Joe Kurihara

Name Joseph Yoshisuke Kurihara
Born 1895
Died November 26 1965
Birth Location HI
Generational Identifier


Nisei , World War I veteran, dissident leader in Manzanar . Joseph Yoshisuke Kurihara (1895–1965) spent the first twenty years of his life in Hawai'i before moving to San Francisco. He subsequently enlisted in the U.S. Army and saw battle in France. Upon returning to the United States, he lived and worked in Los Angeles, until Executive Order 9066 forced him and other West Coast Nikkei to the concentration camps. As early as 1943, he called for redress for the unjust incarceration of the Nikkei. A controversial figure, he has been depicted as both hero and villain.

Before the War

Kurihara was born on Kaua'i, one of the islands in the Hawaiian Island chain. He was the fourth of five children of Kichizo and Haru Kurihara, who had migrated from Yamaguchi prefecture to work on the sugar plantations in Hawai'i. Kurihara attended public and Catholic schools in Honolulu, and at the age of twenty, departed for San Francisco, where he attended St. Ignatius High School. With the outbreak of war, Kurihara volunteered for the army. Assigned to the 85th Division, 328th Field Artillery, Battery F, Medical Department, Kurihara saw battle in France. After being honorably discharged, he lived in Los Angeles, where he attended Southwestern University, graduating in 1924 with a bachelor's degree in commercial science and a certificate of accountancy. For the next nine years he worked as an accountant, as part-owner and operator of two wholesale produce companies, as an auditor and then manager of a seafood packing company, and as a salesman for a company that sold equipment to supermarkets. Like other Nisei and their parents living on the West Coast during the first four decades of the twentieth century, he was limited to jobs in farming, fishing, gardening, domestic service, and work related to food distribution. Other areas of employment were largely closed, even to Nisei university graduates.

While Kurihara was not of the white world, his experiences in a white Catholic school, his military service in a white division, his matriculation at Southwestern University, and his jobs, which brought him in contact whites, made him conversant in Euro-American modes of thinking and behavior and enabled him to bridge the Nikkei world with that of the dominant society.

In the mid-1930s, Kurihara turned to his love of the sea. He learned the skill of navigation and found a job as navigator of a Portuguese tuna clipper. He was aboard the '"Belle of Portugal'" when war broke out between the United States and Japan.

Despite the discrimination and hostility he faced during the decades before World War II, Kurihara maintained a positive attitude about life in America. The forced removal and incarceration of the Nikkei, however, changed this perspective.

World War II

Soon after President Franklin Roosevelt issued E. O. 9066, Kurihara attended a meeting of the Citizens Federation of Southern California. There he heard Mike Masaoka , Field Secretary of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), tell the audience that he had recently met with Lieutenant General John DeWitt . Masaoka urged compliance with the order to move. Kurihara "felt sick" when he heard this. While the forced removal had angered him, Masaoka's effort to assist the U.S. government in its unjustifiable expulsion of innocent and defenseless people was too much for Kurihara to stomach. These so-called leaders, he thought, were "a bunch of spineless Americans" whom he would "fight" and "crush" "in whatever camp [he] happened to find them." He would take this determination with him to Manzanar, one of the ten War Relocation Authority camps in which the Nikkei were forced to live. [1]

Eight months after the Nikkei began to arrive at Manzanar, the camp experienced a revolt that ended in the death of two innocent young men. On the night of December 5, 1942, masked men entered the barrack apartment of Fred Tayama and beat him. When Tayama accused Harry Ueno as one of the assailants, Ueno was arrested and jailed in the nearby town of Independence. Previously, Ueno had clashed with Tayama, and as a cook in Mess Hall 22, had accused the Assistant Project Director Ned Campbell and the Chief Steward Joseph Winchester of stealing meat and sugar that were meant for the inmates. Nikkei believed that this accusation had led to Campbell's arrest of Ueno. [2]

The next day, when more than 2,000 people attended meetings to protest Ueno's arrest, Kurihara and four other men were asked to form a committee to demand Ueno's release. After lengthy discussions with the Project Director Ralph Merritt, the committee agreed that Ueno would be transferred to Manzanar's barrack jail. The crowd that formed subsequently, however, demanded that Ueno be allowed to return to his family. When its demands were rejected, the crowd became menacing. Soldiers, who had arrived to control the unrest, threw tear gas grenades, and two soldiers, with no order to fire, shot into the crowd, killing two young men and injuring ten others. Subsequently, those who had been accused of being inu (dogs) were transported to Death Valley, and Ueno, Kurihara, and others accused of causing the revolt were jailed at the nearby town of Bishop and then Lone Pine. (See Manzanar riot/uprising .)

After several weeks in jail, Kurihara and other dissidents were taken to a citizen isolation camp at Moab . Later they were transferred to Leupp . The WRA Director Dillon Myer understood the illegality of the isolation camps for citizens who were not charged with any crime. For this reason, he eventually decided to close Leupp and transfer the men to the recently designated segregation center at Tule Lake .

