Islands | A multihued archipelago, tuned to soccer’s harmonics

You see how beautiful it is on this island, but sometimes, too, it can be wild and deadly. We live here with that potential.
Haruki Murakami, “Hanalei Bay

Honolulu | Major League Soccer executives and tourism authorities sounded gloomy about long-term prospects for the Pan-Pacific Soccer Championships, blaming low attendance at Aloha Stadium on “sports fatigue” and inadequate marketing. Excitement over native son Barack Obama, who won Hawai‘i’s presidential caucus the day before the tournament started on Feb 20, meant soccerheads had to search even harder for news before the inaugural four-match event, featuring L.A. Galaxy, Houston Dynamo, Sydney FC and Gamba Osaka.

Organizers facilitated appearances by participating teams at Washington Middle School in Honolulu on Feb 18, part of the “Kick across Hawaii” program. (Jordan Murph |

With a less-than-fit David Beckham failing to draw the customary sell-out crowd, MLS commissioner Don Garber seemed genuinely puzzled afterward. His endorsement of the tournament sounded tinny: “We want to see it continue,” Garber told the Honolulu Advertiser.

Eyes fixated on the bottom line, league marketers will not pause to appreciate how the archipelago’s racial and ethnic mixing offers the country’s best grassroots soccer setting. Obama’s backers, heralding the candidate’s presidential-preference sweep, promoted the “Aloha spirit” that gave him 76 percent of the vote among a record 37,000 caucus-goers. The Boston Globe reported:

Hawaiians boast that they have no ethnic majority. And many of them believe the state’s numerous nationalities and ethnicities—including native islanders, Chinese, Filipinos, Japanese, and whites such as Obama’s mother, who came here from Kansas, and Africans like his father, who came from Kenya—played a crucial role in shaping Obama’s unifying message.

Hawai‘i had been chosen over other venues, including Australia, as host. The MLS promotional arm, Soccer United Marketing, believes—along with previous generations of naval strategists—that success on the Islands presages success in Asia. The North American Soccer League placed a side, Team Hawaii, in Honolulu before the 1977 season, and one season was as long as it lasted. But filmmaker George Fosty credits Pelé‘s one appearance at Aloha Stadium—a 2–1 Cosmos victory—with a boom in the soccer culture, such that the working title of a documentary on Hawaiian soccer history is Pele’s Children (the pun with the name of the Hawai‘i volcano goddess is intended). The crowd for the Pelé match was surpassed Feb 23, when 23,087 attended the Gamba Osaka–Houston “final.”

For the Japanese locals especially—and the hundreds of supporters in train—Gamba Osaka‘s 6–1 triumph seemed appropriate on an island chain to which Japanese have immigrated since the 1880s. By the early 1920s, due to their desirability as workers on sugar and fruit plantations, the Japanese already formed the largest percentage of Hawai‘i’s population.

According to an assessment by the Library of Congress, the Japanese from their majority position built institutions and communities that outshone similar expatriate creations in the mainland United States. “The newspapers, schools, stores, temples, churches, and baseball teams that they founded,” reads the LOC review, “were the legacy of a community secure of its place in Hawaii, and they became a birthright that was handed down to the generations that followed.”

On one Thursday evening in Jan 1944, table football at the Young Kansas Citians’ Club in Missouri offered a recreational outlet for resettled Japanese Americans. (War Relocation Authority, Photographs of Japanese-American Evacuation and Resettlement, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley)

I lived part of my childhood on the Islands’ largest Army post, Schofield Barracks, established in 1909 between the Koolau and Waianae mountain ranges. Here I gained preternatural awareness of the importance of sport—baseball and gridiron games between teams on post were around-the-clock fixtures—and of the Islands’ connection to Japan. My father took me regularly to a Japanese barber and to one of the first showings of Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970). With my interest thus peaked, we took the obligatory boat excursion to the USS Arizona Memorial. Any time I wished I could put my fingers through bullet holes in the barracks’ thick stucco façades—evidence of the 7 Dec 1941 strafings. I even recall feeling wary when exploring zones of lush vegetation on the 18,000-acre post, fearing that disaffected Japanese soldiers might be in wait.

