An influential newspaper publisher in Hawai'i, Yasutaro Soga was born in Tokyo in 1873, and studied English law before switching to chemistry. He migrated to Hawai'i in 1896 to work on sugar plantations, which caused him to identify with the exploited workers. He began his career in journalism with the Hawaii Shimpo in 1899, and took over the Yamato Shimbun in 1905. Besides changing the editorial contents of the paper, Soga changed the Yamato Shimbun's name to Nippu Jiji in 1906, and made it one of the territory's most influential Japanese-language dailies. In 1919, Soga introduced an English-language section to the Nippu Jiji, indicating the emergence of the nisei or second-generation Japanese Americans whose primary language was English.
Like Kinzaburo Makino, editor of the rival Hawaii Hochi, Soga was an active leader of various Japanese American causes, most notably the sugar plantation strike of 1909. In his paper, Soga published in 1908 a call by Motoyuki Negoro, a Honolulu attorney, to begin a campaign for higher wages, which became the Zokyu Kisei Kai or Higher Wages Association that spearheaded the 1909 strike. The strike involved some 7,000 workers on all of the major sugar plantations on the island of O'ahu, inflicting losses totaling an estimated $2 million to the planters. Soga and other strike leaders were arrested, imprisoned on conspiracy charges, and fined. Upon their release on July 4, 1910, a crowd of nearly 1,000 cheered the strike leaders, solidifying their position as leaders of Hawai'i's Japanese American community.
On December 7, 1941, Soga and other community leaders were apprehended and confined in concentration camps. His account of his ordeal, My Life in Barbed Wire (1948), later published as Life Behind Barbed Wire: The World War II Internment Memoirs of a Hawai'i Issei (2007), is a rich, primary account in English of Hawai'i's
internment program. My Life begins with his arrest, his experiences at Honolulu's immigration station, and his observations of confinement at the Sand Island camp. Soga described the “bloodthirsty” conditions at the immigration station where one wrong move might have provoked his death. He noted that the men were forced to eat outdoors in the rain, and described how German and Italian prisoners ate first while the Japanese ate after them on their dirty mess kits cleaned only in a bucket of filthy water. “I couldn't stand that because even these prisoners looked down on us,” Soga wrote (Okihiro, 214).
In the Sand Island camp, Soga observed that priests, editors, businessmen, and physicians performed unfamiliar manual labor and were, accordingly, exhausted by the work of putting up tents in which they slept. In the pouring rain, Soga noted, the men struggled to erect 20 tents, which they completed around nine o'clock at night. Then sweaty and soaked by the rain, the men went to bed on wet cots and in tents flooded with pools of water. Soga told of an internee who attempted suicide by slashing his wrist with a razor blade after repeated questionings by the FBI, and he testified to the breakdown of morale and social order. “We grew desolated more and more,” Soga wrote. “Our joyless days continued day after day. In order to divert our feelings, smutty stories (sexual and obscene) were popular in every tent” (Okihiro, 216).
On December 14, 1941, Soga related, Ryoshin Okano, a priest, was found with a knife in his possession. Several guards quickly surrounded Okano and pointed their pistols at him, stripped him naked and searched him, and then turned to his work mates. Despite nightfall, Soga recounted, “we were gathered in the open space and we took off our clothes. We had to remain standing for a long time until they finished searching our clothes. Other guards searched our tents and took away our fountainpens and pencils. We were frozen to death in the cold, windy, and barren field” (Okihiro, 217).
On New Year's Eve 1941, Soga reported, the camp commander Carl F. Eifler called all the Japanese American internees together to make an example of George Genji Otani, one of their elected leaders. Eifler simply wanted to flex his authority over the internees. Eifler claimed Otani insulted one of his soldiers, and with a threatening look, told Otani in front of the others that he should have been promptly shot to death for his insolence. Instead, Eifler ordered guards to take Otani to an isolation cell at army headquarters, where he was confined for a week and given only water and hard crackers to eat.
Sand Island, Soga noted, was designed to break the spirit of the internees. These were the leaders of the Japanese American community, and were the voice, heart, and minds of the people. Breaking them, in effect, meant the subservience of all Japanese Americans in the islands. Their harsh treatment was designed to inspire fear among Hawai'i's Japanese Americans to coerce them into docility and productivity. And thus, the ever-present display of arms, the omnipresent guards, the frequent and unexpected roll calls, and punishment meted out for insolence and a host of other offenses testified to the fact that the internees had little control over their futures and their lives were inconsequential. “None of us could see a light in our future,” Soga noted despondently (Okihiro, 223).
From Sand Island, Soga was taken along with over a thousand other Japanese Americans to internment camps on the U.S. continent. He described life in the War Department's Lordsburg camp and the Department of Justice Santa Fe camp in New Mexico. After nearly four years under confinement, on November 13, 1945, Soga was released and returned to Hawai'i where he resumed publishing in the Hawaii Times, the renamed successor of his Nippu Jiji managed by his son, Shigeo. Besides newspaper writing, Soga was a poet. He wrote there was nothing more sorrowful than war, because all of life's sadness is brought together in that single place and time.
Soga died on March 7, 1957, at the age of 83, and was buried at the historic, O'ahu Cemetery in Nu'uanu.
Gary Y. Okihiro
Okihiro, Gary Y. Cane Fires: The Anti-Japanese Movement in Hawaii, 1865–1945. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.
Soga, Yasutaro. Life Behind Barbed Wire: The World War II Internment Memoirs of a Hawai'I Issei. Translated by Kihei Hirai. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2007.