built to hold families. Detained aliens were not separated from their children who held US citizenship. 

The more familiar "concentration camps" constructed for the assembly and relocation of people of Japanese ancestry, both citizens and non-citizens, were run by a civilian agency. That was the War Relocation Authority (WRA). 

The main difference between camps run by the Justice Department and the WRA was that internees in WRA camps were allowed to leave. They could resettle anywhere but on the West Coast and could work and pursue higher education. 

No Comparison to Real Concentration Camps

To Call Crystal City a "concentration camp" not only ignores historical reality but also belittles survivors of real concentration camps. When the INS planned to move German internees to a different facility, the Germans requested to stay. Their reason? Crystal City was much better than their previous place of confinement.

While no actual prisoners of war (POWs) were held at Crystal City, the INS followed the Convention Relative to Treatment of Prisoners of War (1929) anyway. The 1929 Convention provided minimum guidelines for handling POWs, including the provision of housing, food, clothing, hygiene, "intellectual and moral needs," and health care. 

To comply with the Convention, the INS built Crystal City "like a small community." There were "food stores, auditoriums, hospitals," and State of Texas-certified public education. Language and cultural classes were held in Japanese, German, and English. The INS even built a "Japanese sumo wrestling ring" and a Japanese bath house. 

"Internees were allowed to work and were paid. Families lived in apartment-style prefabricated walled tents with a kitchen, cold running water, an oil stove, and community bathrooms. Other relocation camps that housed families followed a similar "small community" format.

The Real Difference: Death and Starvation

Historian Roger Lotchin has pointed out the main difference between real concentration camps of the time and wartime US relocation camps. That was hundreds of thousands of concentration camp inmate deaths due to disease and starvation.

During the Cuban War of Independence (1895-1898), in an effort to deny support to Cuban rebels, Spain forced rural Cubans into urban areas held by Spanish troops (reconcentración). Up to ten percent of the population of Cuba died due to disease and starvation. 

Shortly after that war, during the Philippine-American War (1899-1902), American troops herded rural Filipino civilians into concentration camps in a similar effort to defeat a rural insurgency. Approximately 200,000 Filipinos died in those camps, due, again, to disease and starvation.

Interestingly, residents at US relocation camps at the time of WWII did not call their temporary homes "concentration camps". The American Jewish Committee also pointed out that US "concentration camps" and Nazi concentration camps "were clearly distinguishable." Nazi concentration camps were places of sheer brutality and murder. 

Okamoto's Observations in Japan

Sarah Kovner noted in her book, Prisoners of the Empire (Harvard University Press, 2020) that towards the end of the war, with conditions deteriorating in Japan due to Allied battlefield successes, civilians complained that Allied "POWs were getting better treatment than they were." 

Being fluent in English, Okamoto served as a liaison between officials of a prison camp in Yokohama and Allied POWs. He noted: "…the POW food… was considerably better than Japanese civilian food." 

Claude Morita worked in military intelligence and in the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. He also worked as a historical record keeper for the United States Air Force. Based on his background, he could have produced a nuanced view of a complex and disastrous period of American history supported by forgotten or studiously ignored evidence. 

Instead, Morita's book tosses around clichés that pass for profound historical analysis these days. Such as non-white victimization and oppression by institutional white racism. Unfortunately, as Hideo Okamoto: Exchange Prisoner and War Plan Orange is dedicated to the next generation, the real lessons of the past are unlikely to make it to the future.

Book cover (courtesy of University of Hawaii Press.)

About the Book:

Title: Hideo Okamoto: Exchange Prisoner and War Plan Orange

Author: Claude Morita

Publisher: Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii

Publication date: April 2019

ISBN: 9780824881689 (ISBN10: 0824881680)

To buy the book: The book is published in paperback format and available for sale from online booksellers including Amazon and University of Hawaii Press.

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Reviewed by Aldric Hama

Find other book reviews, reports and analyses by Dr Hama on JAPAN Forward.