Sanji Abe

Name Sanji Abe
Born May 10 1895
Died November 26 1982
Birth Location Kailua-Kona, HI
Generational Identifier


Sanji Abe (1895–1982) was a Kailua-Kona-born Nisei who was the first territorial senator of Japanese ancestry in Hawai'i. After being honorably discharged from the United States Army for his service during World War I, Abe became a successful businessman and community leader, owning the Yamato Za, a prominent movie theater in Hilo. During World War II, authorities arrested Abe after a Japanese flag was found in the theater. As a result of his incarceration during the war, Abe was forced to resign as a senator. Abe's experience reflected the challenges and suspicions facing the Japanese community in Hawai'i during World War II and the large-scale purge of early Japanese candidates and politicians that subsequently occurred. [1]

Abe's Early Career

Sanji Abe was born in Kailua-Kona on the island of Hawai'i on May 10, 1895, just ten years after the arrival of the first kanyaku imin , Japanese contract laborers. His family, who had arrived from Fukuoka Prefecture in 1893, moved to Hilo when he was about twelve years old. Later, he began working at the Hilo Police Department. Along with other Japanese, Abe was drafted into the United States Army in World War I. At the time, not many Nisei met the age requirements for military service and of the 800 Japanese drafted, more than half were Issei. [2] Abe continued to work at the police department during the war and started to venture into the growing theater business at this time. Abe purchased the Yamato Za from Takaharu Koizumi, who used to stage live Japanese plays at the theater. As Japanese films became more popular, Koizumi decided to convert the Yamato Za into a movie theater and sold the business to Abe. As movies became an increasingly popular source of entertainment, the Yamato Za and its nearby restaurants grew in popularity. The Mamo Theater, Shindo, Ginza Café, Hinode Café, Yamato Tei Restaurant, and Hama no Ya Restaurant all made Mamo Street a popular gathering place for Hilo's Japanese residents.

In addition to being a fixture in the entertainment business, Abe was also actively involved in the community as the father of six children. After his honorable discharge from the army, he joined the American Legion where he played an active role in the organization's "Americanization" movement as a charter member and then resident of the Hilo Forum of American Citizens of Japanese Ancestry, popularly known as the Nisei Club. [3] Abe also served as an adviser to the Big Island Japanese Baseball League and even took a Japanese baseball team to the mainland in 1921. Abe was also the vice chair of the Big Island Sumo Association and celebrated his 20th anniversary with the Hilo Police Department by building a monument for deceased immigrants at Hilo's 'Alae Cemetery as well as other cemeteries. As Abe's prominence began to grow in the community, so did suggestions that he run for political office.

Abe's Political Career

Abe's political ambitions coincided with the growing presence of Japanese in Hawaiian politics. The first person of Japanese ancestry to run for political office was Ryuichi Hamada of Kaua'i, who ran for the Territorial House of Representatives in 1922, but lost. That year, there were only 1,035 registered voters in the Japanese community and Japanese candidates were uncommon. [4] Despite this early failure, more Japanese candidates followed in 1926 and 1928. In 1930, Masayoshi "Andy" Yamashiro, a Democrat, and Tasaku Oka, a Republican, were elected to the Territorial House of Representatives, becoming the first Japanese elected to that body. In time, more Japanese Americans were elected. In November 1940, Sanji Abe, who by then had risen to the rank of assistant chief in the Hilo Police Department, decided to resign his position to run for the Territorial Senate despite the deterioration of relations between America and Japan by early 1940.

