A war veteran and dissident nisei leader, Joseph Yoshisuke Kurihara was born in 1895 on the island of Kaua‘i. His parents were among the tens of thousands of Japanese who came to the islands of Hawai‘i beginning in the 19th century, most of them recruited to work on the islands' sugarcane plantations. Kurihara began his formal education when he was eight years old, at a public grammar school in Honolulu. In 1915, he boarded a steamship for San Francisco, hoping to study medicine at St. Ignatius College (now the University of San Francisco). Upon his arrival in California, Kurihara joined the St. Francis Xavier Japanese Catholic Mission, a community that strongly supported his educational plans but made him aware that he needed a high school diploma in order to enter college. Mission members therefore encouraged him to attend the preparatory school St. Ignatius (located next to, and associated with, the college of the same name).
At St. Ignatius, Kurihara focused on history and elocution—important subjects in preparatory schools across the country, as well as topics that greatly influenced his later life. The 21-year-old Kurihara entered St. Ignatius's annual elocution contest during his second year at the school. He chose to memorize and deliver “Rienzi's Address to the Romans,” a piece by English author Mary Russell Mitford that exemplified the ideas of justice and civil rights that Kurihara learned in his history courses. In this “Address,” Rienzi—a character based on the 14th-century Italian politician Cola di Rienzi, who led a successful revolt against Rome's nobility and later introduced several governmental reforms—calls on the people to rebel in the name of freedom. In the middle of World War II, Kurihara drew extensively upon the knowledge of rhetoric, ethics, and history that he gained from his experiences at St. Ignatius 25 years earlier. It was during World War I, however, that he served in uniform for the first time.
Eager to fight for the United States (perhaps because of his idolization of Rienzi and similar leaders), Kurihara headed to his local military registration board on June 5, 1917. Rather than waiting to be drafted, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and was soon deployed to France, where he experienced the horrors of war firsthand. Two decades later, he wrote:
Let those who agitate for war fight it out. Let them carry that heavy pack and hike to the front for days and nights without a decent meal. Let them drink the muddy water, and let them go without a bath, so the cooties can flourish on their filth! […] Let them live under bombardment with death staring them in the face, and see if they ever will ask for another war! (“I Was in the War”)
Of course, soon after Kurihara voiced this diatribe, the United States was at war again, and he found himself imprisoned by the country for which he so recently had put his life on the line.
Failing to acknowledge his patriotism as a war veteran, the U.S. government—via President Franklin Roosevelt's signing of Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942—impounded Kurihara (and over 120,000 other Japanese Americans) at Manzanar, a concentration camp in California's desert region, plagued by extreme temperatures and brutal dust storms. Within months, Kurihara became famous inside Manzanar's fences. On July 28, he spoke out against the prevailing ideology among the camp's most intellectual detainees, who argued that nisei (who, unlike their issei parents, were U.S. citizens) would be best positioned to fight discrimination and educate citizens for leadership. Before the order to leave his home and work, Kurihara explained, he was “100 percent American,” but the minute Executive Order 9066 went into effect he swore “severance of [his] allegiance to the United States, and became 100 percent pro-Japanese. […] If any one, any nisei, thinks he's an American I dare him to try to walk out of this prison. This is no place for us. It's a white man's country” (Speeches). A number of listeners agreed with Kurihara's convictions, and so he became a major voice in the camp.
On December 5, 1942, six masked men entered the Manzanar residence of nisei Fred Tayama and bludgeoned him with clubs. Many in the camp detested Tayama, a former restaurant owner who exploited his workers and who, at a Utah meeting of the Japanese American Citizens League, called himself a representative of Japanese Americans everywhere. Tayama accused Harry Ueno, a popular chief cook at one of Manzanar's mess halls who organized and headed the camp's Kitchen Workers Union, of having been of one his assailants. Ueno's subsequent arrest and exile to a jail in the nearby town of Independence triggered great protest: claiming that Ueno was wrongfully incarcerated, Kurihara and others marched to Manzanar's administration building and loudly demanded his release.
Standing, microphone in hand, atop an oil tank, the 47-year-old Kurihara delivered one of his most famous and controversial speeches: “Why permit that sneak [Tayama] to pollute the air we breathe?” he asked a crowd of 2,000. “Let's kill him and feed him to the roving coyotes! […] If the Administration refuses to listen to our demand, let us proceed with him and exterminate all other informers in this camp” (“Murder”). While the administration responded by returning Ueno to Manzanar, he still was confined to a jail on the camp's grounds, and protests continued. Soon, the military police came to break up the impassioned crowd; soldiers fired tear gas grenades and gunned down two young Japanese American men. Kurihara was jailed in the nearby town of Bishop, then transferred three times—to Moab, Utah, to Leupp, Arizona, and finally to Tule Lake, California. At Tule Lake, Kurihara became a key informant for Rosalie Hankey, a researcher for the Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study, which collected a large number of photographs, letters, and journals of evacuees and government officials alike.
Two months after the war ended, Kurihara boarded the first ship bound for Japan, where he had never been before, and remained there the rest of his life, not once returning to the United States that rejected and disillusioned him. He died of a stroke in 1965, yet his strong, dissident voice remains in our memory.
Kurihara, Joseph Y. “I Was in the War.” Kashu Maininchi, May 19, 1940.
Kurihara, Joseph Y. “Murder in Camp Manzanar.” Unpublished typescript, 2–3, [April 16, 1943], Japanese American Evacuation and Relocation Records, O8.10, 67/14c, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.
Kurihara, Joseph Y. [Speeches]. Unpublished typescript, 1–2, [Nov. 1945], Japanese American Evacuation and Relocation Records, O8.10, 67/14c, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.
Tamura, Eileen H. “Value Messages Collide with Reality: Joseph Kurihara and the Power of Informal Education.” History of Education Quarterly 50:1 (2010): 1–33.
Unrau, Harlan D. The Evacuation and Relocation of Persons of Japanese Ancestry during World War II: A Historical Study of the Manzanar War Relocation Center. U.S. Dept. of the Interior, National Park Service, 1996.