A Japanese American from Hawai'i vis-à-vis one from the continental United States; sometimes written as "Bulahead." Originating as a general term for a person of Japanese descent, the term came to be associated with Japanese Americans from Hawai'i during World War II, due to the conflict between Hawai'i-born and U.S. mainland-born Japanese Americans in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team , vis-à-vis the term " kotonk ," for a Japanese American from the continental U.S.


Various anecdotal sources suggest that the term was used before the war to refer to people of Japanese descent. Based on a variety of interviews, Patricia Toshie Morimoto suggests in a 1966 study that the term originated before the war and originally referred to all persons of Japanese descent, "to distinguish orientals who were associated with the Buddhist religion from the Caucasians." [1] In his novel Plantation Boy —set before and during the war, but written after it—Hawai'i Japanese American writer Milton Murayama uses "Bulahead" to refer to ethnic Japanese. For instance, in describing the events of December 7, one character exclaims, "Then KABOOM! The dumb Bulaheads bomb Pearl Harbor!" [2]

There are a number of theories as to the specific origin of the term, aside from it deriving from the predominantly Buddhist orientation of the Japanese American community: that it first applied to Japanese Buddhist priests who shaved their heads, then was broadened to include Japanese Americans in general or that it derives from "buta head," "buta" meaning "pig" in Japanese, connoting stubbornness. [3] Also referencing the supposed stubbornness of Hawai'i Japanese Americans is the theory that the term comes from Hawai'i Nisei's heads being as tough as the statue of Buddha. [4] Yet another theory is suggested by a character from Plantation Boy , who states, "I told this one guy, 'It's 'Bulahead.' Buddha's got nothing to do with it.' It comes from bobura , or 'the raised-in-Japan bumpkin.' Boburahead became Burahead, then Bulahead. It started as a putdown, then we started calling ourselves Bulaheads too.'" [5]

Conflict Among Nisei Soldiers

When Japanese American members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team assembled for training at Camp Shelby in 1943, a divide between the Hawai'i-born and the mainland-born became immediately apparent. Some of this stemmed from the fact that prewar mainland draftees already in the army had been appointed to most of the noncommissioned officer positions before the Hawai'i recruits had arrived. But the conflict was mostly a result of miscommunication, stereotyping, and differences in the culture that had developed in the two places.

First there was the language. Japanese Americans raised in the multicultural stew of plantation -era Hawai'i spoke a variation of pidgin English (aka Hawai'i Creole English), while the mainland Japanese Americans spoke in standard English. In Hawai'i, Japanese Americans who spoke standard English were viewed as being arrogant race traitors who thought they were too good to speak like everyone else; their attributes were immediately transferred to the standard English speaking mainland recruits. The Hawai'i group also regarded the mainland group as being only out for themselves and of being overly concerned with what other people thought. The mainland group saw the Hawai'i group as loud, uncouth, and bullying, the latter due to the frequent fights that saw large groups of Hawai'i men coming to the aid of any compatriot who got into a scrape. There was undoubtedly a grain of truth to these stereotypes due to the very different milieus that the two groups grew up in: being the largest ethnic group in a majority minority environment in Hawai'i versus being a small minority group who experienced severe discrimination—and whose families were mostly locked up in incarceration camps—on the mainland. [6]

Virtually all accounts that point out the conflict between the Buddhaheads and the Kotonks ended with the two groups coming to understand and like each other over time. [7] Often cited is a trip some of the Hawai'i recruits took to the nearby incarceration centers at Jerome and Rohwer , Arkansas that gave them some understanding of the world that the mainland recruits hailed from. According to Senator Daniel K. Inouye ,

... Overnight the situation in Camp Shelby changed because the word went out like wildfire. The experiment worked. I went back and said, 'I got to tell you guys about these Mainlanders. You won't believe what I'm going to tell you.' And this must have gone on in every hut throughout camp. The next day, you thought you were visiting a new regiment. We were blood brothers. The regiment was not formed when we volunteered, nor when we arrived in Camp Shelby—it was formed after this visit. [8]

The comradeship that was formed in battle and the valor that was displayed by members of both groups under fire went a long way towards healing any rifts that developed between the two groups.

After the war, the term spread to become a slang term for all Japanese Americans, including in the continental U.S. Writing in 1967, journalist Harry Honda wrote that Sansei in east Los Angeles had shortened "Buddhahead" to just "head." "Typical usage of that younger crowd: 'How many 'heads' attended the dance?... Let's go to 'head'-town.'" [9]

For the most part, "Buddhahead" (and "Bulahead") are not often used in contemporary language, with the exception of accounts by and about Hawai'i Nisei veterans, where the term appears frequently.

Authored by Brian Niiya , Densho

For More Information

Adachi, Nobuhiro. Linguistic Americanization of Japanese-Americans in Hawaii (Revised Edition) . Osaka: Osaka Kyoiku Tosho Co., Ltd., 1998.

Duus, Masayo. Unlikely Liberators: The Men of the 100th and the 442nd . Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1987. [History of the all-Nisei military units in World War II.]

Kotani, Roland. The Japanese in Hawaii: A Century of Struggle . Honolulu: Hochi, Ltd., 1985.

Matsuo, Dorothy. Boyhood to War: History and Anecdotes of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team . Honolulu: Mutual Pub., 1992.

Morimoto, Patricia Toshie, "The Hawaiian Dialect of English—An Aspect of Communications During the Second World War," M.A. Thesis, University of Hawaii, 1966.

Murphy, Thomas D. Ambassadors in Arms . Honolulu: Club 100, 1954. Reprinted in 1992.

Shibutani, Tamotsu. The Derelicts of Company K: A Sociological Study of Demoralization . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.


  1. Patricia Toshie Morimoto, "The Hawaiian Dialect of English—An Aspect of Communications During the Second World War," M.A. Thesis, University of Hawaii, 1966, 105–07.
  2. Milton Murayama, Plantation Boy (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1998), 3.
  3. Thomas D. Murphy, Ambassadors in Arms (Honolulu: Club 100, 1954), 115.
  4. Nobuhiro Adachi, Linguistic Americanization of Japanese-Americans in Hawaii (Revised Edition) (Osaka: Osaka Kyoiku Tosho Co., Ltd., 1998), 130.
  5. Murayama, Plantation Boy , 32.
  6. See Duus, Unlikely Liberators , 62–63; Kotani, The Japanese in Hawaii , 107–08; Matsuo, From Boyhood to War , 70–73; Murphy, Ambassadors in Arms , 114–16.
  7. Tamotsu Shibutani 's account of The Derelicts of Company K is one exception.
  8. Quoted from Matsuo, From Boyhood to War , 73.
  9. Harry Honda, "Ye Editor's Desk," Pacific Citizen , July 7, 1967, p. 6.

Last updated Dec. 13, 2023, 5:24 a.m..