Copyrights, Conversations, and Public Information: a Brief Account of John K. Akau, Jr.

We at Thinking Locally have struggled with the question of anonymity for the RASRL writers. We want to credit them for their work, but we’ve learned that the RASRL papers donated by the faculty to UHM’s Archives don’t completely belong to the library and probably never really belonged to the faculty who donated them. The papers, depending on the date they were written, may be copyrighted materials and permission to use them rests with the authors or their descendants. It didn’t take us long to realize that we would spend more time trying to track down descendants than it would take to read and annotate the purported 10,000 plus papers in the Collection. This is why, in our posts, you see initials instead of authors’ names when we quote from papers. We bring this up because of an exceptional paper in the Collection, written by a student whose life after UH demonstrates the purpose, drive, and commitment he showed in his RASRL paper. Much of what we learned about him is a matter of public record, so we will use his name. We will not, however, quote directly from the paper.

The Paper

“Human Relations as Demonstrated at a Student Boarding House” by John K. Akau, Jr., was likely written in the mid- to late 1930s. A disquisition on communal life, the paper aimed to challenge the importance of race, a somewhat unusual move for an author in this collection, and to advance a somewhat Marxist view of class struggle among the residents. The most entertaining and colorful section of Akau’s paper is an account of the eating preferences of the residents and a catalog of their violations of table etiquette.


from ASUH Clippings Scrapbook, vol. 11

The Conversation

When I (ChrisKK) first started examining the RASRL Collection, I sometimes would share what I was finding with my husband. When I mentioned John Akau’s name, he stopped me. Throughout my husband’s growing up years, he had heard about a John Akau, the overseer of Students’ House from his father, Henry. A Maui High School graduate, class of 1940, Henry Kuwaye, became a resident at Students’ House in Fall 1940.

In August 2012, I interviewed Henry a few months before his 90th birthday. Here’s what I learned from him about John:

Students’ House, located behind the Atherton YMCA on Metcalf Street and University Avenue, consisted of two buildings that were more residence than dorm. Each house had 26 students, and all 52 students were required to arrive in June 1940 to get the House ready to inhabit. John told the residents that they were to build a temporary dining hall behind the residences. “What’s your talent?” John asked each of us.

Folks volunteered according to their abilities.  I wanted to work on the concrete base, so I went to the library to read about concrete since I really didn’t know anything about it. I volunteered for that because I thought it would be an easy job – figure out the materials and then just supervise the work. But John had the ability to read character. He knew I was bluffing about knowing concrete, but I had watched them build irrigation ditches and bridges on the plantation so I knew something about concrete construction.

As a result, John agreed to put Henry in charge of the concrete work, and in August before classes began, the dining hall slab and temporary building was completed.

John was a good steward. Henry said that John kept track of everyone in the House; he had set up a system so that sophomores took care of freshmen, juniors took care of sophomores. The House residents were an ethnically mixed group and included some Haole, much like the young men John described in his paper. Residents were required to keep the place clean, take turns cooking in teams. Henry said that when the “boy’s girlfriends” came by they were surprised by how clean the place was.

Practicing a small “c” communism, everyone at Students’ House had the same size plate and received the same amount of food. They were not allowed to go back for seconds unless their plates were clear.

There were several guys who made the third serving. Blackie Murakami, he was a slow eater and took forever to get through his first serving. So we’d tease him and say, ‘Sleeping?’”

Henry himself rarely made a third serving since he couldn’t eat fast enough.

The students were ambitious, good-natured, intelligent, and ranged from the very conservative to the very radical. Bill Morrissey, a big Haole guy, would wrestle with Ralph Kubo (also a big gutsy guy) on the grass. Ralph and Bill were always arguing – Kubo, a conservative plantation boy and Bill, a liberal.

This kind of exchange, usually more intellectual than physical, kept the students sharp.  Henry said, “This prepared me for the mainland. This experience helped me to be able to judge people.”

Henry lived at Students’ House through his freshman year, but the bombing of Pearl Harbor changed everything for him, just as it did for everyone in Hawai‘i. On the morning of December 7, 1941, Henry and the other residents gathered to have a photo taken. The sun was just coming up as they stood across the street in front of the “teachers building.” They took several photos and by 7:30 they were almost finished. When they saw anti-aircraft fire and a Japanese plane above them, they scrambled into the dorm.  John quickly instituted a buddy system to make sure all residents were safe.

Like many UH students, Henry volunteered for the Varsity Victory Volunteers. But he was rejected due to what Henry called a “lung problem,” which turned out to be a false positive for tuberculosis. Henry left Honolulu in 1942 for a Maui sanitarium, but he kept in contact with John. In 1945 before the war ended, Henry returned to Honolulu and occasionally would visit Students’ House.

During the war years, John would invite regular enlisted men and professionals to visit the House to converse with the residents. Professors would lecture the boys on how the war was proceeding in Europe “but never Japan.”

Once an Armenian fellow provided a meal for John and select students – a big platter of greens and meats, no plates, just bread to dip into the community pot.

