Terror, Remembrance, and the Lynching of Katsu Goto
“A Japanese storekeeper, K. Goto, was found dead this morning at 6 o’clock, hanging from a cross…A two-inch thick rope, evidently purchased for the purpose, was used…from all appearances, no bungling hands performed the work…a genuine hangman’s knot was under his left ear.”
– Daily Pacific Commercial Advertiser, October 29th, 1889
Katsu Goto traveled to the Kingdom of Hawai’i in 1885, seeking work and adventure as Kanyaku Imin, among Hawaii’s first cohort of Japanese contract laborers. After completing three strenuous years of indentured labor in the cane fields, Goto struck good fortune, and the twenty seven year old’s community connections and English proficiency encouraged locals to support his competitively priced general store. Goto quickly gained a reputation for his gregarious business skills, as well as for advocating for immigrants in court and mediating their conflicts with plantation management – actions that had drawn the ire of local white business owners, who resented his growing influence. On the morning of October 29th, 1889, Katsu Goto’s mangled body was found swinging from a telephone pole near his work in the small plantation town of Honoka’a, Hawai’i.
Less than twenty years before Goto’s murder, the largest incident of mass lynching in the history of the United States took place in Los Angeles’ Chinatown neighborhood, when a mob of over five hundred men raided the district with torches and weapons to massacre the city’s Chinese residents. Within one day, nearly every home and store in the area was razed, and eighteen Chinese men had been tortured and lynched.
Over the next century, anti-Asian sentiment continued to broadly fester with the implementation of a number of exclusionary and repressive laws. Anti-Japanese racism reached its apex during the second world war, as Japanese people began to be depicted in comics, songs, film, and government propaganda not as human combatants but as creatures to be exterminated – as skunks, rats, monkeys, termites, lice, rabid vermin. Military recruiters began to distribute mock “Jap Hunting Licenses” that called for “open season” on the enemy. Writing of the “underlying racism” that motivated the American mutilation of war dead in the Pacific, historian James Weingartner notes: “the Japanese were loathed more intensely than any enemies of the United States before or since.”
Public consensus was reflected by both political/military leadership and popular media. One Marine Corps general publically remarked that, for him, “killing a Japanese was like killing a rattlesnake.” In an article called “the Question of Japanese-Americans, the Los Angeles Times boldly editorialized: “A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched.” Seeing the Japanese as reptilian allowed white Americans to shed their sympathy like snake skin – as their enemies fell further from “human” status, it became mentally easier to exterminate them. Army psychologists found that while only one in twenty American soldiers agreed with the statement “I would really like to kill a German soldier,” around fifty percent of combatants answered affirmatively when the statement concerned the Japanese.
In January of this year, humanitarian and freelance journalist Kenji Goto was publicly murdered by Islamic militants in Syria after demands for his ransom went unanswered, despite overwhelming public support for his rescue (see: I AM KENJI). Goto had traveled to the region in the hopes of rescuing his friend Haruna, but himself was captured shortly after his arrival. In the days before Goto’s brutal execution, Daesh released propaganda threatening the Japanese people for their government’s recent pledges for humanitarian aid, and denigrating their adversaries as “satanic.” In the Levant as well as the Pacific, it is always easier to murder and mutilate your enemies when they are snakes and satans rather than fellow persons. When you believe you are fighting animals or “demons” – to echo comments made by Darren Wilson on how he saw black teenager Michael Brown – you are free to literally collar, cage, and crucify them accordingly.
Kenji Goto’s lynching by religious progressives in Syria has been consistently condemned as a terrorist act – that is, an event motivated by a philosophical tradition that believes sensationalist purging of innocent life is an acceptable way to win desired political ends. Those who engage in the creation of such terror rarely consider the direct victims of their violence to be “the point” of their crimes – rather, the desired goal is the larger communal impact, the rippling out of fear calculated to catalyze social change or horrify a population into continued submission.
