Fukunaga case

One of the most divisive incidents relating to Japanese Americans in Hawai'i in the years before World War II, and one that achieved saturation coverage in the mainstream Hawai'i press, was the case of a Nisei , Myles Yutaka Fukunaga. Fukunaga was accused of murdering the young son of Frederick Jamieson, an executive at the Hawaiian Trust Bank.

The Killing

The main events of the Fukunaga case took place in fall 1928. Myles Fukunaga was employed at a local hotel, working 80 hours per week in the pantry, but desperately needed money in order to assist his destitute parents. A lonely, antisocial boy embittered by prejudice against him as a Japanese American, he had embarrassed his family with a failed suicide attempt shortly before. Ironically, he had once edited a school weekly in Waialua in which he urged kindness to children and animals. However, inspired by reports of child murderers—notably the case of William B. Hickman in California, and Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb in Chicago—he now vowed to show his courage and intelligence by performing "the perfect crime." He bore a grudge against Frederick Jamieson, whose bank was preparing to evict his parents from the family's rental home. He thus plotted the kidnapping and ransom of George Gill Jamieson, the 10-year old son of the man whose bank had humiliated his parents. On September 18, 1928, Fukunaga arrived at the Punahou School where Gill was enrolled, wearing a white coat that resembled the costume of a hospital orderly. Fukunaga called Jamieson out of class, told him that his mother had been injured in an automobile accident, and took him away in a taxi. Fukunaga thus succeeded in kidnapping the boy. Fukunaga took the boy to a previously arranged hideout, and killed him by beating him over the head with a steel chisel (some reports claimed that Fukunaga had strangled the boy to death). He then sent a ransom note to Jamieson's parents, demanding $10,000 for the boy's safe return, and signed it "the Three Kings." That evening, Fukunaga telephoned Frederick Jamieson and gave him instructions to meet him. His face hidden by a handkerchief, and armed with a hammer, he took $4,000 from the banker, promising to give the boy back in return, but then vanished.

The news of the crime quickly spread. Honolulu's haole (white) society was shocked by the kidnapping. Police immediately set up roadblocks to search cars at intersections, and Boy Scouts and local volunteers organized to conduct house-to-house searches. The "oriental" phrasing of the ransom note and the racial identity of both the chauffeur and the note's sender led to immediate suspicion that the kidnappers were local Japanese. Harry Kaisan, a discharged former chauffeur of the Jamieson family, was called in for questioning by police and drugged in order to get him to confess to the crime. However, he resisted the pressure to confess and maintained his innocence, and was ultimately released.

The Trial and Community Reaction

With vigilante mobs howling for lynching or immediate execution of "the Kiawe Killer," Fukunaga's case was set down for trial just ten days later before Circuit Judge Alva E. Steadman. Fukunaga did not deny his crime, but the judge refused to permit him to plead guilty. Despite the serious evidence that the defendant was mentally disturbed, and an open letter from Professor Lockwood Myrick of the University of Hawaii that Fukunaga was insane, his two court-appointed defense counsel called no witnesses to testify, and the court and the governor of Hawai'i refused to schedule a psychiatric evaluation. The defendant's youthful demeanor and polite confession of guilt nonetheless impressed the counsel and members of the jury, some of whom shed tears as the foreman announced the guilty verdict. Three days later, on October 8, Judge Steadman sentenced Fukunaga to death by hanging.

Fukunaga was pleased by the sentence and thanked the court. However, many in the Japanese community, which had been heavily scarred by the crime, were outraged by the summary nature of official justice. It was not just Fukunaga whose case was at stake. If an ostensibly mild-mannered and well-educated Nisei such as Fukunaga was guilty, then by implication any Japanese could commit a heinous murder. If he could be shown to be insane, however, his case could be understood as exceptional, and the community could remain free of collective responsibility. Community leaders, notably Hawaii Hochi editor Fred Makino, circulated a petition calling for a retrial of Fukunaga and a proper evaluation of his mental state, and launched a series of legal appeals. Makino repeatedly argued that the conviction was unjust, not just because Fukunaga was insane, but because whites who had previously killed Japanese had received lesser sentences and official pardons. In an editorial on November 7, 1929, Makino wrote, "if Myles Fukunaga is hanged it will not be because he killed a human being...it will be because he killed the son of the vice-president of one of our big trust companies and because his victim was a white boy." [1] Makino's position was contested by Yasutaro Soga, president of the rival Nippu Jiji , who accused Makino of misrepresenting the facts.

In fall 1928, the Supreme Court of the Hawaii Territory issued a writ of error to examine the case, thereby offering Fukunaga a reprieve. However, they ultimately denied the petition, and the United States Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal. On November 19, 1929, Fukunaga was hanged in Honolulu. The sensational crime and the racial tension it laid bare heavily foreshadowed the 1932 Massie-Kahahawai case, in which five young men of various nonwhite ancestries, including one Nisei, Horace Ida, were falsely accused of raping a white woman.

Following Makino, scholars such as Dennis Ogawa and Jonathan Okamura have argued that in the Fukunaga case an obviously insane man was railroaded and unjustly executed because his actions represented a challenge to entrenched white supremacy. Meanwhile, it is worth noting the stand of community activists against legal injustice in the case. The Japanese press expressed sympathy for the disturbed killer, without approving his actions, and reported the case to ensure that justice was done.

Authored by Greg Robinson , Université du Québec À Montréal

For More Information

Ogawa, Dennis M. Jan Ken Po: The World of Hawaii's Japanese Americans . Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1973.

Okamura, Jonathan Y. From Race to Ethnicity: Interpreting Japanese American Experiences in Hawai'i Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2014.


  1. Cited in Kelli Nakamura, "Suspected Criminals, Spies, and 'Human Secret Weapons': The Evolution of Japanese-American Representations in Political and Cultural Discourse From Hawaii to Japan, 1880-1950s," (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Hawai'i, 2008),196.

Last updated May 11, 2017, 5:37 p.m..