The Pearl Harbor attack transformed long-standing xenophobia to the Japanese presence in the United States—they were barred until 1952 from becoming naturalized citizens—to one of the 20th century’s great infringements on civil liberties. Executive Order 9066, which Franklin Roosevelt signed in Feb 1942, authorized evacuation of Japanese Americans from “military areas,” ultimately to include most of the mainland West Coast. More than 100,000 Japanese Americans were herded to relocation camps on moonscape terrains in the Far West and Deep South. Another 30,000—Japanese, Germans and Italians from the mainland, the Hawaiian territory and Latin America—spent time in a larger number of internment camps. These individuals were arrested and held without trial, even after World War II had concluded (see Craig Gima, “In a Small Town in Texas …,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 8 Nov 02, for a personal account of an internment facility in Crystal City, Texas).

Not far south of my childhood of paradisiacal bliss, overgrown with haole koa, monkeypod trees and grass, rest the foundations of Honouliuli Internment Camp. The 160-acre facility of barracks, tents and mess hall—surveyed by a National Park Service archaeologist shortly before President Bush signed a bill authorizing $38 million for preservation of such sites—survives as a hodgepodge of concrete slabs and barbed wire on leased farmland. (Preservation funds have yet to be appropriated for any of the internment sites.)

Honouliuli housed Japanese, German and Italian men beginning in Mar 1943; four other camps around the Islands were also in service at various times. Altogether, some 1,500 Hawaiians spent time in internment camps, a surprisingly low number considering the estimated wartime Japanese population of 140,000—40 percent of the populace. Again, a multicultural network of cooperation might have preserved the authority of Hawai‘i’s martial-law government and prevented massive detentions. Tom Coffman, director of the documentary film The First Battle, emphasizes how community advocacy preserved the Islands’ sense of themselves as a self-determining cultural mix: “It was an essential struggle between Hawai‘i being a multiracial democracy and a model of a distant military outpost of the United States,” Coffman says. “In that sense, the future was up for grabs.”

On 25 Aug 1942, George Hoshida created this ink-and-watercolor rendering of Kilauea Military Detention Camp, with Mauna Loa looming in the distance. He cultivated an interest in drawing during an incarceration of more than three years, spread among five concentration camps from Hawai‘i to Arkansas. (George Hoshida Collection, Japanese American National Museum, Los Angeles)

Internment zones in Hawai‘i contrast with the more comprehensive relocation-center barracks in Arkansas, Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, Arizona and California, which made room for recreation grounds, including soccer fields. Ansel Adams on a 1943 foray to the Manzanar War Relocation Center in California photographed card games as well as baseball, calisthenics, gridiron and volleyball. Martial arts were practiced, and the Manzanar facility operated its own newspaper, Manzanar Free Press, which reported regularly on recreation and sports in the camp:

Goh, shogi, drama, musicals, woodcarving, gardening and poem writing are the favorite pastimes for the elderly men. Embroidery, flower making, knitting, leathercraft, sewing, dramas and musicals are the predominant recreations for the women.

Through the medium of talent shows, dances, softball, basketball, football and tennis games, weight lifting contests, song fests, folk dances, parties, ping pong and movies, the morale of the younger residents has been kept at a high level. In addition to these diversions, several groups have been organized to form music, model airplane building, painting, and literature clubs for persons in all walks of life. (“Community Activities,” 10 Sept 1943, p. 19)

Soccer games, with various levels of organization, occurred in at least two of the concentration camps and likely in others that had land available for recreation. Internees recount intramural games for youth at Crystal City, Texas; in the Department of Justice–administered Fort Missoula Internment Camp in Montana, authorities permitted a mixed-nationalities league among Japanese, Italians and Germans. The league proceeded successfully despite animus among the three groups. In a karmic parallel, the same ground for at least 30 years has contained soccer fields managed by the Missoula Parks and Recreation Department.

As a means of cultural exchange between Japan and Hawai‘i, the most important sport might be sumo, according to Jonathan Okamura of the University of Hawai‘i Public Policy Center. Since the 1960s native Hawaiians—Akebono Taro, most notably—have been recruited to join the esteemed sumo ranks, although the eligibility of foreigners has since been limited.

The four-goal scorer for Gamba Osaka on Feb 23 was Bare, a Brazilian, calling attention to another manifestation of the Japanese diaspora. On Jun 18, Brazil and Japan recognize the centenary of the arrival in Santos of the first Japanese migrants—781 aboard the Kasato Maru. Including those of mixed ethnicity, Brazil contains the largest Japanese population (1.5 million) outside Japan. Among the Japanese Brazilian contingent are current footballers Paulo Nagamura (Chivas USA), Rodrigo Tabata (Santos), Sandro Hiroshi (Chunnam Dragons, K-League) and Marcus Tulio Tanaka (Urawa Reds).