At Moab, Leupp, and Tule Lake, Kurihara refused to involve himself in intra-Nikkei politics. Because by this time he had decided to leave the United States and live for the rest of his life in Japan, he spent much of his time improving his ability to read and write Japanese. Despite his change of outward behavior, however, his anger and disillusionment at the U.S. government remained constant.

At Tule Lake, Kurihara became a key informant for Rosalie Hankey, a researcher for the Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study , directed by the University of California, Berkeley professor Dorothy Swaine Thomas. In their book, The Spoilage , Thomas and Richard S. Nishimoto quoted extensively from several of Kurihara's essays. [3]

After the 1944 renunciation law was passed, Kurihara formally renounced his U.S. citizenship. (See Renunciation of citizenship .) He was among the 5,725 Nisei and Kibei -Nisei who did so. But unlike the 5,409 who later changed their minds and sought to restore their citizenship, Kurihara refused to do so. [4]

After World War II

On November 25, 1945, Kurihara and 1,500 other Nikkei boarded the USS Randall for Japan. Upon their arrival at Tokyo Bay, they confronted a country devastated by war. Poverty, starvation, homelessness, and death greeted them.

Ironically, Kurihara and other renunciants living in Japan, as well as 10,000 other Nisei and Kibei-Nisei—army recruits and U.S. civilians, both those living in the United States as well as those who had been living in Japan before and during the war—were hired by the U.S. military as translators and interpreters. [5]

Kurihara worked for the military in Sasebo, on the southern island of Kyushu. After a year with the occupation forces, he moved to Tokyo, where he lived for the rest of his life. He died of a stroke on November 26, 1965.

Kurihara has been a controversial figure, both at Manzanar and during the decades following the war. He has been condemned for placing on a death list and black list, those in Manzanar who were suspected of spying on fellow Nikkei. In his speeches, he repeatedly referred to these lists, and named people who were on them. Others have called Kurihara a hero, a pioneer for redress, someone who openly and courageously resisted the oppression of the U.S. government, and a fighter for justice.

Authored by Eileen Tamura , University of Hawai'i at Mānoa

For More Information

Azuma, Eiichiro. "Brokering Race, Culture, and Citizenship: Japanese Americans in Occupied Japan and Postwar National Inclusion." Journal of American-East Asian Relations 16:3 (fall 2009): 183-211.

Collins, Donald E. Native American Aliens: Disloyalty and the Renunciation of Citizenship by Japanese Americans during World War II . Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985.

Girdner, Audrie and Anne Loftis. The Great Betrayal: the Evacuation of the Japanese-Americans during World War II. London: Macmillan Co., 1969.

Hansen, Arthur A. and David A. Hacker. "The Manzanar Riot: An Ethnic Perspective." Amerasia Journal 2 (fall 1974): 112-57.

Takei, Barbara. "Legalizing Detention: Segregated Japanese Americans and the Justice Department's Renunciation Program." A Question of Loyalty: Internment at Tule Lake. Klamath Falls, OR: Shaw Historical Library, 2005: 75-105.

Tamura, Eileen H. "Value Messages Collide with Reality: Joseph Kurihara and the Power of Informal Education." History of Education Quarterly 50:1 (January 2010): 1-33. .

Tamura, Eileen H. In Defense of Justice: Joseph Kurihara and the Japanese American Struggle for Equality . Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2013.

Thomas, Dorothy Swaine and Richard S. Nishimoto, with contributions from Rosalie A. Hankey, James M. Sakoda, Morton Grodzins, Frank Miyamoto. The Spoilage. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.


  1. Joe Kurihara, "Autobiography," unpublished typescript, 1945, 38, Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Records, 67/14c, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.
  2. Arthur A. Hansen and David A. Hacker, "The Manzanar Riot: An Ethnic Perspective," Amerasia Journal 2 (fall 1974): 112-57.
  3. Dorothy Swaine Thomas and Richard S. Nishimoto, The Spoilage (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969).
  4. Donald E. Collins, Native American Aliens: Disloyalty and the Renunciation of Citizenship by Japanese Americans during World War II (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985), 101; Barbara Takei, "Legalizing Detention: Segregated Japanese Americans and the Justice Department's Renunciation Program," A Question of Loyalty, Internment at Tule Lake: Journal of the Shaw Historical Library 19 (2005), 94; Audrie Girdner and Anne Loftis, The Great Betrayal: the Evacuation of the Japanese-Americans during World War II (London: Macmillan Co., 1969), 453.
  5. Eiichiro Azuma, "Brokering Race, Culture, and Citizenship: Japanese Americans in Occupied Japan and Postwar National Inclusion," Journal of American-East Asian Relations 16:3 (fall 2009): 191-92.

Last updated July 29, 2020, 5:18 p.m..