The Significant Contribution of Japanese-American Linguists in World War Two

Jhemmylrut Teng
U.S Military Intelligence Service Language School - Japanese Americans 4th Class, Fall 1944(Source: National WWII Museum)

During World War Two, the Allied forces had difficulty in fighting the Axis power in the Pacific Theater. Imperial Japan caught the Allies unprepared when they bombed Pearl Harbor and quickly occupied the Asia Pacific region.

Because of such an attack, the Japanese immigrants residing in the United States endured the consequences. But their Japanese American children served the U.S. military. They were assigned to the most crucial mission of spying against their heritage.

Despite the prejudices they had endured in the United States, these Japanese-Americans swore allegiance to America, the country they called home. In their hearts and minds, they're Americans.

These Japanese-Americans were the Allied forces' secret weapon during the war.

Nisei: American Born, Japanese Heritage

Nisei pertains to the children of Japanese immigrants. They were born and educated in the United States; therefore, the law considered them legit Americans. Many of these Nisei lived in Hawaii and California.

Japanese immigration to California began in significant numbers in the mid-1880s when the Japanese government first allowed emigration. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 had created a shortage of cheap Asian labor, and employers encouraged Japanese immigration to fill the gap.

In 1898, more Japanese moved to California. They came from Hawaii when the U.S. annexation of Hawaii allowed them to travel without passports. Although the Japanese population in San Francisco was small relative to the Chinese, immigrants from Japan suffered from similar prejudice and racism.

Similar to Chinese-American children, Nisei were barred from attending school with White Americans in San Francisco. They were encouraged to study in similar schools with the Chinese in Chinatown.

The Japanese, however, were unwilling to have their children attend school with Chinese students and appealed to the Japanese embassy, which, in turn, appealed to President Theodore Roosevelt. The President, concerned about foreign relations with Japan, convinced the San Francisco school board to rescind the order.
Brocade of Sacramento Valley, 1911(Source: California Historical Society)

In return, Roosevelt signed the "Gentlemen's Agreement" with Japan in 1908, limiting Japanese immigration to the United States.

The Japanese government faithfully carried out its part of the agreement. The San Francisco school board repealed the segregation order. However, the bias and discrimination against the Japanese in California continued.

Nisei in the Army

Just like any other Americans, many Niseis wanted to serve their homeland - the United States. Even though their parents or relatives were Japanese immigrants, these Nisei had less idea about Japan. Most of them were already westernized and grew up like other American children.

Before World War II, the United States military had invested little in establishing a Japanese-language intelligence corps. However, there was talk of recruiting Nisei to help with intelligence overseas.

In the summer of 1941, the Army already had 3,700 Nisei. However, only a few of them were fluent enough in Japanese to serve as intelligence workers.

With the growing tension with Imperial Japan in the Asia Pacific region, the U.S. military recognized the importance of having Japanese interpreters and speakers to be deployed overseas. However, they didn't have many people who could articulate the language. They were running out of time as they were about to enter a war against Japan.
The inaugural MISLS class at the Presidio of San Francisco in 1942(Source: Wikimedia)

So in November 1941, armed with $2,000 and four Nisei language teachers, the Army began its first Japanese language school in an airport hangar in San Francisco.

Forty-five students graduated from the program in May 1942—a full quarter of the class had failed because the program was challenging.

The Bombing of Pearl Harbor

When the Japanese forces bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Japanese immigrants carried the repercussion.

The U.S. government claimed that it was forced by public hysteria, agitation by the press and radio, and military pressure to establish the War Relocation Authority by executive order on March 18, 1942, and this agency administered the mass evacuation mandated by Executive Order 9066.

This “evacuation” was accompanied by prejudice, and Nisei, who was already in the military, was viewed as potential spies and threats. Many were discharged, including those Nisei who graduated from the first language school.
Japanese-Americans were registered in San Francisco before being sent to internment centers in 1942(Source: New York Times)

Under the Western Defense Command jurisdiction, 110,000 Japanese Americans, including a number who were still aliens, during the spring and summer of 1942 were placed in 10 wartime relocation centers located in isolated areas from the Sierra Nevada to the Mississippi River.

The sparsely furnished military barracks in these camps afforded meager “work opportunities” for adults and a minimal education for children.
Nisei children pledging allegiance to the American flag at San Francisco’s Raphael Weill Elementary School in 1942(Source: New York Times)

Since the Japanese-Americans had been excluded from the Pacific coast, the Army decided to move its school from San Francisco to Minnesota. It is now known as the Military Intelligence Service Language School (MISLS).

More than a hundred Nisei were recruited from internment camps, and they were trained as linguists in MISLS. These Nisei were primarily volunteers, and they swore loyalty to the United States even though their parents were interned in camps.

Eventually, more than 6,000 Nisei would graduate as Military Intelligence Service (MIS) linguists.
Japanese American Students in MISLS(Source: National Education Center)
Japanese American Students in MISLS(Source: National Education Center)

The U.S. Secret Weapon

Eventually, Roosevelt lifted the restrictions on people of Japanese descent serving in the military. And after the individual screening to prove their loyalty, 17,600 Nisei were accepted for service in the U.S. armed forces.

