They were “leaves blowing in the wind” between the United States where they were born and Japan, the country of their parents. Before and after the war, they suffered humiliating prejudice, but during World War II, they were America’s secret weapons. MIS Film Partners has produced a film that tells there story: “MIS Military Intelligence Service: Human Secret Weapon.” The movie opens today at the Laemmle in North Hollywood, but I write this review because the Pasadena area has a historic link with the Japanese American internment.
In Arcadia, the Santa Anita Racetrack was the site of an initial temporary relocation center where Japanese Americans from as far as Central California and San Diego were forced to live in horse stalls. Japanese and Japanese American nursery men and landscapers introduced different plants and even a different style of landscaping to the Southland. The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens has a Japanese garden and the Descanso Gardens has a lovely Japanese teahouse.
The movie “MIS” is about the war time accounts and present lives of the men and some women who served in the MIS. All are very old and it this story wasn’t told now, when would it be told? Directed by Japanese national Junichi Suzuki, the movie is a sensitive portrayal of the war on both sides–America and Japan. Suzuki had previously done a documentary, “Toyo’s Camera,” on the Little Tokyo photographer Toyo Miyatake who recorded life at Manzanar internment camp. He followed up that 2009 movie with the 2010 “442: Live with Honor, Die With Dignity” which was about the famous 100th Battalion/442 RCT.
American filmmakers have already visited two of these topics: Toyo Miyatake had been portrayed in the NBC 1976 movie “Farewell to Manzanar” as Zenahiro and played by Pat Morita; Van Johnson was the star of a 1951 movie about the 442nd, “Go for Broke!” The MIS has often been mentioned in conjunction with the 442nd, but never been given the spotlight in film or historical accounts. Suzuki has come, just a little late, but the film clearly shows how close to the wire we are historically in getting these accounts down. One of the interviewees died before editing on the film was completed.
Watching war movies and studying the war without understanding the role of the Japanese Americans in the Pacific region makes so much of what happens seem like luck or divine will. There certainly is luck involved in life, but there’s also the weapon of information. Five weeks before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S military had already begun preparations for war with Japan by forming a special school in were students learned specialized Japanese language.
The documentary begins with the 2011 New Year Reunion of the MIS club of Southern California. We see men and women, everyone of them old and gray. Enough of them remain alive now to remind us of the impact Southern California Nisei and Kibei had on World War II intelligence operations.
Nisei refers to the Japanese Americans who were born in America to Japanese parents. They were considered the second generations of Japanese Americans from the Japanese point of view. The Kibei were those ethnic Japanese who were born in America, but returned to Japan, usually to study. Often the eldest son and eldest daughter were sent back. Sometimes for whatever reason, more children were sent back for education.
Takejiro Higa remembers how he was one of three children taken back to Okinawa to visit his grandparents before the war. He was two and wouldn’t return to Hawaii until he was 16. He could barely speak English and was sent to a special school to learn basic English. He and his wife Fumie Higa are seen attending the opening ceremony of the new Pearl Harbor Center. The Higas were in Hawaii during the attack on Pearl Harbor (7 December 1941) and recall the incidents of that day.
Soon after the bombing the lives of mainland Nikkei (Japanese-Americans) changed. The executive order was made on 19 February 1942 and the internment process began. The plans were ironically drawn up in the Presidio in the San Francisco area. That would be the first site of the Defense Language Institute. The first class had about 60 students at Presidio in San Francisco and the ranks of the Defense Language Institute grew as the war progressed and the site of the institute changed, first to Camp Savage which originally was a homeless men’s camp and then to Fort Snelling in Minnesota.
The wartime need for people fluent in Japanese led to some odd situations such as Herbert Yanamura, 87, had one of his former teachers in the same class and had a hard time calling the man by his first name.
The students had varying command of Japanese and English. As a military operation, lights were supposed to be out at 10 p.m., but as language students know, sometimes you need to pull an all-nighter. Some people studied under their blankets using flashlights. One man pretended to have diarrhea so he could study in the latrine. With only one year of high school education in America, another soldier had to study English.
The documentary covers the debate of what was the best way to serve one’s country. Former Hawaii senator Daniel Inouye recalls how they wanted to induct him into the MIS, but he didn’t want to go. Inouye recounts, “I wanted to remain with the infantry…looking at documents would not suffice.” And that was the attitude of some people. The Japanese and the American military didn’t expect much from the Nisei MIS soldiers, but the MIS did more than just shuffle documents.
Thomas Sakamoto started as a student and was then made an MIS instructor. Becoming bored with teaching he joined the troops. It was a decision he later regretted. The footage here is gut-churning. He recalls how “all hell broke lose for three days and three nights” he spent in a foxhole with his body guard without eating, without sleeping. All MIS soldiers have a caucasian body guard so the wouldn’t be taken as an enemy soldier although some also felt it was to prevent possibly disloyalty.
While most of the translation was done by the Kibei, the Nisei helped polish the English. This included some major intelligence breakthroughs. Unlike Americans who are used to many people being able to understand their language, perhaps the Japanese were overconfident that the Americans wouldn’t be able to read their language. The Japanese army allowed their soldiers to write detailed diaries and messages weren’t encoded.
Did you know that there were Nisei spies working in the Pacific for the U.S.? That put the book “A Spy in their Midst” on my to-read list. Did you know that one of the big military successes was as a result of Nisei translators? MIS member Harold Fudenna (1918-1993) discovered the flight plans for Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto and special attack planes were sent, shooting down Yamamoto.
A historian commented that in the Pacific, Caucasian soldiers wanted to treat the Japanese very cruelly, but the Nikkei treated the captured soldiers with compassion, by offering a cigarette, or beer, sharing a song. And this shows a problem in Japanese military training. Soldiers weren’t supposed to be captured. They were supposed to commit suicide. So the Japanese military failed to instruct their soldiers in how to act if they were captured. This cultural issue should also be considered in the reverse: how the Japanese treated prisoners.
What’s most instructive was what an important role the Nisei in the MIS played in the invasion of Okinawa and the winning of the hearts and minds of the natives who were not particularly well-treated by the Japanese government (there’s long been a prejudice against the Okinawans). Yet in a way similar to the American Civil War, because the war pitted family members against each other, there were lasting feelings of shame and regret.
Remember the uproar when American or British diplomats pay respects at the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo. The shrine is dedicated to people who died in the service of Imperial Japan and that includes those killed during war, some of whom were judged to be war criminals during the post-World War II trials. This documentary gives us a different view of what the war meant and the factors that weighed heavily on Japan.
While the documentary isn’t perfect, Suzuki has preserved for us first hand accounts that were in danger of disappearing and some of the commentary is hearsay–meaning the filmmakers came too late to record the accounts of some Nisei who were in the MIS. The documentary does illustrate the importance of being bilingual, not underestimating your enemy and understanding cultural differences and that some of the people first labeled as enemies who were forced to live in places like the Santa Anita Racetrack were, until now, the untold heroes of the war. The secret is out and it’s about time.
“MIS” is in Japanese and English with subtitles. Currently only showing at the Laemmle in NoHo.
[In researching this documentary, I noted that there was a monument dedicated to Justice Radha Binod Pal erected in 2005. I read Richard R. Minear’s 1971 book “Victor’s Justice: The Tokyo War Crimes Trial” and remembered Pal.]