In response to growing anti-Japanese sentiment, Japanese American candidates began emphasizing their loyalty to the United States in their campaign speeches while also opposing those who attacked them for retaining their dual citizenship . Abe himself was a dual citizen as Nisei born prior to 1924 were also accorded Japanese citizenship. Abe tried to renounce his Japanese citizenship before the election, but his opponents, particularly the white-owned Honolulu Advertiser criticized his dual citizenship claiming that "his seeming indifference [to expatriation] is good neither for him nor for the Territory," as it was considered "un-American" to take "15 years membership in the American Legion, to decide which flag to haul down when he sought a seat in the territorial senate of Hawaii." [5] Abe's supporters, in turn, accused his attackers of using race to discredit his campaign. A. T. Spalding, Chairman of the Republican Committee of the County of Hawai'i claimed that this amounted to an attack on his "racial origin" as well as an attack on "the entire population of Hawaii of Japanese ancestry." [6] During this furor, Abe's Japanese citizenship was finally removed three days before the election, and Abe was victorious in the senate race, garnering 7,428 votes and making him the first territorial senator of Japanese ancestry. [7]

Abe's Internment

In addition to his political responsibilities, Abe continued to operate the Yamato Za and expanded his business to Honolulu, becoming the president of Kokusai Kogyō. In May 1941, he opened the 1,200-seat Kokusai Theater, showing movies from Japan. However, Abe's business interests would be abruptly halted with the outbreak of war following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 . In August 1942, Abe was arrested after a Japanese flag was found at his Yamato Za Theater in Hilo. "I've never purchased or owned a Japanese flag and I didn't know of the existence of the one involved in my case," Abe claimed. "Possibly it was left at the theater by some show troupe appearing there long before the war started, although under my instructions employees of the theater searched the premises several times for just that very thing." [8] Under martial law , the military had been ordered to confiscate all enemy flags, and it was against the law to have a flag in one's possession. Since the law banning anyone from possessing an enemy flag was to go into effect on August 20, the case against Abe was dismissed on August 18.

Despite the dismissal of the misdemeanor charge, a warrant for Abe's arrest was issued on September 1. The following day, authorities arrested Abe and held him at Sand Island for two months. During his incarceration, Abe was brought before the Board of Officers and Civilians where Lt. Farrell B. Copland summarized the evidence against Abe: Abe's father was the "Kingpin of Bootleggers" during prohibition and operated stills at Kukuihaele; Abe attended Japanese language school for eight years and would later enroll his children; after his discharge from the army, he spent several months in Japan; he visited Japan in 1921 as a manager of the Japanese Athletic Club baseball team and returned in 1940; an informant claimed he took payoffs from brothels and bootleggers; he showed Japanese-language motion pictures at his theater; he received officers from Japanese training vessels and loaned his car to take officers on sightseeing tours. In response, Abe introduced into evidence sixteen exhibits consisting of newspaper articles and legislative enactments that he sponsored showing he was pro-American and called a number of witnesses to attest to his loyalty. Although the board found that Abe's "activities have been both pro-American and pro-Japanese, the later not shown to be subversive, though in some instances, highly suspicious," it nonetheless recommended that he "be interned for the duration of the war." [9] Abe was forced to resign from his senate seat in February 1943 and a month later was transferred to the Honouliuli internment camp, where he remained for the next seventeen months.

Throughout the war, other Japanese American politicians withdrew their candidacies or resigned fearing a similar fate as a result of the anti-Japanese sentiment in the Islands. Thus, between 1943 and 1945 with only one exception, there were no individuals of Japanese ancestry in elected office in the territory despite Japanese constituting nearly twenty-nine percent of the total voter pool. [10] Only a few years earlier in 1941, there had been six representatives and one senator of Japanese ancestry in the Territorial Legislature, along with six Japanese on the county boards of supervisors. Many Japanese candidates who had previously been politically active elected not to run for public office during the war due to the politically volatile situation. In addition, Japanese voters hesitated supporting Japanese candidates for fear that the Japanese community would be seen as trying to take over the government. The Japanese community did not want to exacerbate already strained race relations in Hawai'i as the war provided the opportunity for other ethnicities to express long standing racial fears and hostilities toward the Japanese. [11]

Finally, with Hawai'i about to be declared a noncombat zone, the Military Governors Reviewing Board paroled Abe to Wai'alae Ranch on March 22, 1944. As a condition of parole, Abe signed a statement discharging the government and any individuals of any liability as a result of his detention. Abe was finally released on February 16, 1945.

