The night of December 7, 1941 was a panicked one in Hawaii. In the wake of Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaiian civilians struggled to understand what had just happened—and to make sense of the announcement that their island was now under martial law.
As military and FBI agents rounded up suspected spies and “suspicious persons,” the army imposed a strict curfew. Habeas corpus was suspended, the military took control of labor, and trial by jury was temporarily abolished. More than 2,000 people were arrested in the first 48 hours alone. Hawaii would remain under military rule for almost three years.
“The Army’s readiness to take over every detail of government in Hawaii only hours after the Pearl Harbor attack was in startling contrast to its lack of military preparedness to deal with the onslaught by Japan’s air fleet,” writes legal historians Harry N. Scheiber and Jane L. Scheiber.
Military rule meant big changes for Hawaiians. Every person on the island, with the exception of children, was fingerprinted and issued identification papers they had to produce on demand. Civilians were banned from photographing any coastal location. Hawaii’s Japanese Americans, who had long been under surveillance by federal and military intelligence agencies that feared they would side with Japan during wartime, were treated particularly harshly.
At the time, Hawaii was a territory, not a state. The law that established a territorial government in 1900 covered Hawaiians with the protections of the United States’ constitution. Thirty-seven percent of residents were of Japanese descent, including 37,000 Issei (Japanese-born people who were not eligible for citizenship) and 121,000 Japanese American citizens.
Hawaii’s proximity to Japan made it of prime strategic importance, and put the islands at unique risk. But military officials doubted the loyalties of the island’s many Japanese Americans. As the United States sent people of Japanese descent to internment camps on the mainland, it vacillated as to how to deal with Japanese Americans in Hawaii itself.
The federal government couldn’t afford to intern one-third of the population of Hawaii: The war effort needed labor and feared such a move might stoke pro-Japanese sentiment. Besides, the logistics of imprisoning nearly 160,000 people in a territory that was small to begin with seemed insurmountable. And so, they turned the Hawaiian Islands into its own type of internment facility instead.