The Niʻihau Incident: Déjà vu All Over Again

A new film based on the Niʻihau Incident is stirring up anger over its misrepresentations of Hawaiian and Japanese American history. Densho Content Director Brian Niiya breaks down what the film gets wrong.

By now you’ve probably heard about a new film production based on the so-called “Niihau Incident” that took place immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The incident involved a Japanese pilot who crash landed on the remote Hawaiian island of Niʻihau after taking part in the attack and his encounter with residents of the island, nearly all of whom were Native Hawaiian. One of the three Japanese Americans on the island decided to help the pilot retrieve papers taken from him by other island residents. Their attempt to retrieve the papers led to chaos and ended with the deaths of both men.

The proposed film has attracted controversy due to the casting of a white actor to play Benehakaka “Ben” Kanahele, the Hawaiian hero of the film (and the true story it’s based on) who quells the chaos and kills the Japanese pilot. Given recent controversies over the casting of white actors to play people of color—and the box office flops of such films as Aloha and Ghost in the Shell—it’s a troubling choice, to say the least. And, of course, there’s the irony of this news breaking during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander critics were quick to call out this latest example of Hollywood whitewashing, describing the film’s casual erasure of an already marginalized group (and their particularly painful history of annexation and forced assimilation) as “cultural cannibalism.” Actress Tamlyn Tomita, who has read the script, criticized the film’s producers for “perpetuating the idea that only white people can play the heroes” and failing to deal with “the inner conflicts of dual heritages, identities, and allegiances” that influenced the choices of the Japanese Americans involved in the incident.


But publicity for the film—that has been picked up by many media outlets—also repeats the claim that the incident “led to President Franklin D. Roosevelt issuing Executive Order 9066.” Though such statements have appeared many times over the years (most notably from Michelle Malkin and other missionaries of the Gospel of Incarceration Apologism), there is no actual evidence that the incident played any such role. The fact that officials in Hawaiʻi, where the incident actually took place, advocated against mass incarceration says a great deal about the real impact of Niʻihau.

Here in Hawaiʻi, this same issue came up about a decade ago. The Pacific Aviation Museum on Ford Island, near Pearl Harbor, had put up a display that included the remains the Japanese Zero airplane that crashed on Niʻihau along with labels describing the incident. One of the labels repeated the claim about its link to EO 9066.

Local Japanese Americans objected, and a coalition led by the Honolulu Chapter of the JACL cited scholarship disputing this claim. Eventually, the museum agreed to change the label to remove the claim.

Greg Robinson was one of the historians consulted. “A few latter-day apologists for Japanese American confinement have described the Niʻihau incident as key in prompting President Roosevelt to sign Executive Order 9066,” he wrote in his book A Tragedy of Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2009). “This appears to be unfounded speculation. There is no evidence that the Niʻihau incident influenced later policy—in none of the mountains of transcripts and memoranda of War Department and White House discussions regarding Japanese Americans on the West Coast that I have reviewed is the Niʻihau incident even once mentioned.”

The incident is also absent from classic studies of what caused the exclusion/incarceration by scholars such as Morton Grodzins (Americans Betrayed, University of Chicago Press, 1949), Jacobus tenBroek, et al. (Prejudice, War and the Constitution, University of California Press, 1954), or Roger Daniels (Concentration Camps, U.S.A., Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971)—and in more recent accounts by Peter Irons (Justice at War, University of California Press, 1993) and Tetsuden Kashima (Judgment Without Trial, University of Washington Press, 2002).

The true story of what led to EO 9066 is far more mundane and much less sexy, neatly summarized by the CWRIC report: “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.”

It is easy to understand the appeal of the Niʻihau incident to those who would argue that the wartime exclusion was justified, since it involved a Nisei aiding the Japanese pilot. And it is an interesting—and strange—story that has been the subject of a novel (Caroline Paul’s East Wind, Raid: A Novel, HarperCollins, 2006), an episode of the TV show History Detectives, and many non-fiction accounts, in addition to the Pacific Aviation Museum’s problematic exhibition. But we should be clear that it was a single incident whose impact on larger trends of the war—including the forced removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans—was minimal.

The Niʻihau story is much more complicated and interesting than the bare outline at the top of this article. I am working on a Densho Encyclopedia article on the incident in collaboration with Japanese scholar Kaori Akiyama that I hope to have up soon.

In the meantime, let’s hope the movie gets this and the rest of the story right.

By Brian Niiya, Densho Content Director

[Header photo: The remains of Japanese pilot Shigenori Nishikaichi’s Zero plane, at the crash landing site on Niʻihau. December 17, 1941. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.]

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  1. ‘Ni’ihau’ Movie Criticized for Historical Inaccuracy, Whitewashing | Screenwriters etc.

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