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Yukuo Uyehara – An Issei Academic in Wartime - Part 1

Before U.S. entry in World War II, a small group of Japanese immigrants found work as academics in American universities. A few, such as Yamato Ichihashi of Stanford University, Toyokichi Iyenaga of University of Chicago, were prestigious researchers who conducted pioneering work on Japan and/or prewar Japanese American communities. Others, like Etsu Sugimoto and Bunji Omura, supplemented their income by teaching at universities like Columbia University, where they provided introductory courses in Japanese language and culture to students.

Yukuo Uyehara Courtesy of Nippu Jiji Photo Archives, Japanese American collection (JA4553.003)

Within this group, one exceptional individual was Yukuo Uyehara of University of Hawaii (UH). A young Issei who left Japan as a child and grew up in Hawaii, Uyehara (like his better-known UH colleague Shunzo Sakamaki) was one of the only American-educated scholars of Japanese ancestry who embarked on an academic career during the prewar years.

Despite the suspicion that surrounded Japanese aliens, especially those who promoted Japanese culture in the United States, Uyehara remained in Hawaii during the years of World War II and assisted the military with translation work. In the postwar years, Uyehara helped make UH’s East Asian Studies program into one of the leading institutions in the field, and inspired a generation of scholars to study Japanese.

Yukuo Uyehara was born on August 9, 1905 in Kumamoto, Japan. He arrived with his parents in Hawaii in 1919, and settled in Kauai, where he enrolled at the Waimea school. In 1924, after spending a year at the well-known ʻIolani school in Honolulu, Uyehara transferred to McKinley High School. In March 1926, Uyehara led McKinley’s debate team in a competition over whether to abolish the school’s ROTC program. Uyehara took the side of defending ROTC, stating that student military training was necessary since “war is inevitable.”

On June 3, 1927, Uyehara graduated as an honor student from McKinley High School. He then enrolled at the University of Hawaii, where he enrolled in the Japanese Studies program under its founding director, former Doshisha University president Tasaku Harada. During his time there, Uyehara became active in several Japanese student groups and the social science club.

He graduated in June 1931, alongside future U.S. Senator Hiram Fong and anthropologist John F. Embree (Uyehara and Embree would go on to collaborate on several books). After graduating, Uyehara worked as a language instructor at the Kaimuki Japanese school and enrolled in Master’s level classes at the University of Hawaii (the University had no doctoral programs in social sciences until after World War II).

As a student, Uyehara showed promise as an academic. A year after graduating from University of Hawaii, Uyehara authored a paper with help from geographer John Wesley Coulter on the importance of the sugar industry to the Ryukyu Islands. The study, titled “Ryukyu Islands, Japan,” was featured in the October 1933 issue of the journal Economic Geography. Uyehara’s article provided one of the most detailed accounts of life on the Ryukyu Islands, the Okinawan people, and its agricultural industry, as well as his own research on Okinawan communities in Hawaii. It also included information from secondary sources that Uyehara translated from Japanese to English.

Uyehara concluded in the article that, because of its geography, Okinawa was less ideal for sugar cane production than Hawaii, which had long-established sugar cane plantations. The U.S. Army would later cite Uyehara’s article as part of its survey of Okinawa during the postwar occupation, and to this day it remains a reference on agriculture in the Ryukyu Islands.

The Ryukyu paper provided Uyehara a pathway to enter academia. On March 27, 1933, the University of Hawaii announced Uyehara’s appointment as instructor of Japanese. To prepare for his new job, Uyehara took a leave of absence in Japan and enrolled in classes at Waseda University from April to July 1933. Uyehara was initially hired for a one-year position to take the place of George Tadao Kunitomo (himself a pioneering Japanese American academic) who had taken a sabbatical in Japan. However, Uyehara’s work was sufficiently good that he was invited to remain on the staff of UH following Kunitomo’s return.

