Updated: May 8
On December 26, 1950, David Akira Itami fatally shot himself. In Japan, the popular consensus was that the despair leading to Akira’s suicide was caused by problems of reconciling his two homelands, the United States and Japan. Those who have studied the matter, however, have suggested that, for Akira, these problems were especially complex.
Akira was one of approximately 6,000 Japanese Americans (Nisei) who served in the Military
Intelligence Service of the US Army during World War II; he was especially valuable to the army, because he was a Kibei-Nisei—one of those Japanese Americans who had been sent as children by their Japanese born parents to attend school for three or more years in Japan, before returning to the States as young adults. (The word Kibei translates as “go home to America”; Nisei means “second generation” Japanese American.) The Kibei-Nisei would play a vital and controversial role in the Second World War. As soldiers with an intimate knowledge of the Japanese language and culture, their service in the military intelligence section of the US Army was absolutely critical. But there was also an abiding suspicion that
the loyalties of some might not rest 100% on the American side. After all, these were not young men who, like so many German and Austrian emigrants, had fled persecution in their birth land; they had, instead, lived generally happy lives in Japan.
David Akira Itami and his parents, 1912
Akira was born in Oakland, California. Because his parents had emigrated to the United States from Japan, they were unable, by law, to acquire American citizenship. Akira, however, was born in the United States and therefore automatically became an American citizen at birth. This situation was a generational one, emphasized by the fact that, after a wave of tens of thousands of Japanese immigrants had poured into the United States, an Asian Exclusion Act of 1924 barred further entry of Japanese immigrants. As a consequence, the younger generation of Japanese-Americans, or “Nisei,”were all citizens; their parents, who were known as “Issei,”were not. These parents often remained rooted in Japanese tradition, whereas most Nisei grew up speaking English and eagerly embracing American popular culture.
The parents of the smaller sub-group of Kibei-Nisei had registered their children as dual citizens of America and Japan and sent these children to Japan to learn Japanese culture and to get a partial education there before returning to America as young adults. Akira was one of these. His father, Jojiro Itami, had been twenty when he had left his home in Kajiki, a small coastal town in Kagoshima Prefecture, on the southwestern island of Kyushu, and moved to California with the dream of becoming a successful shopkeeper. At the time Akira was born, in 1911, his parents were engaged in a desperate struggle to keep their dry cleaning business going amid rising anti-Japanese sentiment in the East Oakland area. Consequently, their decision to send Akira to Japan as a child was based at least as much on economics as on national sentiment; the positive exchange rate between the dollar and the yen was a strong motivating factor.1 Just before Akira’s second birthday he was sent to Kajiki to live with his paternal aunt. He would remain in Japan until he was nineteen.
Because he was sent to Japan at such an unusually young age, Akira would not learn English until he returned to the States as a mature young man. Kajiki briefly made news when the nearby Mount Sakurajima violently erupted in 1914, and three-year old Akira had to temporarily evacuate the town with his aunt. Otherwise, Kajiki was a fairly nondescript
rural town in an area with a rich samurai heritage. Akira was enrolled there in the local Dajo Primary School; here, according to classmates interviewed many years later, Akira demonstrated such a remarkable intellect that he was encouraged to skip his final year at the school and enter the prestigious Kajiki Prefectural Middle School one year early. There, in addition to the traditional school courses, traditional martial arts (fencing and archery) were taught, as well as the reading of classical Chinese texts and poetry. One of his classmates at the middle school remarked that Akira was such an exceptional student that he “made all his older classmates look bad.”2 Another remembered Akira’s extraordinary skill in deciphering complex classic Chinese texts.
As the school’s star pupil, Akira’s teachers could expect him to gain easy entry
into any of Japan’s elite universities or military academies. He was limited,
however, by finances, and could apply only to tuition-free institutions. First, he
applied to two state-run military officer schools: to the Imperial Army
Preparatory School and to the Imperial Naval Academy, but was turned down
by both, probably because of his dual citizenship with America. He then
applied to, and was accepted at, the Daito Bunka Gakuin (Academy of Greater
East Asian Culture) in Tokyo. This small liberal arts college had been
established in 1923 with the mission of focusing its learning on Asian rather
than Western influences. By offering degrees in Asian culture and civilization,
it fostered pan-Asian specialists. For Akira it had the benefit of not only
providing him with a tuition-free education, but also with stipends that
covered his room and board. Here he studied Chinese classics, arts, and Indian
philosophy. He also joined the school’s archery team. As journalist Tomoko
Otake has put it, “Had he lived somewhere else in some other time, he might have been a renowned scholar of Chinese classics, in which he was an
outstanding student.[…] Instead, Akira Itami found himself caught between
two countries when Japan-U.S. relations nose dived in the first half of the 20th century.”3
Akira Itami, age 16
Although Akira excelled in his studies, he had to break them off short of
graduation and return to the States in 1931 because of his mother’s failing
health and his parents’ inability to continue even the modest financial support
they had been sending to his aunt in Japan. Ironically, when he returned to the
States at age 19, he was nearly the same age his father had been when he had
initially immigrated to America.