Abe's Postwar Life

After the war, Abe returned to importing and promoting Japanese movies. But he never returned to politics. In 1960, the Yamato Za was destroyed in the tsunami that hit Hilo. Battling diabetes, Abe decided to move to O'ahu where he lived out his remaining years. In 1968, blind and 73 years old, he said in an interview with the Honolulu Advertiser , "I can't kick too much about [internment]. During a war period, you have to expect anything. And of course times have changed." [12] Sanji Abe died in Kāne'ohe on November 26, 1982, at the age of 87. Although the death of Abe was noted briefly in the newspapers, neither the injustices that he suffered nor the purge of loyal American office holders of Japanese ancestry that had occurred during the war were publicly remembered. While the postwar rise of Democratic Party spearheaded by Japanese Americans such as George Ariyoshi, Daniel Inouye , and Spark Masayuki Matsunaga has been well-documented, little attention has been paid to their Republican forerunners like Abe who became causalities of wartime anti-Japanese sentiment.

Authored by Kelli Y. Nakamura , Kapi'olani Community College

For More Information

Allen, Gwenfread. Hawaii's War Years: 1941-1945 . Honolulu: The Advertiser Publishing Co., Ltd, 1950.

Dye, Bob. "How Bigots 'Cleansed' Legislature in 1942." Honolulu Advertiser , Sept. 16, 2001.

———. "The Case of Sanji Abe." Honolulu Magazine 37.5 (November 2002): 38-46.

Emergency Service Committee. The AJA—Their Present and Future." Honolulu: n.p., [1940?].

Kashima, Tetsuden. Judgment Without Trial: Japanese American Imprisonment During World War II . Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003.

Okihiro, Gary Y. Cane Fires: The Anti-Japanese Movement in Hawaii, 1865-1945 . Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.

"Sanji Abe." New York Times , Dec. 3, 1982.

Scheiber, Harry N. "Constitutional Liberty in World War II, Army Rule and Martial Law in Hawaii, 1941-1946." Western Legal History 3.2 (summer/fall 1990): 341-378.

Suzuki, Kei. "Sanji Abe." Hawaii Herald , 17 October 2008, B-3.


  1. Research for this article was supported by a grant from the Hawai‘i Council for the Humanities .
  2. Kei Suzuki, "Sanji Abe," Hawaii Herald , October 17, 2008, B-3.
  3. Bob Dye, "The Case of Sanji Abe," Honolulu Magazine , 37.5 (November 2002), 38.
  4. Suzuki, "Sanji Abe."
  5. "Sanji Abe's Case," Honolulu Advertiser , October 8, 1940, editorial page; "Un-American Reasoning," Honolulu Advertiser , October 11, 1940, editorial page; "Hawaii, U.S.A.," Honolulu Advertiser , November 2, 1940, editorial page.
  6. "Chairman Spalding's Protest In Behalf Of Sanji Abe and The Advertiser's Answer," Honolulu Advertiser , November 4, 1940, editorial page.
  7. "Sanji Abe's Expatriation," Honolulu Advertiser , November 5, 1940, editorial page.
  8. Dye, "The Case of Sanji Abe," 42.
  9. In the collection of the Resource Center, Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai'i.
  10. Emergency Service Committee, The AJA—Their Present and Future (Honolulu: n.p., [1940?]), 9.
  11. Gwenfread Allen, Hawaii's War Years: 1941-1945 (Honolulu: The Advertiser Publishing Co., Ltd, 1950), 350.
  12. "Sanji Abe, 87; first AJA in Isle senate," Abe, Sanji. University of Hawai'i at Mānoa. Microfiche D98050 Biographical.

Last updated June 18, 2024, 8:56 p.m..