Historian Eric Saul recounts the accomplishments of Nisei MIS linguists. Photo by Cheryl Hirata-Dulas

A personal reflection of how history is ‘not only a body of knowledge, but the process of discovering and identifying with that knowledge.’

By Matthew Walters

My experiences with Fort Snelling in Minnesota were limited to a handful of elementary school field trips. To say I had even the slightest interest in histories of armed conflict as a child, let alone a 200-year-old military outpost, would be an exaggeration.

This disinterest was, perhaps like the indifference many students feel toward history textbooks, due to a feeling of disconnection with those pasts. No one in my family had ever fought in a war. None of my friends joined the service when I graduated from high school. Feelings of disconnection change however when personal relationships are established, and I experienced a newfound interest in Fort Snelling when I learned that my Nisei grandfather was in the Military Intelligence Service during World War II.

This personal connection was further strengthened on May 17, 2015, when I attended the opening ceremony of a photo exhibit organized by the Twin Cities JACL Education Committee. The exhibit, “Japanese Americans in the Military Intelligence Service During WWII,” is on loan from the National Japanese American Historical

Society and contains original photographs from the Military Intelligence Service (MIS) language school at Camp Savage and Fort Snelling.

At this school, over 6,000 Nisei were trained for deployment as Japanese translators and interpreters to the Pacific Theater in World War II. As you can imagine, they became much more than that.

The school grew substantially from an initial class of 60 students studying atop orange crates at an abandoned hangar at the Presidio in San Francisco. Yet, those few students in the early years, once deployed to the Pacific, proved their aptitude and value so decidedly that the school was at once inundated with demands from the military for more graduates. Seeking additional space and less racial tension, the school’s founder, Col. Kai Rasmussen, found a new home when Minnesota Gov. Harold Stassen welcomed the MIS language school to Camp Savage and later Fort Snelling.

As I helped families, veterans and other visitors sign in for the opening, I found myself imagining what my grandfather may have been thinking in those days. Finding himself at Topaz after his college education was cut short at Berkeley, why did he choose to leave for St. Paul that September of 1943? Why did he choose to enlist in the MIS?

A variety of possibilities exist. Perhaps Grandpa enlisted to get a head start rebuilding his career after his education was cut short. Perhaps he enlisted to relieve what must have been suffocating pressures of patriotic rhetoric working to confine an already confined population. Perhaps he simply wanted to leave the camps. Perhaps he did it out of loyalty to his country. Regarding this last hypothesis however, I began to feel during the ceremony that a conversation confined to issues of loyalty might never fully capture the MIS story.

Naturally, I was not the only one in attendance with a personal connection. The ceremony not only documented the history of the language school, but also allowed the audience to identify with its students through the close relationships so many in the Twin Cities have with the school and its students. Carolyn Nayematsu, Sally Sudo, Karen Tanaka Lucas, Joyce Yoshimura-Rank, Gail Wong and keynote speaker Maj. Gen. Paul M. Nakasone all shared stories about parents and spouses who trained at the language schools and served in the Pacific Theater during the war and occupation.

Even 6-year old Kasumi Lucas, Gosei and great-granddaughter of MIS veteran Walter Tanaka, was present to deliver the Pledge of Allegiance, which she did with astonishing articulation and clarity. Sheena Janson of Rick Shiomi’s Mu Performing Arts followed with a jaw-dropping rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner.” As I watched these displays of loyalty, executed with flawless precision, I could not help but feel I was witnessing a complicated scene that had played out countless times in the history of Asian America.
Indeed, themes of sacrifice, loyalty, duty, honor and patriotism were the most clearly discernible in the ceremony, perhaps a necessity given American society’s endless preoccupation with these concepts. Yet, I felt a different theme emerge as I listened to the speeches and later read the printed stories dispersed throughout the exhibit itself. Three stories in particular stand out in my mind today.

The first was an anecdote historian Eric Saul shared about Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s personal interpreter, Nisei MIS linguist Kan Tagami. During the occupation, as a long meeting between Emperor Hirohito and Gen. MacArthur concluded, Emperor Hirohito turned to Tagami and thanked him for his work bridging the gap between the U.S. and Japan. “You must have suffered much because of the war between our countries,” said Hirohito to a surprised Tagami.