Students’ House became a kind of finishing school for these men from plantations. If they weren’t familiar with classical music, John would have them listen to recordings. Ravel’s “Bolero” became Henry’s lifetime favorite. “This residential living broadened our minds.”

In 1947 Henry was in New York where he had completed study to be an x-ray technician and was working at Sloan-Kettering Memorial Hospital when he heard a “Dr. Kuwaye” being paged to take a phone call. It was John, puffing up Henry’s status. They arranged to meet at Grand Central Station and then travel to Washington D.C. by train. As the train crossed the Mason-Dixon line, a porter told John that because he was black and Henry was yellow they’d need to move to the back. “He’s not Negro,” Henry said. “He’s Hawaiian.” And Henry stopped to describe him to me – “straight hair but dark, a big nose, 6 foot 2, 185 pounds.” They didn’t move to the back.

Thinking of the way John had framed the relationships in his paper about the student dormitory, I asked Henry if he thought John was a Communist:

John was socialist, more for government helping out with certain things but definitely not a Communist. We would argue about this, the fine distinction made between Socialism and Communism. . . . He was idealistic, very positive. He was tolerant of human weakness but when it came to injustice or discrimination, he was right there.

At the end of our conversation Henry summed up what it meant to him to have known John Akau. “[He] was a strange man but I wouldn’t have been who I am without John’s friendship, the model he presented. I will be talking about John Akau until I die.”

Public Information

When I searched UH yearbooks for John Akau, I found only one listing for him, as a member of the Hawaii Quill Society, a literary group, in the 1933 issue. There was no photograph but his name was listed as a member of the “Class of 1935.” But he was absent from the 1935 yearbook Ka Palapala. I contacted the University Registrar and got what information I legally could get on John – enrollment dates, intermittent from 1928 through 1936, but no degree earned. I was disappointed but not surprised. John had sounded like a visionary. He was a self-described “man of action.”

I visited Hamilton Library’s newspaper morgue. I learned more about John K. Akau, Jr. from a cursory search of the Honolulu Advertiser and Honolulu Star-Bulletin. “Co-op House Run by Youths” was the headline in February 1938, the earliest listing I found about his providing housing for students. This first house, formerly the Belgian consulate on Wilder Avenue, housed only nine men. John, the article stated, had arrived from Hilo eight years earlier and after attending UH and working for the Central YMCA, had “. . .decided to do something for other boys who, like himself, had come from the outer islands full of ambition but empty of funds.”

In April 1946, he was elected chairman of the Territory of Hawai‘i Chapter of the American Veterans Committee (AVC). He was a veteran and, as he had made clear in his sociology paper, politically left of center. In May 1946, he was off to conferences in New York, Washington D.C., and Des Moines.

In July 1946, he was in a conference with Governor Ingram Stainback to register his opposition to a federal cap of $10,000 for land for veterans’ housing, an unrealistic amount given Hawai‘i’s land costs. Later that same month the AVC was being called a “communistic-front veterans group supported by sources outside the U.S.”

First proposed in 1946, Veterans Village was under construction in 1947. A RASRL writer took this as her topic. Veterans had formed a cooperative to purchase the former dairy land in lower Pālolo Valley creating a community of 85 IMG_3557families. “Under the dynamic leadership of John K. Akau, Jr. now manager and director of the entire village, the project was undertaken” (P. H., “Veteran’s Village,” December 1948, Box A-2).

By the end of 1948, John was in the news again railing against the city planning commissions’ refusal to approve another project, Veterans Acres, as a subdivision in Mānoa because it did not have a public access road. “”We can show you something solid and beautiful in this city,” John is quoted as saying. “And it has cost the city nothing except for sewers. As a group of veterans, we can not be expected to lie down in our fight. We will fight to the last ditch.” By March 1949, a headline read “Veterans Accused of ‘Railroading’ Project.”

IMG_3518“Mr. Akau, 39, an inveterate organizer has moved into the Democratic party uninvited and with characteristic zeal,” according to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in January 1950. “Within three months, the 4th and 5th district clubs [organized and led by Akau] have scheduled more party social events than Democrats ordinarily see in a year of Sundays.”

The coverage and controversies continued. For failing to pay his federal income tax John spent a short time in prison, which he called a “fascinating experience” in an interview done upon his release in September 1958. He said he had several ideas for prison reform. In the last entry about another of John’s visions (Star-Bulletin 1970), he hoped to establish a youth hostel on Seaview Avenue near the UHM campus. An inveterate political animal, John remained an active idealist, never ceasing to envision affordable housing for college students. Akau died in 1980.

We can’t argue with copyright laws. Whatever we may think about papers written by students, they are creative products that deserve protection. But it seems strange that far more personal and at times damning information about some authors is publicly available and shareable. Just for the record:  I received permission from Henry’s son to share the interview materials here. I would bet that if John were alive, he’d be pleased to share his paper.

Please visit our companion website Local Citing where we feature several community studies form the RASRL Collection in the Mapping the Territory exhibit.


One thought on “Copyrights, Conversations, and Public Information: a Brief Account of John K. Akau, Jr.

  1. Pingback: Five Women’s Dormitories in 1929 Honolulu | Thinking Locally

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