Lynching is, at its core, a more intimate, localized form of terrorism. All public killings are designed to demonstrate a clear marker of permanent penalty: “if you resist our empire, we will make an example of you.” The first century lynching of Jesus of Nazareth by political leaders in Roman-occupied Palestine (on the charge of insurrectionism!) certainly stands in this tradition. Likewise, labor leader Katsu Goto had one body, but he was crucified to terrorize a populace, ravaged because haole plantation owners feared his mounting influence would empower their exploited workers.
This ritual spans both geography and century. Eighteen Chinese Americans were strung up along Los Angeles’ “Nigger Alley” in 1871 because white city dwellers wanted to stem further Asian immigration, fearing the encroachment of “yellow bodies” and the economic power, Eastern magick, and deviant sexualities they were said to carry. Vincent Chin was murdered in 1982 by disgruntled whites who, blaming Japan for Detroit’s failing auto industry, wanted to physically inscribe their anger on an body they saw as foreign.
In recent years, white supremacist assassins have orchestrated racial terror in Oak Creek, Chapel Hill, and Charleston for similar reasons, killing persons in an attempt to subjugate a people. Abroad, children and religious minorities have been crucified throughout the territories occupied by Daesh, and on August 19th the group beheaded and publicly hanged an eighty two year old Syrian antiquities scholar to intimidate others who would work with “infidels.”
A historical perspective reminds us that terrorism is not only carried out by lynch mobs, lone gunmen, or fledgling caliphates. Well-established, powerful states too can choose to terrorize, manufacturing massive civilian deaths, shock, and fear to achieve political goals. Indeed, the kindling of atomic fires in Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the dawn of the Cold War – actions consistently informed by state-sanctioned racist and debasing teachings about Japanese sub-humanity – must be acknowledged as violent relics in this same tradition.
Dr. Fumiko Kaya is a hibakusha, one of hundreds of thousands of civilians who survived the opening of hell’s mouth on August 6th, 1945. In her biography of Kepanī lynching victim Katsu Goto, she writes of her pilgrimage to Goto’s place of death: “When I first visited my uncle’s grave and found it broken in 1965, I asked Mr. Ukichi Kuramitsu to restore it.” Twenty years after the Bomb fell, Dr. Kaya traced her uncle’s fateful journey from Japan to Hawai’i, where she met with my great grandfather in the town where Goto lived, prospered, and hung. Ukichi, a popular mechanic, community leader, and President of Honoka’a’s Buddhist temple, invested in the project, and rallied his family and community in support. He led volunteers in the task of restoring Katsu’s broken grave by physically incarnating the memory of Goto in a public work.
Volunteers mounted a towering shrine in his name, and crafted a monument whose ingredients traverse the Pacific, intentionally highlighting the connection our two island lands share: builders used Hawaiian ‘Ohi’a (Pele’s sacred wood), volcanic rock, stones from Hiroshima, Hinoki (Japanese cypress), and Japanese blue-tiled roof to uniquely capture the cross-Pacific impact of this young man’s death.
It is Obon season. In Hawai’i, we enshrine our lost in marble tombs, send them off on floating lanterns, seal them in boxes of pine and concrete. They are sustained in bronze, in sculpture, in shroud, in myth and glory, in peace poles and at Punchbowl’s burial grounds. We light incense, spark flames, trace their likenesses in stone, wood, and stained glass; we erect landmarks in their name, leave mochi at their graves, ink the anniversary of their deaths on our body’s largest organ.
These visible markers all exist to point us to deeper, invisible truths: in a very real way, those who have been extinguished are, through our lives, still living. The crucified peoples of history – in Honoka’a, Hiroshima, Syria and beyond – are remembered not only in physical monuments, but in the ways they continue to shape our lives. As one hibakusha recently recounted, “it’s our duty as survivors to carry on for as long as possible, to honor the memory of those who are no longer with us.” We write on our hearts the names of those who have been lynched, and something is stirred to life within us. We triumph over forces that dehumanize and terrorize when we reject the paralysis of silence, when we boldly celebrate the lives of people like Kenji, Katsu, and Fumiko, marshaling their memory into common action.