In 1934, Uyehara was assigned to instruct introductory and third-year Japanese at University of Hawaii. As part of his work as an instructor, Uyehara planned several Japanese cultural events for students, and revised a textbook on the Japanese language originally written by his colleague Kunitomo. In 1936, Uyehara completed a Master’s degree in Japanese language, which helped him in his teaching. By 1938, Uyehara was teaching six classes in Japanese language, the majority of those offered.

In the years before U.S. entry into World War II, Uyehara began several initiatives to promote Japanese studies at University of Hawaii. Uyehara helped direct the school’s Oriental Literature Society, a program started by Nisei students in 1932. In June 1938, Uyehara and his colleague Denzel Carr began a pilot program for teaching the Japanese language. The program offered students the chance to learn 500 words and basic knowledge of grammar, and taught them how to use a dictionary, all within six weeks.

Editor Yasutaro Soga of the Nippu Jiji declared the program the first of its kind in the United States, and added that its success would revolutionize language learning. Uyehara also served as a sponsor of the Hakuba Kai, a Japanese fraternal organization on campus. In November 1938, Hakuba Kai member Koji Ariyoshi, the future labor organizer and journalist who would be one of the few Americans to meet Mao Zedong, organized a dance in honor of his advisor Uyehara.

In 1939, Uyehara helped to organize the Fukuzawa chair at the University of Hawaii. Named in honor of Japanese education leader Yukichi Fukuzawa, the chair provided an endowment for Japanese scholars to teach at the university. In August 1940, the famed poet and art critic Yone Noguchi was named as the first Fukuzawa chair. Noguchi’s visit to UH proved controversial, as he had fully embraced Japanese militarism at the time.

Uyehara undertook several projects during the prewar years. First, in 1938 Uyehara assisted his former classmate and UH colleague, anthropologist John F. Embree, in pursuing his research into Japanese villages. Uyehara provided translation assistance for Embree’s first book, Suya Mura: A Japanese Village, aid that Embree credited with improving his research.

Nippu Jiji Photo Archives, Japanese American collection (JA4553.004)

In March 1940, Uyehara published his first book, with Hokuseido Press of Japan. Titled Songs for Children: Sung in Japan, the book consisted of a collection of fifty “doyo,” or Japanese children’s songs, that were popularly sung in Japanese classrooms at the time. The first collection of its kind, Songs for Children provided both English and Japanese lyrics for the songs.

Uyehara dedicated the book to “the children of America with the hope that they will come to know what their friends Japan are reading, reciting, and singing.” The book received positive reviews in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Shin Sekai Asahi Shinbun, Nippu Jiji, and Maui Rekōdo. 

Even as he taught at UH and pursued his research career, Uyehara became active in several Japanese community organizations in Honolulu. For example, he was active in the Japanese High School (JHS) alumni association of Hawaii, serving as vice-president from 1935 to 1936. He organized several events for alumni on the islands. He would remain an active member throughout his adult life.

In December 1936, Uyehara was elected head of the JHS alumni association. He was a regular guest at community events, and gave several talks on the importance of Japanese culture. On April 7, 1937, Uyehara gave a lecture titled “An Interpretation of Japanese Culture” at the Seinan Kyodan.

On August 6, 1937, Uyehara married Dorothy Harue Teshima, his former classmate from UH, who was an instructor at Manoa school. The couple had one daughter, Kay Midori Uyehara. Dorothy Uyehara likewise participated in Japanese community groups, such as the University of Hawaii’s Japanese Women’s Club. In April 1940, Dorothy Uyehara appeared as a cast member in a broadcast on radio station KGU that featured John Ford’s movie “Young Mr. Lincoln,” adapted and translated into Japanese. In April 1941, she led a fundraiser drive at the Iolani Barracks for the local Red Cross.

Part 2 >>


© 2022 Jonathan van Harmelen

academics Issei prewar University of Hawaii Yukuo Uyehara