Hiroshi Honda was a Nisei from Hawai'i who was interned during World War II as a result of his early life and experiences in Japan. Honda, who received art training in his youth, was one of a handful of artists who captured the daily life of internees in the camps while he himself was interned. Although Honda would leave his wife and children in Hilo after the war to pursue an art career in New York, his children would preserve his sketches and watercolor paintings, which provide an invaluable visual record of the nuances of camp life for thousands of interned Japanese Americans.
Background in Hawai'i and Japan
Hiroshi Honda was born in Hilo, Hawai'i, around 1913. His father, who was of samurai lineage from Kumamoto, had immigrated to the Islands at the turn of century seeking greater financial opportunities after clan obligations impoverished the family. Honda grew up in Hilo until he was sent to Japan at the age of six to live with the family of a childless uncle where it was expected he would take over the responsibility of operating the family store. While in Japan, Honda received art training in sumi-e brush painting as well as the hand painting of mon or family crests on kimono. As a young man in Japan, Honda was drafted into the Japanese air force, in which he served for seven years before being wounded accidentally in a non-combat plane crash. In 1939, his mother traveled to Japan to take him home to Hilo. 
As a Kibei who spent much of his boyhood in Japan, Honda found work teaching at the Japanese language school in the Hilo Honpa Hongwanji Mission while occasionally working as a commercial artist. In 1940, he met Sadako Hashida, a young Nisei woman from the plantation community of Pāpa'ikou, Hawai'i who had recently returned to Hilo after the death of her mother. For years, she had been living in Honolulu, where she was trained as a seamstress. After the couple married, they moved back to Honolulu.
Honda taught in a Japanese school in Nu'uanu and lived on Metcalf Street when Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941. Honda spent much of the morning providing medical attention for the children who had been at Sunday school during the raid. When he returned home, military police immediately took him away for questioning. Authorities believed that Honda posed a potential threat as a Kibei who had served in the Japanese military.
Honda was initially interned on Sand Island , leaving his pregnant wife alone to bear their first child, Richard, in May 1942 at the Queen's Hospital in Honolulu. Regular visits to see Honda was difficult for Sadako, as she and other visitors needed to be ferried to Sand Island by boat as a bridge connecting it to the island had not yet been built. Later that year, when officials informed Honda that he and others would be transferred to camps on the United States mainland, Sadako applied to accompany her husband, submitting to voluntary internment with the rest of the family.
On the eve of their departure in late 1942, already aboard the Matson line's passenger ship Lurline , which had been fitted with blackout equipment for the voyage from Hawai'i to the West Coast, officials unexpectedly removed Honda from the ship. However, Sadako, her infant son, father, and elder sister, Nettie, were forced to make the journey. The separation of the family lasted several months as they were moved from camp to camp.
Sadako and the family were sent first to Jerome , Arkansas, and transferred to camps in California sometime in 1943. Her sister and father were sent to Manzanar while Hiroshi, Sadako and their young son were assigned to the Tule Lake segregation center that was designated for Kibei, draft resisters , renunciants, and other suspected individuals. Despite increased restrictions, a daughter Aileen was born in August, 1944, and a second son Edward, followed in July 1945, only four months before the Hondas and others were released from Tule Lake and other camps.
Postwar Life and Separation
After the war, the family did not return to Hawai'i for several years because of travel restrictions as well as Honda's desire to pursue his studies as an artist with Yasuo Kuniyoshi , who was teaching in New York City. The family remained in New York for about five years, during which time Sadako provided primary support through employment as a seamstress in a custom dress shop. By the time the two youngest children were ready to start school, the family moved back to Hilo in 1949, where Honda was encouraged to join Sadako's family's agricultural business. Honda, however, had other plans than becoming a farmer. Not long after their return, he went back to New York, leaving his wife and children. Sadako, living alone with three children to raise, received help from Hiroshi's younger brother, Robert, who had returned from Europe after serving with the "F" company of the celebrated 442nd Regimental Combat Team . Sadako and Robert eventually married to keep the family together. Although fragments of information suggest that Hiroshi Honda also remarried and continued to work and live in New York at least until the 1970s, details of his life and his art after the war remain elusive.
Work of Hiroshi Honda
The surviving body of work by Hiroshi Honda from World War II includes three sketchbooks, a single relief print, and some fifty watercolors that were discovered and preserved by his youngest child, Edward Honda. According to art professor Marcia Morse, "The sketchbooks display a well-developed natural ability for visual notation and accuracy in rendering."  In his drawings, Honda explored a variety of subjects, ranging from young children, landscapes, and versions of traditional Buddhist imagery. Although there is a clear evolution in the style of his art, there is evidence to suggest that Honda revisited some ideas, painting about one camp while actually a resident in another. The fact that Honda would return to certain ideas, themes, or subjects in his painting coupled with the lack of actual dates on the work make establishing a firm chronology difficult.
Honda's work embraces four distinct styles of representation. One group of work, including sketchbook materials and a few watercolors dated in 1942, places him at a site in Wisconsin, possibly Camp McCoy (which he referred to as "Camp Ma-koe") and the Jerome Relocation Center.  They are characterized by what Morse describes as "a strong sense of contour line and light modeling with color values using a distinctive cool palette heightened with earth tones."  Another group is more expressionist in manner with distinctive foliage and camp environs. The third, a variation on the second, retains the expressionist handling of materials but with the influence of Japanese brush painting. The subject of these paintings is predominantly the Tule Lake camp, where one author claims that Honda asserted his cultural identity in the form of "elegant landscapes in which Mount Shasta seems indistinguishable from Mount Fuji and rows of barracks might possibly be a Japanese village."  The fourth style, which shows evidence of a different kind of attitude and perhaps schooling, is clearly influenced by a cubist sensibility as images are "intersected with lines evoking paths of light, shifts in color, facets of reflection." This style was one Honda carried with him after the war when the family settled in New York.
The collection of works by Hiroshi Honda is a poignant personal record of artistic maturation within a tumultuous period. It not only reveals the transformation of his artistic sensibilities, but also documents his experiences in the internment camps as art became an outlet for personal expression within a highly regulated environment. The images of beauty within the art are a striking contrast to the desolate isolated environment of many camps, testifying to the optimism and endurance of the human spirit.
For More Information
Morse, Marcia. "The Art of Hawaii's Hiroshi Honda." In Reflections of Internment: the Art of Hawaii's Hiroshi Honda. Honolulu: Stylist Printers Inc., 1994.
Muromoto, Wayne. "Art Behind Barbed Wire." Hawaii Herald October 7, 1988, 16.
Owens Valley History. "Hiroshi Honda." http://www.owensvalleyhistory.com/manzanar8/page17f.html .
Ty-Tomkins, Nikki. "From Behind Barbed Wire." Honolulu Weekly 4:40 (October 5, 1994): 11.
- Nikki Ty-Tomkins, "From Behind Barbed Wire," Honolulu Weekly 4:40 (October 5, 1994): 11.
- Marcia Morse, "The Art of Hawaii's Hiroshi Honda," in Reflections of Internment: the Art of Hawaii's Hiroshi Honda (Honolulu: Stylist Printers Inc., 1994), 13.
- Ty-Tompkins, 11.
Last updated Aug. 24, 2020, 3:12 p.m..