USF's Museum Blog

Honoring WW2 Nisei Linguists

by Max Nihei

As Collections Manager of the National Japanese American Historical Society in addition to my graduate work in museum studies at University of San Francisco, I’ve had a busy year. In late June, NJAHS hosted the Tule Lake Teachers Education Project in collaboration with the Golden Gate National Recreation Area /National Park Service, Tule Lake Planning Committee, and the Bay Area Writing Project, a week-long session to develop web-based curriculum for History and Social Studies teachers, grades 4-12 based around Tule Lake Segregation Center, one of 10 Incarceration Centers which housed evicted Japanese Americans during WWII. This was quickly followed by our Annual Members Meeting, and the Tule Lake Pilgrimage, and continuing work on the museum’s digitization collaboration with University of San Francisco.


Military Resource Center in San Francisco’s Presidiio

In addition to all of my regular responsibilities, I am researching the design of a soon-to-open new interactive exhibit at the Military Intelligence Historic Learning Center called the Mission Map, which will be a mode of transmission for information, Southwest Pacific 01photographs, and excerpts from oral history interviews pertaining to the Japanese American veterans of WWII who served as Japanese language interrogators and interpreters.  I

Approximately 6,000 Nisei (2nd generation Japanese Americans) and Kibei (Japanese Americans who received schooling in Japan and later returned to America) were deployed in teams throughout the Pacific Theater, translating literally tons of diaries, letters, and military documents in order to learn as much as possible about the Japanese military‘s organizational structure, defenses, future plans, and morale. They interrogated Japanese prisoners of war, who had been indoctrinated to believe that surrender to the enemy meant banishment from Japan and torture by allied forces, persuading them to cooperate with compassion and mutual cultural understanding. Through interrogation, in separate instances, Roy Uyehata and Hoichi Kubo were able to warn Allied forces of large-scale assaults in Bougainville and Saipan, greatly reducing American casualties. Nisei wrote and distributed leaflets or traveled by boat with loudspeakers imploring Japanese troops to surrender rather than fight or commit suicide. The Nisei also undertook the dangerous task of cave flushing, persuading Japanese prisoners and civilians hiding in extensive tunnel systems to safely enter into Allied custody.

The Nisei faced adversity from the US army. They weren’t welcomed with open arms; they had to persuade their American officers and commanders that they could be essential to the war effort through hard work and dedication. They needed bodyguards at all times because they looked like the enemy. In fact, several Nisei throughout the war found themselves in danger simply by wandering away from their bodyguards. The Nisei were also not properly commended for their work. The US War Department would not promote or commission a Nisei linguist until April 1944, when Colonel Mashbir awarded commissions to warrant officers Phil Ishio, Gary Kadani, and Steve Yamamoto. Kadani and Yamamoto were amongst the first class of Nisei linguists trained at Building 640 in the Presidio of San Francisco and had served for two years without commissions. All Japanese American soldiers faced the ethical dilemma of forced evacuation. While they were fighting overseas, their friends and family were evicted from their homes and held inside Incarceration Centers by the same country they were risking their lives to protect.

Trials 12Nisei linguists were indispensable tool to the post-WWII occupation of Japan, translating for both sides in war crimes trials and aiding in the repatriation approximately 3.5 million Japanese prisoners and 3 million civilians displaced from the fighting in the Pacific Theater. The Nisei also helped translate Japanese military documents, compile historical information on Japan’s war history, and censor written and performed works.

This is the story we wish to tell through the Mission Map interactive table, through quotes and photographs from the National Japanese American Historical Society’s extensive collection of oral histories from MIS veterans.

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