Ernest Murai


Name Ernest Murai
Born September 12 1900
Died April 12 1981
Birth Location Honolulu, HI
Generational Identifier

Nisei

Dr. Ernest Murai (1900-1981) was a Honolulu dentist who was one of the founders of the modern Democratic Party in the Islands. Later, he was the U.S. Customs Director for Hawai'i.

Background

Murai was born in Kalihi on September 12, 1900, to immigrant contract sugar workers from Hiroshima. Murai's parents sent him to Oakland, California, when he was sixteen to live with relatives while attending school. Murai graduated from Oakland High School in 1921 and then he earned a dentistry degree at the University of California, Berkeley. After graduating in 1926, he returned to Hawai'i where he opened a dental practice in Pālama where most of his patients were Japanese Americans. While operating his practice, Murai volunteered with several community organizations, earning the trust of Japanese and non-Japanese in the community. The relationships that he created during this period would be critical to his activities during and after World War II.

The Emergency Service Committee and World War II Activities

Under martial law in Hawai'i during World War II, the Japanese in the Islands faced legal, social, and economic discrimination by the military and the constant questioning of their loyalty. The Japanese responded to the war with extensive efforts to mobilize their community in Hawai'i. Under the Morale Section, various organizations were formed within different ethnic communities, such as the Emergency Service Committee. Murai was one of the founding members of the Emergency Service Committee and the purpose of this organization was to "channel the inherent loyalty of the people of Japanese ancestry into a program of active participation in the war effort" and to counter the "insecurity and fear" they felt after the Pearl Harbor attack.[1] Members of this group worked as liaisons with the military on matters affecting the Japanese community and assured the military of the complete loyalty of the Japanese population.[2] They disseminated information at 209 meetings, contacting approximately 10,000 individuals from February through December 1942, relieving community anxieties during a period when authorities had suspended Japanese radio broadcasts and newspapers.[3]

The Emergency Service Committee also spearheaded various efforts in the Japanese community to prove the loyalty of its members. They secured their leadership role within the Japanese community by dissolving Japanese societies and institutions, such as language schools and Shintō shrines that were traditionally considered as sources of nationalistic sentiment.[4] Authorities had interned many of the priests and language teachers immediately following the attack, and they were thus were helpless to prevent the dissolution of their organizations. Members also confiscated $2.4 million dollars in frozen bank assets from three leading Japanese banks in the territory, and the money was converted into war bond purchases.[5] Through letters and personal phone calls, they collected $147,408.75 that was invested in war bonds. In June 1943, members raised over $10,000 for the "Bombs on Tokyo Campaign."[6] This concerted effort to control of the finances of the Japanese community was designed to limit possible popular uprisings by eliminating sources of funding and impoverishing traditional leaders. While the Office of the Military Governor supported these actions, it was the Nisei like Murai who implemented these policies and challenged any sort of alternative discourse on the war through self-censorship of the community.

Political Activism

Due to his work with the Emergency Service Committee, Murai also developed close ties with police captain John Burns who was active in the Police Contact Group. Burns introduced Murai to individuals with strong political and community ties including labor leader Jack Kawano, Mitsuyuki Kido, and Honolulu Councilman Chuck Mau. During and after the war, they discussed ways to change Hawai'i's political and economic climate and became committed to overthrowing the Republican dominated white oligarchy. Burns and his team began recruiting Nisei veterans in the postwar period to become members of the Democratic party. They also started identifying and grooming political candidates including Daniel Inouye, Sakae Takahashi, and Spark Matsunaga. Murai helped to organize Democratic rallies and Kawano recruited new Democrats among union members. Together, these men were instrumental in the Revolution of 1954 that marked the ascension of the Democratic party in Hawai'i and the rise of Nisei politicians. According to Murai, "I had a strong feeling that we would be victorious, but this is more than I ever imagined."[7] Following the rise of the Democrats, Murai and his colleagues focused their attention on winning Hawai'i statehood and for six years, Murai attended the Democratic national conventions in the Mainland, lobbying for statehood until Hawai'i became the 50th state in 1959.

U.S. Customs Position

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy appointed Murai the director of the Honolulu Customs Office where he worked for the next twelve years before retiring. In 1975, the government of Japan awarded Murai the Third Order of the Rising Sun for his community activism, his contributions to the Japanese American community in the Islands, and his work as the director of the U.S. Customs office. Murai was a past president of the Oahu Dental Society, a director of the Hawaii Chapter of the National Society for Crippled Children, a member of the Honolulu Lions Club, and a director of the Red Cross. On April 13, 1981, Murai passed away and was survived by his wife Hazel; two daughters, Jeanette M. DeMello and Lorraine Mortimer; two sisters, Shizuko Ohta and Mabel Kimata; and three grandchildren.

Authored by Kelli Y. Nakamura, University of Hawai'i

For More Information

Murai, Ernest. "Interviews with Ernest Murai." John A. Burns Oral History Project. Phase I. Honolulu: n.p., 1975.

Footnotes

  1. Hawaii, Office of the Military Governor, Morale Section, Emergency Service Committee, Final Report of the Emergency Service Committee (Honolulu: n.p., 1946), 1; Hawaii, Office of the Military Governor, Morale Section, Emergency Service Committee, Report of the Emergency Service Committee (Honolulu: n.p., 1945), 1.
  2. Members of this organization included Y. Baron Goto, Masa Katagiri, Mitsuyuki Kido, Dr. Katsumi Kometani, Masaji Marumoto, and Dr. Ernest Murai, with Shigeo Yoshida, Hung Wai Ching and Charles Loomis serving as ex-officio members. Later appointees included Ernest Furukawa, Tadashi Haga, Shigeru Hirotsu, Robert Ishikawa, Dr. Masao Kanemaru, Dr. Robert Komenaka, Yoshito Matsusaka, Walter Mihata, Katsuro Miho, Shigeo Mikami, Iwao Miyake, Stanley Miyamoto, Robert Murakami, Shizuo Onishi, Kaji Suzuki, and Masao Watanabe. Dorothy Ochiai Hazama and Jane Okamoto Komeiji, Okage Same De: The Japanese in Hawaii 1885-1985 (Honolulu: Bess Press, 1986), 147.
  3. For a list of speeches and topics discussed in Emergency Service Committee's sponsored forums, consult Report of Second Oahu Conference of Americans of Japanese Ancestry, January 28, 1945 (Honolulu: n.p., 1945).
  4. Hawaii, Office of the Military Governor, Morale Section, Emergency Service Committee, Final Report of the Emergency Service Committee (Honolulu: n.p., 1946), 17.
  5. Members confiscated $897,175 from the Pacific Bank, $785,725.29 from the Sumitomo Bank, and $722,000 from the Yokohama Specie Bank. Hawaii, Office of the Military Governor, Morale Section, Emergency Service Committee, Final Report of the Emergency Service Committee (Honolulu: n.p., 1946), 19.
  6. Final Report of the Emergency Service Committee, 22.
  7. Kei Suzuki, "Ernest Murai," Hawai‘i Herald, September 2, 2011, 18.