Finally, another overlooked element of Hawai‘i’s ethnic blending are the 104,000 Hispanic residents, who have contributed to the soccer credibility of a state with more than two dozen American Youth Soccer Organization leagues, from the Big Island’s Kau district to eastern Kauai (Chad Blair, “Pan-Pacific Championship Will Test Whether State Gets Kick Out of Soccer,” Pacific Business News, Feb 22).

As in other American cities, one barrier to the professional game is lack of a stadium constructed specifically for soccer. Aloha Stadium seats 50,000 for gridiron, but seats had to be removed to lengthen the pitch for the Pan-Pacific matches. MLS’ Garber and retinue complained loudly about the poor quality of the artificial surface. Culturally speaking, Hawai‘i may offer the best venue for soccer in the Pacific, but even those not connected to the game—such as an official with the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority—could see that “players get a little too close to the walls.”

A U.S. government propaganda film, “A Challenge to Democracy,” tries to soft-pedal internment of Nisei (first-generation migrants) and Issei (U.S.-born): “They are merely dislocated people …” (War Relocation Authority)


J. Burton et al., “Department of Justice and U.S. Army Facilities,” chap. 17 in Confinement and Ethnicity: An Overview of World War II Japanese American Relocation Sites, Publications in Anthropology 74 (Washington, D.C.: Western Archeological and Conservation Center, National Park Service, 1999); Thomas Connell, America’s Japanese Hostages: The World War II Plan for a Japanese-Free Latin America (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2002), 159; Lawrence DiStasi, “Let’s Keep Smiling: Conditions of Internment,” in Una Storia Segreta: The Secret History of Italian American Evacuation and Internment during World War II, ed. with an introduction by Lawrence DiStasi (Berkeley, Calif.: Heyday, 2001), 198–216; George H. Lewis, “Beyond the Reef: Cultural Constructions of Hawaii in Mainland America, Australia, and Japan,” Journal of Popular Culture (fall 1996): 123–35; Ann Rayson, Modern History of Hawai‘i (Honolulu: Bess Press, 2004), 151; Karen L. Riley, Schools behind Barbed Wire: The Untold Story of Wartime Internment and the Children of Arrested Enemy Aliens (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), 36.

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

Comments (4)

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  1. Thom Satterlee says:

    Excellent history of soccer and sport in Hawai’i, John. Thank you for pointing out all the ethnic blending—I would never have guessed or known the connections between Hawai’i, Japan, and Brazil, for instance. I also had no idea that you once lived in Hawai’i. I’ll remember your references to the bullet holes in the barracks and your scary walk through fields for a long time.

  2. [...] a sidebar to the Feb 29 entry (“A multihued archipelago, tuned to soccer’s harmonics”), part-time Hawai‘i resident Haruki Murakami reflects in a recent Spiegel Online interview on [...]

  3. On the Japan-Brasilian connection, check out Lisa Ono, or Ono Lisa, Japanese-Brasilian bossa nova singer. Her most recent album was of Hawaiian music [Bossa Hula Nova]. Check out her album of standards, Dream. Besides Lisa, I didn’t know that Brasil was the number-one place for the Japanese, I would have guessed Peru.

    I have read a few random Chilean novels that typically cast a seminomadic introverted misanthropic Japanese somewhere in their bizarre tales of marginal life on the Andes foothills. I do remember most vividly when I was in Paraguay for the ’99 Copa America meeting a random Korean in the stands who happened to go to high school a few miles up the road from my college, Davidson, in NC. He told me all about Reverend Moon and his large religious group that the goverment had to pass a law against because they were buying so much forest on the Paraguayan-Brasil border that both countries thought they might set up an autonomous evangelical Korean state. The young man I met said that when Koreans speak Spanish they sound just like Paraguayans (they carry the same Guaraní accent), and that’s why so many settled there.

    Anyway, the Copa America was amazing that year and yielded me lots of stories, including waking up on bench outside the airport in Asunción and seeing the entire Colombian national team in matching warm-ups gathered around me. I asked René Higuita if he was really René Higuita and he took my hat and signed it René Higuita and smiled without saying anything—as if there was another member of the Colombian national team with hair like his! Well, that was a fun digression.

    Keep up the good work, John.

  4. Thanks for the Lisa Ono tip, Lawrence, and for the enjoyable digression. These are the sort of reflections we find most welcome.

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