Until 1931, Akira had been raised and schooled exclusively as a proud young
Japanese citizen. Furthermore, his education at the Daito Bunka Gakuin had
instilled in him strong pan-Asian sentiments that, unfortunately, were already beginning to be usurped and distorted by Japanese militarists in a program of aggressive colonial expansion. Upon his return to the States, Akira’s life now lurched in the opposite direction.
The Japanese had called him Akira; white Americans would know him as David.
Akira’s first duty, as a Nisei, was to learn English, since he had spoken and written only Japanese until his return to California. Given his extraordinary intellectual skills, he was, in fact, able to do this remarkably quickly and remarkably well. It would be a different matter acquiring the American cultural orientation of the Nisei population. The Nisei in California had grown up on American teen culture, a culture completely foreign to Akira, who was now entering the States as an adult. He saw that fewer than one in ten Nisei spoke reasonably fluent Japanese, and that most were indifferent to their Japanese heritage.
Akira was now completely unfunded, and it was necessary for him to get a well-paying job. Anti-Japanese racism was rising to dangerous levels in California, and it had become extremely difficult for those of Japanese ancestry to find work outside of farming or work in the local ethnic economy. But the ethnic economies were also drying up in the “Little Tokyos” of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and other west coast cities, because immigration was now closed to the Japanese and because the younger generation of Japanese-Americans favored western fashion. Well-paying jobs were few and far between, especially for those not yet fluent in English. But in Alaska salmon runs had been increasing dramatically, and Akira left Oakland in the summer of 1932 to work at a cannery there. There he exercised his first leadership role, when he got involved with the Asian immigrant community of cannery workers and served as a spokesman for them when they negotiated their summer wages. Alaska would remain an important chapter of his life. It was his first experience as a factory worker, and he had gained insights living there in a multi-ethnic community. That summer inspired him to write poetry and a short story Roppu [“The Rope”] about his cannery work.
He returned to California that fall, but, rather than returning to Oakland, settled in Los Angeles, which offered more opportunity for study and for meaningful work. And it did not take him long to transition from work in the cannery to a position of influence in the Los Angeles Japanese American community. First, he taught Japanese language classes at the Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles, as part of his desire to awaken Nisei interest and pride in their cultural heritage. He sat in on classes at Pasadena High School to improve his English, then took courses at Los Angeles City College in 1933.
In 1934 he found employment on the editorial staff of the bilingual newspaper Kashu Mainichi Shinbun/The Japan-California Daily News; this newspaper was the brainchild of Sei Fujii, a graduate of USC Law School who, as an immigrant from Japan, was denied a California State Bar license. Fujii put all his energies into working as a social justice activist for America’s Japanese immigrants. In addition to founding a Japanese American newspaper and radio station in Los Angeles, he helped bring several cases to the Supreme Court that expanded the legal rights of Japanese immigrants. Akira would work at the paper until late March, 1942, when the newspaper folded.
Akira Itami, 1936
In 1935 Akira renounced his Japanese citizenship, but not his Asian heritage. In 1936, in fact, he helped found a Japanese American Association of Poets, many of them Kibei, who produced a literary magazine, Shukaku [“The Harvest”].4 Many of the artistic pieces in this
journal expressed the Kibeis’ concern about Japan’s military expansion and the negative effect it was having on Japanese American relations. It was through his work with these Kibei poets that Akira met his future wife.
Akira took an eleven-month break from his newspaper work in 1935 so that he could work as a translator at the Japanese Embassy in Washington, D.C. For part of that time he served as secretary to Major-General Kenji Matsumoto, the embassy’s military attache.5 Upon his return to Los Angeles, he remarked with approval that Japanese diplomatic officials were beginning to get interested in the potential for cooperating with the Nisei community, and that they might begin to replace the Americans currently employed in the Japanese legation with trained Nisei. It was his dream that the Nisei could begin to prove their worth—to Japan and to white America—by capitalizing on their transnational experiences.
