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Japanese Americans, Hawaii, and Democracy
October 25, 2010
by William P. Meyers

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The formerly independent nation of Hawaii is somewhat peripheral to my project of writing The U.S. War Against Asia. Geographically Hawaii is neither Asian nor American. Most Americans would not connect it to our wars against Asian nations if it were not for the Battle of Pearl Harbor in 1941. Hawaii also illustrates many of the issues in the War, and U.S. behavior in Hawaii prior to its annexation was closely watched by Asian nations. As I wrote in Theodore Roosevelt, Hawaii and Japan, by 1900, the ethnic Japanese population of Hawaii was 40%. Ethnic Europeans (mainly Americans) constituted only about 20% of the population. Hawaii was seized by United States citizens in 1893, but was not officially annexed by the United States until 1898, during the Spanish-American war.

I have been meaning to read some detailed history of Hawaii to clarify this issue, but in the meantime I picked up a general history of the northern Pacific Ocean, Walter A. McDougall's Let the Sea Make a Noise, which covers quite a bit of Hawaiian history. Having said that in 1882 Hawaiian plantation owners petitioned Japan to allow emigration to Hawaii because the Japanese were the best workers, on page 391 McDougall begins covering the events leading directly to annexation. Annexation was all about preventing democracy, not creating it.

American planters (mostly sons of missionaries) had already established that only white people and people who had a minimum amount of property (mostly the few native Hawaiians who had not sold out to whites) could vote in their banana Republic. In the United States at that time the Democratic Party was both openly racist and, for the most part, against imperialist adventures. In addition the party represented sugar plantation owners in Louisiana and Florida who did not want Hawaiian sugar to be inside U.S. tariff walls. So while Grover Cleveland, a Democrat, was President, the annexation of Hawaii was delayed. William McKinley, a Republican president elected in 1896, was willing to annex, but Japan stood in the way.

In 1897 the Japanese government sought to protect the independence of Hawaii after the (still independent, but wanting to be annexed white elitist) ruling junta barred Japanese immigration. Japanese Consul Shimamura protested, so Secretary of the Navy John Davis Long sent a cruiser, the Philadelphia, to Hawaii. Again in April Hawaii's President Sanford Dole (yes, like the pineapple company) formally requested annexation by the U.S. The Japanese countered by sending their own cruiser, Naniwa. How about a little democracy fellas? "If the Republic of Hawaii were forced to grant Japanese residents the vote, the Japanese would take over! McKinley now overcame his doubts and ordered the State Department to draft an annexation treaty." [page 392]

"In December 1897 the Meiji cabinet blinked, declared itself satisfied with a small indemnity, and ordered the Naniwa home."

I'll also note that the annexation of Hawaii broke previously signed treaties with the sovereign nation of Hawaii guaranteeing its eternal independence.

It is an old game. The easiest way to win at democracy is to allow only your own side to vote. The U.S. still plays that game, more recently for instance in unoccupied Palestine and in Algeria. When political parties the U.S. does not like, for instance Hamas, win elections, the U.S. simply installs someone else and teaches them how to run crooked elections. Just like in California now, where the publicized debates between Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown have shown they are just two faces of the same incompetent regime. Third party candidates like Laura Wells are simply not allowed to join in public debates.

Democracy, even when truly democratic, is no guarantee of good governance. But the minimal ingredients for democracy are: allowing everyone to vote, and allowing all candidates fair access to the voters.

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