Koji Ariyoshi


Name Koji Ariyoshi
Born 1914
Died 1976
Birth Location Kona, HI
Generational Identifier

Nisei

Koji Ariyoshi (1914–76), journalist, labor organizer, political activist, and Asian American Studies pioneer, enjoyed a colorful career. During World War II, he was released from confinement in Manzanar for service with the U.S. Army in China, on a mission to Mao Zedong's Communist forces.

Koji Ariyoshi was born in 1914 on a coffee farm in Kona, on the Big Island of Hawai'i. During the 1930s, he labored on coffee plantations and in a pineapple cannery. In 1935, he moved to Honolulu and found work as a stevedore. Shocked by the conditions he saw, he wrote a series of exposés about life on the plantations and docks which were published in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. Hoping to further his education, he enrolled at the University of Hawai'i.

In 1940, with encouragement from a sympathetic YMCA worker, Ariyoshi applied for and won a YMCA fellowship to study at the University of Georgia. During his studies there, he toured the homes of white sharecroppers (writer Erskine Caldwell's parents served as his guides) and made a close study of Jim Crow society. The poverty and oppression he saw made him resolve to fight on behalf of minorities and the poor. In summer 1941, Ariyoshi left Georgia and settled in San Francisco (in response to the entreaties of a White friend who wanted company, he attempted to enlist in the Marines but was refused entry on racial grounds, as he had earlier predicted). In San Francisco he worked as a stevedore, did political organizing with Kibei communist Karl Yoneda, and was active in the International Longshoreman's and Warehouseman's Union (ILWU), under the direction of president Harry Bridges. He continued working on the docks after Pearl Harbor, although he was subjected to some workplace harassment.

In Spring 1942, following the issuing of Executive Order 9066, Ariyoshi moved to Los Angeles with Karl Yoneda. There they helped organize a volunteer battalion that mobilized to build the camp at Manzanar. Ariyoshi remained at Manzanar for several months, punctuated by a furlough harvesting sugar beets in Idaho. He joined the staff of the Manzanar Free Press newspaper, and later served as a camp policeman. While in camp, he helped form the Manzanar Citizens Federation, an antifascist organization that battled pro-Japanese inmates, championed Nisei civil rights, and called for a Second Front to aid the Soviet Union.

In November 1942, Ariyoshi travelled to Salt Lake City for an emergency meeting of the Japanese American Citizens League, where he reported on his experience in agricultural projects. Meanwhile, he was recruited as a Japanese translator by the Military Intelligence Service. (He left for the army just days before the Manzanar Riot, when he would undoubtedly have been a target for beatings by disaffected inmates.) After training at Camp Savage, Koji joined a unit sponsored by the Office of War Information to work in psychological warfare overseas. He travelled to different posts in India and to the Burma-India border, where he wrote propaganda pamphlets and interrogated Japanese prisoners.

In June 1944, Ariyoshi volunteered to join the OWI mission in China, and spent the next few months in Kunming and Chungking. In October 1944, he was assigned to the distant outpost of Yenan, an area controlled by the Chinese communists, as part of the U.S. Observer Section there (popularly known as the "Dixie Mission"). The Mission was developed to explore whether to connect formally with the Chinese Communists, who were living in caves and engaging in guerrilla warfare against the Japanese occupiers. Ariyoshi was struck by the better status of peasants and small farmers under the Communists than under the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-Shek, and he was impressed by the Communist leaders he worked with, notably Mao Zedong and Chou Enlai. He reported favorably on the Communist regime to his army and diplomatic superiors. Ariyoshi remained in Yenan until spring 1946.

After returning from overseas, Ariyoshi settled in New York, where he worked as an activist with the Japanese American Committee for Democracy, and as JACD liaison with the Yenan-based Chinese People's Emancipation League. Meanwhile, on the invitation of editor Larry Tajiri, in 1947 Ariyoshi undertook a regular political column for the JACL newspaper The Pacific Citizen.

In 1948 Ariyoshi returned to Hawai'i. With backing from the ILWU, he founded a radical weekly newspaper, the Honolulu Record. As editor, he crusaded for union organization (in collaboration with the Democratic Party), better conditions for workers, and racial equality. In keeping with his interest in interracial coalitions, he hired Frank Marshall Davis as a columnist. (Davis, a Black poet/journalist, would later act as a friend and mentor of sorts to the young Barack Obama). The journal gained widespread influence, if small profits. In 1951, Ariyoshi and six others—the so-called "Honolulu Seven"—were arrested under the Smith Act and charged with being Communist Party members. During this time, he published his memoirs in serial form in the Record. In June 1953, a jury found Ariyoshi guilty. He appealed and his conviction was later overturned. He kept the Record going until 1958. However, unable to make a living, he ultimately folded it.

In 1960 Ariyoshi opened a flower shop/liquor store in Waikiki, which he ran for ten years. As McCarthy-era tensions faded, he became increasingly glorified as a victim of the blacklist. In 1969 he was appointed to the Board of Directors of the Hawai'i Foundation for History and the Humanities. Shortly afterward, he founded the U.S.-China People's Friendship Association. In mid-1971, he became one of the first U.S. citizens invited to visit the People's Republic of China after it "reopened" to Americans. With the aid of credentials from the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Ariyoshi reached China in January 1972, and secured a four-hour interview with Chinese premier Zhao Enlai. According to Ariyoshi's son, Zhao remembered Ariyoshi well and encouraged him to open a travel agency, assuring him that Beijing would grant entry visas to any American traveller whom he vouched for. Ariyoshi proceeded to set up a travel agency that devoted most of its business to arranging passages to China. The same year, he was invited to teach the first Ethnic Studies class at University of Hawai'i. In the years that followed, he introduced a selection of Asian American studies courses and texts into the UH curriculum. Ariyoshi died of cancer in 1976. His political memoirs, From Kona to Yenan, appeared in book form in 2000, and he was the subject of a biographical documentary on Hawai'i public television. Shortly afterward, Ariyoshi gained new public notice when copies of the full run of the Honolulu Record were digitized by the University of Hawai'i, West Oahu, and opened for public research use.

Authored by Greg Robinson, Université du Québec À Montréal

For More Information

Ariyoshi, Koji. From Kona to Yen'an: The Political Memoirs of Koji Ariyoshi. Edited by Edward D. Beechert and Alice M. Beechert. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2000.

Koji Ariyoshi (Biography Hawaii). DVD, 57 min. Produced by Joy Chong-Stannard, Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl, and Craig Howes. 2005.