A Territorial Labor Activist’s Tale

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - May 04, 2005
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Today few in Hawaii know Koji Ariyoshi’s name: a handful of long-in-the-tooth labor activists, perhaps a score of students who studied with him in the University of Hawaii’s Ethnic Studies program, a dozen practitioners of the Islands’ modern history.

I’m probably underestimating the resonance of Ariyoshi’s name— but not by much.

In a generation of Japanese- American success stories, Ariyoshi’s gets lost — largely because his success was not his own. It belonged to the people, the cause and the ideal he embraced.

Ariyoshi’s public career in Hawaii lasted for no more than a decade — a very tumultuous decade. After Army service in Asia during World War II, Ariyoshi tried writing in New York for a couple of years. He returned to Hawaii with his wife and daughter in 1948. A year later, he began publishing The Honolulu Record, a pro-labor newspaper funded by the International Longshoremen and Warehousemen’s Union.

Honolulu badly needed another journalistic voice. The editorial policy of the city’s two dailies belonged to Hawaii’s employers, in particular the Big Five companies who dominated the Territory’s economy.

“Ariyoshi was a muckraker, independent,” says Helen Chapin, a historian of Island journalism. “He was never wrong. He went out and got the facts. The mainstream press scorned him. The Star-Bulletin called the Record ‘that little pinko rag.’”

Three successive ILWU strikes — of Hawaii’s sugar plantations in 1946, of the pineapple fields in 1947, and of the docks in 1949 — fueled a raging red scare in Hawaii’s business community. The Honolulu Record and its leftist editor became prime targets of the red baiters. In 1951 Ariyoshi and six others with ties to the ILWU were indicted under the Smith Act, charged with inciting the overthrow of the government of the United States.

Their trial began in November 1953. Six months later the jury found Ariyoshi and his fellow defendants guilty, fined him $5,000, and sentenced him to five years in prison.

He never served a day. In 1958 a United States Circuit Court reversed the Smith Act convictions. But Ariyoshi’s reputation suffered, even among many he had counted as friends; and his journalism career came to a close. Short on advertising, readers and the continued support of the ILWU, in 1958 The Honolulu Record ceased publication.

Ariyoshi and his wife opened a flower shop. It would be his main source of income until his death in 1976.

Yet Ariyoshi lived an admirable life. He was among those fortunate few who find a set of ideals early, a cause greater than himself that, despite enormous public scorn, provided him with a serenity many of us can only envy.

“He was one of the dissident voices (in the Japanese-American) story,” says longtime labor activist Ah Quon McElrath. “But he never lost his idealism. He never lost his commitment.”

He found his commitment on the depressed Kona coffee farm his parents leased to support their children. Ariyoshi’s father died soon after Koji Ariyoshi’s graduation from high school; he left the family with “huge debts.” So the son worked for six years on road crews, in the pineapple cannery — wherever a strong back was valued.

Ariyoshi entered the University of Hawaii in 1937, supporting himself with a stevedore’s job. In 1940 he won a scholarship to the University of Georgia; there he learned about the poverty of share-croppers in the deep South. Following graduation, Ariyoshi moved to San Francisco where he again found work as a stevedore. With the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Ariyoshi lost his job. A few months later he was interned with other West Coast Japanese-Americans at a camp at Manzinar.

When the United States Army came through the internment camps looking for Japanese language experts, Ariyoshi signed on. In 1943 he was sent to India and Ceylon; in 1944 to China. There Ariyoshi grew disillusioned with the corruption of Chiang Kai- Sheck’s nationalist forces — and in Yenan Province came to appreciate the idealism and commitment to the defeat of Japan of Mao, Chou En-lai and the Communist forces.

Ariyoshi told his superiors that Chiang could not defeat the Communists. His warnings went unheeded. Instead, with his fellow intelligence officers who served in Yenan, he was suspected of complicity with the Communists.

Ariyoshi never lost his faith in trade unionism, socialism and the working class.

Says his son Roger: “Koji Ariyoshi always took the long view of life, that the people are not helpless but can be masters of their own destiny. My father always tried to improve the lot of the mass of people. He always said that change was the only constant, that we are just a speck in the universe.”

In these days of political cynicism and the reigning belief that the world belongs to the wealthy, Ariyoshi’s story provides a powerful antidote. It’s told in Biography Hawaii: Koji Ariyoshi at 8 p.m., Thursday, May 5, on PBS-Hawaii.

It’s well worth a look.

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