When he returned to his position as Japanese section editor for the Kashu Mainichi Shinbun, Akira advanced this aim by offering a prize to the Nisei who could write in Japanese on “Watakushi no Kibou,” or “My Hope.” He also developed a daily column, “Air Mail,” in which he used his language skills to analyze articles and editorials published in the American, the Chinese, and the Japanese press. Here, too, Akira was concerned with presenting a transnational view of affairs, and in preventing the rising racism on the West Coast from causing the Japanese Americans to feel shame. He faulted the American popular
press for aggravating anti-Asian sentiments in the United States through its demonization of Japan. He even suggested that the media was a leading cause for the deterioration of political relations between the two countries and accused yellow journalism of making a “concerted effort to push for a war” between America and Japan. These articles would be interpreted by Akira’s critics as a defense of Japanese militarism.6
Still, Akira’s work was considered so essential to the newspaper that, on March 22, 1937 he was given only a 16-hour leave to get married, with the promise of a longer honeymoon later in the summer. His bride was Kimiko Yano, also a Kibei, who had been born in Hawaii, then been taken by her mother to Japan, where finances were extremely tight and she had endured a childhood of struggle. Her mother had sent her to nursing school there, so that she could have a profession and not suffer as she had. Kimiko was the only one in her family to return to the States, where she would become a nurse in Los Angeles.7
On May 6, 1938, she gave birth to a baby girl.
Akira now became an active member of the Kibei division of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), America’s largest and oldest Asian American civil rights organization, which lobbied for laws to expand the citizenship rights of Japanese Americans and to treat them as a strong ethnic presence within American society. Akira worked on educational programming in the Kibei division for those who, like himself, came to the United States with no working knowledge of English. And in 1940 he become editor of the Kibei division publication “Shimin no Tomo” [“Citizen”], which was published in LA, and was written in Japanese by and for Kibei, with material on current and local topics.
But Akira had not endeared himself to leftist members of the Kibei-Nisei community through his articles in the Kashu Mainichi. There he had written that Japan and America shared a common interest in combatting communism, and he had expressed his conviction that the United States had more to fear from Russia than from Japan. This had won the undying hostility of the communist branch of the JACL Kibei Division, especially when, in October 1940, Akira used his authority as vice-president of the JACL Kibei Division to expel some of its communist members. This was, unfortunately, interpreted in the Nisei communist press as proof of Akira’s support for Japanese Imperialism.
But he continued to be actively involved in JACL’s programming in Los Angeles in his desire to promote transnationalism. In October 1940, for example, when the Nisei were forced to register for the draft, Akira gave a special workshop to the members of the Kibei division on how to do this. And in 1941 he took over the planning leadership for “Pioneer Night” during the JACL’s Nisei week in Los Angeles. By highlighting attractive ethnic offerings of food and crafts, and by including a beauty pageant and parade, this annual Nisei week was designed to draw white Americans as well as Nisei into Little Tokyo shops and restaurants.
Akira was now the acknowledged head of the Los Angeles Kibei Division. But the leadership of the JACL changed, and when its new and powerful anti-Axis Committee demanded that Kibei and Issei sever all contact with Japan, Akira was alarmed. The implication was that the Japanese Americans must cut all ethnic and familial ties with Japan. And it was contrary to his dream of transnationalism. Then, on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese launched its surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, west coast Issei and Nisei immediately became suspect as spies and traitors. Fishermen were especially suspect, because it was considered possible that they could communicate with—and carry supplies to—Japanese submarines
off the California coast. Community leaders were rounded up and removed to detention centers. In all, more than 5,500 Issei men were rounded up by the FBI on the evening of December 7th.
One of these men was Sei Fujii, publisher and managing editor of the Kashu Mainichi. Akira took over his work, continuing publication of the Japanese language section of the paper while toeing a careful line, since the JACL anti-Axis Committee had pledged itself to monitor all Japanese American community newspapers for fascist tendencies. Ironically, Akira now found himself threatened with censorship not by white Americans, but by his fellow Nisei. He immediately dropped all favorable commentaries about Japan and appealed in the paper, instead, to American patriotism.8
Then, on February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. Although this order did not specifically mention American citizens of Japanese descent, it did give the Secretary of War and his designated military commanders the right to prescribe certain military areas in the country and, at their discretion, to “exclude” “any or all persons” from residing in those areas. The order also authorized the construction of internment camps to house those to be excluded from these military areas.
