Myles Fukunaga: Racism in Hawai‘i, Then and Now

Oct 8, 2019

Hawai‘i is seen as a multicultural model around the world, but how did that reputation start?  In his new book, an expert on race says the idea was publicized as part of the backdrop to an explosive trial that rocked Honolulu in 1928. Myles Fukunaga was sentenced to hang for kidnapping and murder on this day, ninety-one years ago.

Jonathan Okamura, professor, UH Manoa Ethnic Studies Department, has written the first definitive book on the case of Myles Fukunaga, confessed perpetrator of a kidnapping and murder that gripped Honolulu in 1928.
Credit Noe Tanigawa / Hawai'i Public Radio

Jonathan Okamura discusses his book, Raced to Death in 1920’s Hawai‘i, at the Japanese Cultural Center Saturday, October 19th 2019, 10:30 am.

In 1928, all of Honolulu was horrified by the kidnapping and murder of Gill Jamieson, the 10-year-old son of a banker. A Shakespeare quoting ransom note was followed by discovery of the boy’s body in Waikiki, and soon, 19-year-old Myles Fukunaga, confessed. Within 3 weeks, Fukunaga was sentenced to hang, and the speed of the verdict is one aspect of UH Mānoa Professor Jon Okamura’s book, titled, Raced to Death in 1920’s Hawai‘i. Okamura contends that another aspect relates to the dominance of haoles, that is whites, or Caucasians in 1920’s Hawai‘i. 

Fukunaga had graduated at the top of his 8th grade class, then went to work. He was putting in 80 hours a week as a “pantry boy” at the Seaside Hotel, and had attempted suicide twice by the time he decided to kidnap the son of a banker whose company was threatening to evict the Fukunaga family. Details of the case are covered in the book, against the backdrop of the anti-Japanese movement, a national movement that existed as an undercurrent, and at times openly, in Hawai‘i, according to Okamura.

Myles Yutaka Fukunaga's grave is in the Mo'ili'ili Japanese Cemetery ma uka of Kapi'olani Boulevard. The monument does not bear his name, but is understood to be his. The inscription reads, Born February 4, 1909 (Meiji 42) Died November 19, 1929 (Showa 4)
Credit Joel Abroad / Flickr

“My argument is that Fukunaga was not just killed as an individual for his crime he committed at that time in September, 1928. For haoles he had violated the dominant racial boundary between themselves and non-haoles, particularly Japanese Americans who were viewed as the most politically, economically, and culturally threatening group to haole supremacy.”

Japanese were seen as a threat because they kept their culture through Japanese schools, they coordinated strikes across the islands while on the plantations, then moved off and opened successful businesses. Most alarming, Japanese were 41% of Hawai‘i’s population in 1920; whites were 7%, but they controlled the economy, and, in trials over labor issues during that period, whites proved to have a grip on the judiciary as well.

“By that time,” says Okamura “Haoles knew they could manipulate the criminal justice system to get the outcome they desired, which was Fukunaga’s conviction and execution.” (Okamura cites the 1932 Massie-Kahahawai case as another example of haole control over the judicial system in that period.)

In the 1920’s, Okamura says, newspapers were touting Hawai‘i as a multicultural paradise, despite actual racial discrimination.

“What I’m arguing is that these ideas originate during the Fukunaga case because the Star Bulletin and Nippu Jiji (a Japanese community newspaper) said, by requesting a new trial for Fukunaga and claiming he was a victim of racism and discrimination, the Japanese American community was disrupting the racial harmony that was prevalent in Hawai‘i at the time, which is nonsense.”

Okamura claims Hawai‘i’s image as a multicultural paradise has roots in manipulation, not in reality.  How are we doing now?

Okamura says, since the 1970’s, the gap has been growing between the top tier and those lower on Hawai‘i’s socio economic ladder.  In the 90’s, Japanese joined whites and Chinese Americans in the top tier, but Okamura says he is not seeing collective mobility in other ethnic groups since then. 

“I don’t see collective mobility on the part of those groups in the same sense that Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans had experienced following the war and after statehood, being able to rise, as groups,” says Okamura. “There is individual mobility certainly from Native Hawaiians, Filipino Americans who attend the University, other Universities, graduate and get professional jobs, but the numbers are not large enough to say that these groups themselves are also attaining socio-economic mobility.”

“A major reason for this, is our dependence on tourism,” Okamura continues. “The kinds of jobs it creates, low wage, low mobility service and sales jobs. Very difficult for groups to collectively advance themselves with an economy based on those types of employment.”

Okamura says he learned something from community opposition to a 2018 proposal from the Hawai‘i State Teachers Association. The proposal was for a tax surcharge on investment property to fund education.

“I saw opposition to the passage of the constitutional amendment was also opposition to equal opportunity in Hawai‘i.”  

To Okamura, opposition to that amendment was so strong, it represented a visceral reaction.

“To me it clearly went beyond whether or not public education was funded, but it was the desire to maintain the ethnic status quo, to keep haoles, Japanese, Chinese Americans in power and control, keep the Hawaiians, Filipinos, Samoans, Micronesians, other minorities, in their subordinate position.”

Okamura points out that “Opposition came from four former Democratic party governors, the party that claimed to be supportive of racial equality, social justice, economic reform in Hawai‘i, it also came from the University of Hawai‘i faculty union who, according to the amendment, would have benefitted also. The Star Advertiser also had an editorial against the amendment.”

“What that made me realize was not just the opposition to address problems in public education,” continues Okamura, “With 70% of public school students being from minority groups, what I saw in the opposition to passage of the constitutional amendment was also opposition to equal opportunity in Hawai‘i.”   

Okamura says, in the absence of any other funding proposals, he is forced to conclude, “The dominant groups are no longer in favor of providing opportunities to subordinate groups like Filipinos, Native Hawaiian, Samoans, other minorities through public education that still remains the primary means for their socio economic advancement.”

Challenged with the fact that few if anyone in Hawai‘i would ever admit to that kind of ethnic bias, Okamura responds, “This is the result, though.”