Meanwhile, those Nisei who graduated in the language school started doing their mission by listening to communications, translated documents handed over by prisoners, and helped the U.S. Army during interrogation. Most of them were assigned to different units all over the Pacific Theater.
Phil Ishio (second from left) and Arthur Ushiro (Ishio’s left) interrogating Japanese POW in Buna, New Guinea, on January 2, 1943(Source: U.S. Signal Corps)

In 1944, two Nisei linguists experienced their most important mission. When they translated the classified documents of the Japanese forces - the "Z Plan."

Mineichi Koga, the commander-in-chief of the Japanese fleet, devised the plan intended to devastate the U.S. Pacific Fleet through a decisive battle in the Philippine Sea. It included details on all Japanese naval forces and their assignments—valuable information that was closely sheltered.

However, due to a typhoon over the Philippines, Koga's plane crashed. His chief-of-staff, Shigeru Fukudome, survived but was captured by the Allied forces. The Japanese troops were frantic in searching for the "Z Plan" documents. They started burning local villages and civilians in search of those vital documents.

Fortunately, a Filipino fisherman found it inside a wooden box. He handed it over to Filipino guerillas, and they gave it to the American troops. The documents were delivered to Australia; the two Nisei linguists - Yoshikazu Yamada and George Yamashiro - translated the documents.

At that time, prejudice against Nisei was still evident on the field. They weren't allowed to translate battle plans and military tactics. But Yamada and Yamashiro were given clearance to do the translation job.

And with their assistance, the Allies gained advantages in the Battle of Saipan and Burma. They also helped with the war in Europe by translating communications between Japan's ambassador to Germany and Tokyo.
MIS Linguist Army Sgt. Teruto “Terry” Tsubota, center, with armband, interrogates Okinawan civilians during the Battle of Okinawa(Source: Stars and Stripes)

These Nisei participated in every significant campaign against Japan, often doing much more than translating as they engaged in active combat as well.

One of them was Grant Jiro Hirabayashi, who was before assigned to the military school language in Minnesota.

He was eventually embedded in the famed commandos of Merrill's Marauders, a unit of soldiers who slogged their way through the Burmese jungles to overcome the Japanese occupiers. He served in both intelligence and combat capacities, translating captured documents and fighting where needed.

In an interview with the Veterans History Project, Hirabayashi told his story from the time he heard the public announcement about Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor; his separation from his parents because they were placed in internment camps; his experience in the military language school, up to his deployment in Burma.
Grant Jiro Hirabayashi of Sino Translation and Interrogation Center, 1945(Source: Veteran History Project)

He was later assigned to India and China towards the latter days of the war. There he interrogated a Japanese Prisoners of War (POW), one of whom accused him of betraying his people, his heritage.

"There's this one [Japanese] officer, he was captured by the Indian soldiers. And he made an attempt to escape, that's when he was hit in the thigh... he was brought in on a stetcher, he was in a very bad shape. So, I told the escort to take the POW for medical attention and I want him back early in the morning. By the following morning he was brought to me and I asked him, 'how was your medical treatment?' He looked me in the eye and said, 'You are a traitor!' and I said, 'I am an American soldier! If you gonna cut my vein, I am sure same blood would flow. But I am an American soldier. I am fighting for America. You are fighting for your country. Don't you call me a traitor!'" - Grant Jiro Hirabayashi

Another one was Warren Michio Tsuneishi; his story was similar to any other Nisei. When the Japanese forces bombed Pearl Harbor, Warren's family was evacuated to Heart Mountain, a Japanese internment facility in Wyoming. But Warren craved freedom and the chance to serve the U.S. Army despite his family's confinement.

So, he volunteered for the MISLS and served in the Pacific. He was translating obtained documents that gave U.S. forces a significant advantage in regaining the Philippines and securing Okinawa until the Allies won the battle in the Pacific Theater.
Warren Tsuneishi (left) with his Filipino buddy in the Philippines, where they served as translators for U.S. military intelligence.(Source: Veteran History Project)

Late Recognition

There’s no doubt that Nisei translators helped the United States win the war - they were indeed the Allies secret weapon against Imperial Japan.

During post-war, they also played a critical part in war crimes trials and the U.S. occupation of Japan. These Japanese-Americans linguists translated 20.5 million pages during the war, but it took decades for their contributions to become known. It was only in 1970s, when their missions during the war were declassified for public knowledge.
President Barack Obama signs the Nisei Congressional Gold Medal Bill into law, Nisei Veterans were witnessing the signing on October 5, 2010(Source: White House Photo)

President Barack Obama signed the Nisei Congressional Glod Medal Bill into law in 2010. He officially recognized the valor and loyalty of the Japanese-American veterans who served in the U.S. military during World War Two despite the discrimination and tribulations they had endured.

“We are all grateful to you for everything you have done for our country. Because of your outstanding bravery, it shines a spotlight on the wrong that was done to Japanese Americans during World War II. And you know that has had a lasting impact on the country as a whole because it reminded us that this country is built not on a particular race or religion or ethnicity, but it is based on creed and ideals that you have all followed. And so you know that what you did was important not only to the world, but it was important to reshaping how America thinks about itself. For that we are very, very thankful.” -- President Barack Obama, February 18, 2014, White House, to Nisei Veterans

In November 2011, the Military Intelligence Service linguists and two Nisei military units were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. But due to the secret nature of their heroism, their contributions to the United States are still little known.

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I am a PR officer and a professional journalist with a master's degree in international development. I write history, geopolitics, food, and culture. Since I am a member of the API community, I make sure to highlight our stories to promote diversity and create awareness for cultural understanding.


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