In a final editorial before publication of Kashu Mainichi was suspended on March 21, Akira joined the paper’s acting publisher and English section editor in urging Japanese Americans to comply willingly with Roosevelt’s Executive Order. At the same time, Akira sent a letter to the editor of Time Magazine. In this letter, which was published on March 16th, he wrote, in part, “I […] believe that it is our duty to move inland so that we may relieve the Army [of] the burden of keeping watch over us when it must concentrate its full power on guarding the important coast. […W]e should not be in [the] way of the Army when it needs every ounce of manpower to prevent more break-through of the enemy on far distant front lines, and we, as loyal citizens of this country, can better serve the nation by working on inland farms
instead of remaining here to increase the worry and anxiety of our fellow Caucasian citizens on the coast…” He addressed a major fear of hs: “We Nisei on the California coast certainly do not wish to be looked upon as potential saboteurs or fifth columnists. Neither do we have any desire to be charged responsible if and when any single bomb is dropped here […].”
Some of his critics considered this shift self-serving and hypocritical. But Akira put his money where his mouth was. Two days after Kashu Mainichi suspended publication, he was among 85 Los Angeles Nisei to join an advance work party that arrived at the Owens Valley Reception Center in Manzanar, California to help prepare for the arrival of the detainees. Thousands of detainees would enter the camp in the days that followed, including Akira’s wife Kimiko and their four-year-old daughter Michi. Under the terms of Executive Order 9066, 112,000 persons of Japanese ancestry were removed from their homes on the West
Coast and interned in ten “War Relocation Centers” spread across the nation. They had to leave behind their homes, their businesses, and most of their possessions; they were allowed to take with them only items that they could pack and carry with them.
Manzanar was America’s first war relocation center. It was eventually able to house 10,000 detainees; the residential area covered about one square mile. Here 36 blocks of fourteen 20- by 100-foot tarpaper barracks were hastily constructed; each barrack held four “apartments” measuring 20- by 25-feet. These apartments had thin partitions, but no ceilings, so that conversations carried from one apartment to the next.9 Each apartment was furnished with up to 8 cots, an oil-burning stove, and a single overhead lightbulb. When Akira and his family moved in, sand still blew in around the door frames and up through
knotholes in the cheap wooden flooring. Private spaces in the apartments were created by hanging up blankets as room partitions.
Each of the 36 residential blocks had a mess hall, men’s and women’s latrines and showers, laundry and ironing rooms, a recreation building, and an oil storage tank.10
The camp was intended to be self-sustaining. Internees were given jobs appropriate to their skills: as teachers, carpenters, cooks, barbers, gardeners, nurses, and the like. Eventually livestock was introduced to the farming area. All, of course, was under the supervision of white administrators. Akira lost no time in becoming an important figure at the camp. He and a colleague provided the camp administrators with a plan for an “Information Office” to help recent arrivals make adjustments to camp life and to serve as an intermediary between white camp administrators and Japanese internees. Their plan was accepted, and the new office was established to handle resident complaints and suggestions, take applications for employment, and write letters in English for those residents who spoke only Japanese.
Manzanar War Relocation Center, 1943. Photograph by Ansel Adams
Akira also served as Japanese translator for the camp newspaper, The Manzanar Free Press. “He did all the calligraphy by hand,” his supervisor recalled. “He would do all that scratching on a stencil and we'd mimeograph it. That went out to all the Issei who couldn't read English.”11 Later, when block leaders replaced the information officers, Akira became a block leader and served as executive secretary of the block leaders council.
He was careful to represent all Nisei interests. At an open forum held at the camp in July, for example, he anonymously submitted nine questions in writing to the camp’s assistant project director, asking among other things, when the government was going to provide the blocks with the double roofing that had been promised as protection against the winter weather. He also asked when the promised furniture would arrive for the barracks, and when a fire system would be installed. One of his questions, which the Assistant Project Director called “loaded,” asked: “If the Government insists that meetings must be held primarily in English, it means that those who speak Japanese are denied the right to express themselves at meetings, does it not?” The reply was that the internees would be “damn fools” if they didn’t hold these meetings in English. “If you are aware of the constant pressure from people on the outside, you will understand why,” he stated. “When you hold meetings in Japanese, […] to one who doesn’t understand the language you sound as if you’re mad about something. Persons on the outside demand to know if you’re conspiring to blow up the aqueduct or some such things. When we’re asked if that isn’t so—IF your meetings are in Japanese, we can’t give them assurance that such is not the case.”12
Throughout his stay at the camp, Akira continued to mediate on behalf of its Japanese speakers. In order to prevent discord among residents because of distinctions in wages, he suggested that the camp administration adopt a single pay scale, in order to do away with class distinctions.13 But a much larger rift had developed there: between those who were openly hostile to the United States because of their loss of homes and businesses and their forced deportation to Manzanar, and those who felt that it was their duty, as good Japanese Americans, to accept internment as part of their contribution to the American war effort.
