Dr. Rikita Honda (1983-1941) was a community leader and medical doctor in the prewar Los Angeles Japanese community. Born in 1893, he immigrated to the United States in 1921. Honda practiced medicine in the heart of Little Tokyo between 1929 and his arrest in December 1941. Because he was the president of the Nanka Gun'yu Dan, an organization of Issei veterans and reservists of the Japanese military, in Southern California, Honda was apprehended by the FBI quickly on December 7, 1941. Seven days later, he took his own life at an INS detention center. Honda's death was subsequently used in wartime propaganda despite his belief that his involvement in the Issei nationalist organization was never meant to undermine U.S.-Japan friendship and peace.
A prewar Issei leader and a medical doctor in Los Angeles, Rikita Honda killed himself in a solitary cell at an INS detention center on December 14, 1941. The tragedy took place following his arrest as a "dangerous enemy alien" on the day of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor.
Born on February 1, 1893, in Yamagata Prefecture, Dr. Honda graduated from the Chiba Medical College before serving in the Medical Corps of the imperial Japanese army from 1919 to 1920. He immigrated to the United States in 1921, opened his own medical office in Oakland and assumed the position of the director at the Fresno Japanese Hospital in 1924. Between 1925 and 1928, Honda stayed outside California to engage in medical research at the University of Pennsylvania and at the University of Colorado. Based on this research, he was conferred a Doctorate of Medicine from Tokyo Imperial University in 1931. Meanwhile, until December 1941, Honda practiced medicine in the heart of Los Angeles' Little Tokyo at 129 1/2 East First Street. He was married to Mae, a Nisei woman, with four children. They resided in Moneta, a part of present-day Gardena.
The cause for his wartime arrest was his leading role in the Nanka Teikoku Gun'yu Dan, or the Southern California Imperial Army Veterans of War. Established in early 1939, the Nanka Teikoku Gun'yu Dan consisted of Issei war veterans and reservists for the Japanese military, and Honda was its founding president. The membership, according to an FBI estimate, encompassed 1,200 Issei in the region. It was one of many Issei nationalist organizations that sprang up in Japanese America after the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937. Collecting donations and "comfort bags" (imin bukuro) for Japanese soldiers was commonplace among Issei men and women. A group of the veterans, the Nanka Teikoku Gun'yu Dan placed its emphasis on the collection of monetary donations for Japan's war chest. In 1940 alone, it raised $4,000 to $5,000 according to an FBI report. Despite their pro-Japan activities, none of its members considered themselves to be "anti-American," because they did not feel that Japanese military action in China meant to harm U.S. interests or its friendship with Japan. Their support for Japan was intended to render help to their homeland in crisis—a common immigrant behavior seen in the experiences of other groups, like Irish, Jewish, and Koreans, in the United States.
The FBI's blacklisting and subsequent arrest of Issei leaders in the nationalist organizations stemmed from the longstanding American suspicion that Issei were allegedly transplanted agents of imperial Japan. This racist idea was rooted in the Yellow Peril scare of the first two decades of the twentieth century, which culminated in the enactment of the alien land laws in many western states and the passage of the 1924 Immigration Act. It was this underlying thinking that drove U.S. military officers and intelligence agents to (mis)understand the behavior of Japanese Americans, assuming their inherent anti-Americanism and treachery. It was also that thinking that caused the quick arrest of Dr. Honda, and the prolonged and intense FBI interrogations that followed between December 7 and December 13, 1941, at an INS detention center on Terminal Island. A former veteran of the Japanese army who believed in amicable U.S.-Japan relations, Honda left suicide notes, which revealed a mixture of frustration at the prevailing American misunderstanding and resignation to the tragic circumstance. One note read: "I dedicated myself to Japanese-American friendship. Now Japan and America are at war. I could not prevent it. I wish to make amends by taking my own life." Another stated: "As a Japanese officer, I cannot remain a prisoner of war. I have no alternative but to commit suicide." Other Issei victims of incarceration did not slash their arms to take their own lives, like Dr. Honda, but the sense of frustration and despair that his suicide note expressed resonated with the mental anguish that many Japanese immigrants also had to go through during the war.
As the Pacific War is dubbed a "race war," Dr. Honda's death was not divorced from race politics on both sides of the warring states. In the United States, for example, Senator Guy M. Gillette of Iowa used the incident to bring the nation's attention to the danger of "espionage" that the Nanka Teikoku Gun'yu Dan under Honda's command had purportedly conducted against America before the attack on Pearl Harbor. In wartime Japan, former U.S. residents, like Ken Nakazawa and Kazuo Ebina, published books that accused FBI agents of beating Honda to death during the torturous interrogations. This groundless allegation served Japan's ongoing racial propaganda that portrayed the incarceration of Japanese Americans as an embodiment of white racism against which Japan was fighting in the Asia-Pacific region. Having been exploited in mutual racial propaganda, Dr. Honda's death represents yet one little known story of the tragic situation that engulfed West Coast Japanese Americans during the forced removal and incarceration.
For More Information
Ichioka, Yuji (Gordon H. Chang and Eiichiro Azuma, eds.), Before Internment: Essays in Prewar Japanese-American History. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006, 258-270.
- Yuji Ichioka (Gordon H. Chang and Eiichiro Azuma, eds.), Before Internment: Essays in Prewar Japanese-American History (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006), 258-260.
- Eiichiro Azuma, Between Two Empires: Race, History, and Transnationalism in Japanese America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 163-186.
- "Teikoku Gunyudan, B. Nanka," September 26, 1941, in "Japanese Organizations in the U.S," box 1, Japanese Organization and Intelligence, Oriental Desk 1936-1946, Sabotage, Espionage, Counter Espionage Section, Office of Naval Intelligence, RG38, U.S. National Archives, College Park.
- Ichioka, Before Internment, 197-199.
- Ibid., 264.
- Ibid., 265.
- Ibid., 267.
- Ibid., 261-264.