09 June 2004

WWII Japanese Translators: The Hakujin Experience

Faubion Bowers, The Man Who Saved Kabuki, was a Japanese language translator in World War II. He contributed the following memoir to the Japanese American Veterans Association website.
In 1941, the year war with Japan broke out, there were 25 American Hakujin (Caucasians) who could read, speak and write--more or less--the Japanese language. Most of these were older, scholastic men who had spent years in Kyoto among art treasures or were missionaries who had set their minds on converting the Japanese from their heathen ways. Twenty-five is not much of a number when you are planning on an Army and Navy of five million or so against a nation of 100 million. The idea of using Nisei [2nd generation Japanese immigrants to America] or Kibei [Japanese Americans who had returned to Japan (usually for education)] had only begun to glimmer in 1940, and, even then, the idea was roundly rejected by the Navy. It would later use its own method of developing linguists: it would go to the Ivy League colleges, assemble the cum laudes and phi beta kappas and offer them a commission (instead of the draft) in exchange for a year's intensive language training at Boulder, Colorado. The idea was a good one, because it produced, among others, Donald Keene, Ed Seidensticker and Robert Ward, some of the best Japanese scholars in the world today.

The Army was sloppier. Anyone, any White man, who went to Washington in 1940 or 1941, and said "Ohayo gozaimus," ("Good morning") or said he had been to Japan as a missionary's son or businessman or whatnot, was immediately given a commission in Military Intelligence. I had spent the year from March, 1940, to March, 1941, in Japan and, since there were no other tourists, and foreigners were scarce in that country which had been ostracized for the Shina Ji[k]en (China "Incident") since 1937 and the capture of all of China's main cities, I had no alternative but to learn Japanese or die of loneliness. I learned it so well, thanks again to the absence of English speakers in the country that, when I left Japan (reluctantly, but it had become impossible for an American to remain there, as war was drawing near), and I continued my travels on down to Indonesia, the Dutch there assumed I was a Japanese spy and put me under armed guard until a ship could be found to send me back to America.

Back in America, by September 1941, I was drafted. I didn't know about that trick of going to Washington and saying "Ohayo gozaimus." At the induction center, I filled out all the forms, and, when it came to languages, I noted that I knew well French, Russian, Japanese and Malay (as Bahasa Indonesia was known in those days). The Army was so screwed up then, that my language ability went unnoticed. I was a private, trained in the Artillery, and, when Pearl Harbor exploded, I was in basic training in Fort Bragg, given a quick leave and readied to be sent to Africa for eventual landing in Italy.

However, mirabile dictu, when I reported back to camp, a Major Dickey appeared out of nowhere and said "Ohayo gozaimus" to me. I immediately answered in astonishment, rather homesick for the language, the people and the country I had come to love. My Japanese was better than Dickey's, and we continued in English. From then on, Army life was more pleasant. I was instantly transferred to the Presidio in San Francisco, and was surrounded by Nisei and Kibei. All of us were privates, or at least none of us was an officer.

Then, we were sent to [Camp] Savage in cold Minnesota. Savage had been an Old Folks' Home before the Army took it over, and it was a mess. All of us worked long and hard to clean it out. Then, as our military training continued -- long hikes with full gear on our backs, PT, tattoo and taps -- we began, rather continued, our studies in Japanese. If the hikes had been John Aiso's idea, he was so conscientious, the Japanese lessons were an antidote. The instructors were marvelous. There was Tusky Tsukahira, a civilian. There was Tom Sakamoto, a staff sergeant, if I remember correctly, and others. Our classes consisted of Japanese-Americans and about 5 or 6 Hakujin--Matt Adams, Jurgenson, Charlie Fogg--I can't remember the rest. Some of the students were simply marvelous in Japanese. Others were simply awful.

The Hakujin officers, aside from Colonel Rassmussen and Major Dickey, were splendid men; those Hakujin who had gotten their commissions by going to Washington ahead of the hot pursuit of the draft, well, their Japanese was terrible, to put it politely. Trouble began to brew. Here were the Nisei, brilliant in Japanese far beyond the ken of the Hakujin officers. They were drafted privates or PFCs at best. Their parents were confined in camps, their worldly goods and homesteads sold at fractions of their value. And here they were, serving their country in the most invaluable way possible--intelligence.

Rasmussen and Dickey were alarmed at the growing resentment. They were, in addition to being regular Army officers, experienced men of the world, having been military attaches at various embassies throughout the world, notably Japan. It became imperative that some--the best--Nisei be commissioned. However, the Army moves on precedent, and never in its history had anyone ever been commissioned on the basis of language. Further complicating matters was the prejudice against the Japanese-Americans, who had yet to prove themselves in battle.

So, Rassmussen decided to make me a test case. I was the best of the Hakujin linguists, and he reasoned with the authorities in Washington, that, to keep this poor private a private was a grave injustice. So, I was commissioned on the basis of language and given my little gold bars. Rank mattered a lot in those days, and I well remember having a little tiff with Paul Aurel, one of those Washington "Okayo gozaimus" officers. He barked at me, "Look here, Faub, I'm a first lieutenant, and you're only a second lieutenant." That taught me a lot about human nature and the importance--to some--of having a rank. At any rate, Rassmussen championed me, and, once I was an officer on the basis of language, it became possible for the first time in the U.S. Army for all the more deserving, far better than I, Nisei and Kibei to be commissioned. And a rather sticky moment in Army history passed without incident.

I also remember in Australia, it became urgent for a Nisei to be given a medal of some sort. Morale, again, was low. Their work was so invaluable that it had to be recognized in some public way. Finally, in New Guinea, my friend Kozaki was wounded. He was strafed while ducking in a boat, as a Japanese plane flew over. We were all assembled in formation, and the citation--Purple Heart and Silver Star--for bravery for Kozaki was read out loud to all of us. He was wounded in the Hopoi sector of New Guinea, it said, and for the duration, "Hopoi" and "ass" were synonymous at ATIS.

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