Clearly, Akira belonged to this second group. He wrote a second letter to Time Magazine in May, this time praising the treatment of the Japanese Americans at Manzanar. “The condition of this camp is just about the best that we can expect under the circumstances,” he wrote. “The Army ration we are given daily is better than we ever expected (they say that it costs 48¢ a day per person). And the Japanese Nisei boys are saying that they should not forget the fact that they are Americans, even if some fellow Americans may think that they should be treated as political prisoners. The Federal officials who are administering this
camp are very courteous and considerate toward all of us. We do not have a jail here yet, and the administration says that it will try to let the Japanese govern themselves as much as possible. A report that the evacuees here will not be paid more than $21 a month did very little, if any, damage to the morale of the evacuees. They are now saying that since they are being well housed, well fed and protected by the Government, money does not mean much.” Still, even the most ardent Nisei patriot might have balked about the environment that Akira described at Manzanar. “We have occasional sandstorms here in Owens Valley,” he confessed, “but the climate is very good for our health. We are enjoying our new home to the utmost, and under the snow-covered High Sierra mountains "our life is just wonderful…." 14 He chose not to mention the loss of privacy at the camp and the breakdown there of formerly strong family structures.
But Akira remained at the camp only seven months. In October Colonel Kai Rasmussen, commander of the Military Intelligence Service Language School at Camp Savage, Minnesota, came to Manzanar to recruit Japanese language instructors. He immediately hired Akira and two other Nisei as civilian instructors; the three men left Manzanar as the “very first volunteers from relocation centers” to be recruited by the US Military.15 Akira’s departure was noted with disfavor by two opposing factions at the camp: by the anti-Axis JACL members who branded Akira a hypocrite simply eager to improve his situation, and by a pro-Japan faction called the Black Dragon that branded him a traitor. This pro-Japan
faction harassed Akira’s wife and daughter to the extent that friends and supporters had to step in to protect them.16
The Camp Savage faculty. Akira Itami is standing in the back row, eighth from the left. Colonel Kai Rasmussen is seated in front of him, eighth from the left in the second row.
The winter of 1942 was a particularly cold one in Minnesota, with temperatures dropping at one point to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit. This came as a particular shock to the Nisei students coming from California and Hawaii. The school’s curriculum was also daunting: classes, which were held daily from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and again from 7:00 until 9:00 p.m., included courses in conversational Japanese, army slang, Japanese military codes, military terminology, and battle tactics and techniques. The men also were taught to read and write Japanese. Examinations were held every Saturday.
The Nisei students had a lot to learn. A 1941 survey of 3,700 Nisei had found that only 3% of them were fluent in Japanese, 4% were proficient, and 3% had the ability to be made proficient with enough training.17 Worse yet, most of the Nisei who possessed oral proficiency were unable to read and write the language. The program, then, was an extremely intense catch-up program for its Nisei students. They were expected to learn in a few months what ordinarily took years of study. These language skills were desperately needed so that the school’s graduates could serve the army as communications monitors,
interrogators of prisoners, as translators and interpreters. The strongest students specialized in order of battle; these men had to specialize in written Japanese and be able to understand different literary and handwriting styles so that they could collect crucial war information from captured war documents, letters, and diaries.
When it became clear that Akira would be teaching at Camp Savage for the foreseeable future, he brought his wife and daughter in to join him. They would make a permanent home in North Minneapolis. In the months that followed, more and more students were brought to Camp Savage for intensive language instruction. By August 1944, the school had outgrown the camp’s facilities, and the program was moved to Fort Snelling, 18 miles away. Akira opted not to make this move, but enlisted in the Army, instead, on March 31, 1944. With this move he finally earned the grudging respect of the anti-Axis Nisei, since, by taking a significant pay cut and subjecting himself to Army discipline, there could be no more talk that he was acting in his own interest.
The Army quickly recognized the value of their new recruit,
and Akira was sent to Washington, D.C. to work for the
Military Intelligence Service (MIS), translating and
deciphering Japanese codes. The Japanese customarily used
local Japanese dialects in their oral communication of
military intelligence, since they could be confident that
American linguists, trained in the standard Tokyo Japanese,
could not possibly understand them. And one of the dialects
they used was the southern Kagoshima dialect, which was
difficult to decipher even by Japanese not native to that area.