The second was on a storyboard placed among the photos in the exhibit. The brief text explained how MIS officers undertook large-scale projects to convince Japanese units to surrender peacefully. These projects included the production of brochures informing Japanese soldiers and civilians of the humane treatment they would experience if they surrendered. Some Nisei MIS linguists even visited doomed Japanese units alone or in small groups to sit down and talk about surrender. A common strategy the linguists employed was to reason truthfully with the frightened soldiers that not only would they be treated humanely once captured, but also that their skills and lives would be invaluable to their families and communities after the war.

The third anecdote was a newspaper editorial written by George Grim. It was published in the local Twin Cities newspaper in 1945 and also reprinted in the ceremony program. In the editorial, George recounted his experience working with MIS instructor Tommy Ichimura while stationed together at Camp Robinson in Arkansas years prior. On one particular day, Tommy showed George a Mother’s Day card he had prepared.

After admiring the card, George turned it over to find that it was addressed to a stall at the Santa Anita Racetrack Assembly Center in California. “Tommy could teach us more than Japanese,” wrote Grim later in 1945,

“I hope he — and his mother — will forgive the rest of us.”

These stories, but a tiny sampling of the breadth of the Nisei MIS experience, drew for me a picture more rich, complex and colorful than any visible through the black-and-white lenses of loyalty, patriotism or sacrifice. To remember the Nisei MIS veterans only for their numerical accomplishments, while nevertheless substantial, is to forget about the cumulative impact of the personal impressions these Nisei left on fellow servicemen, Japanese soldiers and some of the highest-ranking leaders in the world. To remember them only for their patriotism is to forget about their loyalty to mutual understanding between the United States and Japan. To remember them only as linguists is to forget about their unique qualifications as cross-cultural mediators and communicators. To remember them only as valiant warriors against the enemy is to forget their ability and willingness to understand and humanize people on both sides of the violence.

In fact, to remember the Nisei veterans only for their loyalty is to hide the privilege of those whose loyalty has, due to their particular race, never been questioned. It is to continue performing the “Star Spangled Banner” with immaculate precision without asking why such precision is not expected of all others. So often, we readily cram the complexities of the Japanese American experience into the story-worthy, yet incomplete, frameworks of loyalty and sacrifice. We regale the public with tales of patriotism, obedience, honor and bravery. Yet, I find these themes haunt me as I struggle to identify with my ancestors. While we celebrate their legacy and accomplishments, we must never forget to ask why Japanese Americans ever had to prove their loyalty to this democratic nation in the first place.

It is often said that the mission of the JACL is to educate the larger society about unique and important experiences of Japanese Americans in the United States. However, as a delegate to the 2013 JACL National Convention, I argued during the National Council session that the educational mission of the JACL should focus not only on the larger society, but also on our own community. Given the personal connection that must exist for so many to take a genuine interest in history, we alone carry the eternal burden, responsibility and privilege of fueling the collective memory of the Japanese American experience. If we ourselves do not strive to remember and identify with Japanese American history through our personal relationships, who will?

As I struggled to imagine what life was like for my grandfather, I came to feel that history is not only a body of knowledge, but the process of discovering and identifying with that knowledge. History may not only be about knowing what happened, but engaging in the ongoing struggle of contemplating those pasts and how they bind us to the present. Perhaps it is not only archival work, but the painstaking processes of historical identification that JACL must foster in order to truly accomplish its unique mission.

The multifaceted educational goal of teaching society about Japanese American history while struggling to identify with our past through personal connections was exemplified by the ceremony at the venerable Fort Snelling on May 17, 2015. It was at this fort, so etched into the historical consciousness of Minnesotans, that an auditorium of veterans, Japanese Americans and other visitors learned about the accomplishments of the Nisei MIS linguists so close to them generationally and geographically. It was there that an exhibit was commemorated to share with not only visitors to the center but also the descendents of those veterans present.

I am deeply indebted to both National JACL and the Twin Cities Chapter for making this experience possible for me.

The photo exhibit, sponsored by the Minnesota Historical Society and the Twin Cities Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, is on display at Historic Fort Snelling in St. Paul, Minn., through July 5, and again from Aug. 25-Oct. 31.