Sketch for the Military Branch History of PACMIRS
Akira, of course, had grown up with this dialect, and this
made his work vital to the American forces. When, for
example, the MIS intercepted a conversation in this dialect
between Maki Hideji, head of the Broadcasting Section of
the Foreign Ministry’s Intelligence Bureau, and a Japanese
attaché in Berlin. Itami not only could translate the
message; he knew the Japanese diplomat personally. It was
Sogi Takateru, Itami’s mentor in Kagoshima, who had
procured financial aid for him so that he could return to
California in 1931. The message was an important one: it
consisted of a report from the European Theater and a
discussion about the strategic positioning of the Japanese fleet in the Pacific.18
The Military Intelligence Service realized that it faced a unique situation in the war with Japan. The branch history of the Pacific Military Intelligence Research Section, or PACMIRS, put it this way: “The Allies had less background information about Japan when hostilities began than about any other major enemy. […] For a great part of the war, information obtained from prisoners of war was virtually nil because there were virtually no prisoners. Against this was the fact that the Japanese had their own peculiar belief in the security of their language and for this reason entrusted much more military information to written records than is usual for a country at war.”19 Captured Japanese documents, then, were of vital importance to the Allies. Thus a plan was developed by the Military Intelligence Service for the establishment of a centralized translating agency; this agency, which was initially formed in Washington, moved to Camp Ritchie, Maryland, in September, 1944.
Akira came to Camp Ritchie as part of PACMIRS. He had already made himself indispensable by starting to file and index Japanese reference material in Washington; at Ritchie he was transferred to the Operational Intelligence Section, or Japanese reference library. The official branch history of PACMIRS acknowledged Akira’s work this way: “It had been recognized that Japanese manuals, regulations, War Ministry Orders, etc. were a valuable source of intelligence and Sgt. Itami’s research in the field of Japanese official publications was made the basis of several Special Projects […].”20 He was given a unique position at PACMIRS: the official history lists him as the only person assigned to “research” in its library section.
He was also the only Nisei, and the only noncommissioned officer, to be mentioned by name in the official history of PACMIRS.
Akira Itami, 1946, after
receiving the Legion of Merit.
Akira’s work with the Military Intelligence Service and with PACMIRS was rewarded in August 1946, when Akira received the
Legion of Merit. This award is the highest honor given to noncombatant American military service personnel. Akira received this honor because he had “assembled a reference library of more than 4,000 Japanese official orders, manuals and regulations, indexed under some 25,000 subject headings, which answered numerous requests for intelligence information unavailable elsewhere.”
Furthermore, “exercising a keen knowledge of the Japanese language
and military affairs, Itami […] extracted from his library much original data on Japanese high command orders, army technical research institutes and recruiting and replacement systems, ‘thereby contributing greatly to the war effort in the Pacific’.”21 When asked about the honor, his wife Kimiko said: “I am so grateful he has proved himself. When people said, ‘You are Kibei. We can’t trust you,’ it hurt him as if he had been called a traitor. Now they know. He, also, is grateful.”22
Akira’s work continued. As soon as the war with Japan ended, he was sent to Iwo Jima and Okinawa for four months, to compile the information that Nisei members of the Military Intelligence Service had gathered from prisoners of war — from more than 800 on Iwo Jima alone. This material was critical not only for analysis at home in the States, but also for use in the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, more popularly known as the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal. This tribunal first convened on April 29, 1946 and ran well over two and
a half years until its adjournment on November 12, 1948.
Akira, in the meantime, was discharged from the army on April 10, 1946, but remained a War Department civilian employee. He and three other Kibei from the Allied Power’s Translation and Interpretation Section (ATIS) were assigned to the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal as monitors of the Japanese interpreters.
Although there was no ranking of monitors, Akira was treated as the lead monitor. The monitors’ task was to correct any errors in the translation of documentary evidence and in the interpretation of courtroom testimony. It was an extremely strenuous and stressful business to focus constantly on each and every rendering of Japanese words and phrases into English. Although the court had wished to have simultaneous translation, the difficulty of the Japanese language required that statements and translations occur sequentially. The
translators and monitors were seated in a glass “cage” in a mezzanine of the courtroom; there the monitors had access to a button which they then could push to interrupt proceedings with a correction or refined translation of a testimony statement.
Akira was precision-driven, and therefore particularly adept at finding and explaining subtle distinctions in language. Indeed, at times during the trial he served nearly as a participant on a par with the prosecutor and the defendant, as shown in this excerpt from the transcript of the testimony of General Hideki Tojo, wartime leader of the government of Japan:
Tojo: (e-transl) … this counter-proposal is the one that was made in return to the American
note of October 2, and this has been translated … “hantai teian,” but that seems to be a very strong word to me. … “taian” is more appropriate.
Monitor Itami: (e intv) By way of explanation, “taian” is proposal in answer to the proposal
presented to one party; in other words, answer by the second party. Somewhat along that line; there is no definite…
Language Arbiter (Captain Kraft): (orgl) Correction: the former correction is “opposing
proposal” instead of “counter-proposal.” I am sorry; it was a mistake.
Monitor Itami: (j intv) “Counterproposal” deha naku, “opposing proposal” to yaku shita ho ga yoi yodesu. <The translation should be “opposing proposal” instead of “counter-proposal.” >
Prosecutor Keenan: (orgl) … my attention has even been called to the fact that exhibit 1164
apparently is an intercept. Therefore, I would want to go to exhibit 2924 which is the original
that came from the Japanese Foreign Office. …
Tojo: (e transl) Well, matters have turned out a bit differently now.
Prosecutor Keenan: (orgl) I thought so.
Monitor Itami: (e intv) Just a minute, please.
Tojo: (e transl) … I have never once denied proposals A and B. You were asking me about the
Monitor Itami: (e intv) Or opposing proposal, as suggested Language Arbiter.
Tojo: (e transl) (Continuing) The translation made in your country on the basis of the intercept
has the word “hantai teian” or “counter-proposal” or “opposing proposal,” but the original
telegram has no such wording. The word used there is “proposals in the Japanese-American
Monitor Itami: (e intv) The word “taian” is used in the original.23
As this excerpt shows, Akira not only stepped in to correct language misperceptions, but, by saying “Just a minute, please,” to stop the prosecutor from speaking so that Tojo could complete his answer to the previous question.
During a break in the trials, Akira returned to the States in October 1946 for a two months leave of absence, so that he could make the necessary arrangements for his wife and daughter to come and join him in Japan. In an interview about the tribunal, Akira expressed his view that language handicaps, plus the inability of the Japanese lawyers and defendants to comprehend Anglo-Saxon law, were the greatest stumbling blocks in the trials.
Akira’s wife and daughter settled in well in Japan. Kimiko had been working full-time mending surplus army clothes for sale in a Minneapolis army store; she was now freed from that labor. And when Akira’s nine-year-old daughter Michi showed an interest in art, Akira hired teachers to come to their home to instruct her.
Once the intensive labor of the trials was over, however, Akira fell into a deep depression, that not even his family could alleviate. On December 23, 1948, the
seven men condemned to death by the Tokyo Crimes Tribunal were hanged. Two years later, on December 26, Akira died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 39 years old.
Monitor Akira Itami, interpreter Tomio
Mori, and a court reporter at the Tokyo
War Crimes Tribunal
Akira’s death was not reported in the American press, while the Army recorded his suicide as a wartime death—“Died Non-Battle.” It seemed that Akira would be forgotten as just another casualty of the war—until novelist Toyoko Yamasaki took an interest in his case and, after extensive research in Japan and the United States, published a three volume novel, Futatsu No sokoku in 1983.24 (An English-language version, Two Homelands, was edited down to a single volume and appeared in 2008.) This novel took Japan by storm. It was turned into a yearlong television film series of 51 episodes in 1984 and was remade as a two-part film for television in 2019.
The story of Kanji Amo, the hero in Yamasaki’s massive work, is closely based on events from Akira’s life: the childhood in Kijiki, newspaper work in Los Angeles, internment in Manzanar, teaching at Camp Savage, military intelligence work in Washington and, later, in Asia, and his work as monitor at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal. But lots of fictive elements were included as well. Except for the profession of his father, the story of Kenji Amo’s family bears no resemblance to that of Akira’s. The novelist created two brothers for Kenji, one of whom dies fighting for the Allies in Europe, the other who is wounded and captured as a Japanese soldier fighting in the Philippines. The two brothers create a nice literary device for showing the hero’s own ambivalence as a Kibei, and provide an opportunity for providing field
coverage of the war in Europe and in Asia.
There are other changes that expand the work and show the full scope of Kibei-Nisei experiences during the war. In the novel Kenji is still living at Manzanar when the December 1942 uprising takes place; Akira had left the camp earlier that year. Kenji also is stationed as an intelligence officer in the Philippines, where he accidentally wounds his own brother; Akira never was sent to the Philippines. In fact, this story was inspired by another Kibei, Harry Fukuhara.25 Yamasaki even works the horrors of the atomic bomb into her novel, when Kenji’s fictional love interest, after watching both parents die at
Hiroshima, dies two years later from the bomb’s belated aftereffects; Akira did not, to the best of our knowledge, lose someone there who was that close to him.
Visually, too, Yamasaki presents an idealized version of Akira in her novel. When first introducing Kenji to her readers, Yamasaki describes him as having a “tautly muscled, nearly six-foot frame”; in reality, Akira was only 5 foot 3 inches tall and weighed 135 pounds.26
But the most interesting part of the novel is the author’s positing of reasons why her hero takes his own life. She offers several contributing factors:
1. He had participated in the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, in the hope that the root causes of war would be laid bare there, and one would learn how to avoid armed conflict in the future. Instead, he saw how all mention of the atomic bomb was removed from the records, and defendants were being tried by laws that had been created only after the fact;
2. His loyalty to America was questioned by counterintelligence officers, because he had spoken critically about some aspects of the trials. He was deeply shocked by the realization that nothing he had done during his military service had convinced America that he was a loyal American citizen;
3. He found that he was unable to write about the Tokyo trials because he himself had been
involved in them and therefore somewhat complicit in their outcome;
4. He learned that anti-Nisei sentiments remained in force in the United States, and he could no longer imagine a future there.
It is safe to say that any and all of these factors might have played a role in Akira’s deep depression. In 2005 his daughter Michi, who was twelve at the time of her father’s death, offered two theories of her
own as to the cause of her father’s deep
A 2019 Japanese TV film,“Two Homelands,” was
based on Toyoko Yamasaki’s
fictionalized account of Akira Itami’s life
“I think one of the things that most affected him was the prejudice toward Asian-Americans in California that existed before and during the war,” she said. “I think that was one of the
reasons why he committed suicide… he had no realization that the world would change, and that there would be more opportunities for him professionally.”One long-term houseguest, Kozo Kinashi, supported this idea. He remembered how many Japanese, as well as Japanese- Americans, visited Akira after the war at his Tokyo home, and how one stood out in particular: “I once saw a Japanese-American man, who was much older than him, crying and consulting with him whether he should stay in Japan or go back to the U.S.” But Michi Itami offered a second reason for Akira’s depression—one that dated back from long before the war. “I think that being a kibei … was difficult for him, as he did not belong to any group. Nisei did not trust kibei because they were so different from themselves. Also, he was alienated from other kibei [e. g. The Black Dragon], because he was too intelligent to believe the propaganda of the Japanese military government at the time.”27
America was remarkably slow to recognize the achievements of the Kibei in the Pacific theater, while the Nisei who fought in Europe were lauded for their valor. It is, then, ironic that it is Japan, and not America, that remembers Akira—an honored member of American military intelligence—as a tragic Japanese hero. Since the publication of Yamasaki’s novel, at least five Kagoshima authors have published biographies of Akira. In Kijiki, a memorial with an engraved portrait was erected at the site where Akira had lived as a child. And the college Akira had attended as a young man—now called Daito Bunka University—named
a large assembly hall in his honor.
The Nisei in America, however, successfully banned the 1984 film Two Homelands from being shown in the Continental United States. They were deep into negotiations for redress and reparations for their forced internment during the early years of the war. As a result, they had — and continue to have — little interest in celebrating a Kibei who proclaimed their voluntary internment an act of American patriotism, despite his spectacular wartime achievements.
Beverley Driver Eddy
1.) 20 years of Akira Itami’s life was gathered from chapter four, “Beyond Two Homelands: Kibei Transnationalism in the Making of aJapanese American Diaspora” in Michael R. Jin’s study Citizens, Immigrants, and the Stateless: A Japanese American Diaspora in The Pacific, published by Stanford University Press in 2022. See pages 84-113.
2.) Michael R. Jin, 89. Here Jin is citing middle school alumnus Suiryu Seiko.
3.) Tomoko Otake, “Tried to the limit and beyond,” The Japan Times, August 14, 2005, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2005/08/14/general/tried-to-the-limit-and-beyond/
4.) Again, I am indebted to Michael Jin for information on Akira’s sojourn in Alaska, his work with Shukaku, and his own creative literary production (93-94).
5.) Matsumoto retired from the army in 1939 and was not an active participant in World War II.
6.) Michael R. Jin, 95.
7.) This information comes from Michi Itama, “The Irony of Being American,” The California Printmaker
(No. 3, Sept. 1994). https://www.michi-itami.com/selected-essays
8.) Information on the clash between Kibei and young leftists is taken from Michael R. Jin, Citizens, Immigrants, and the Stateless: A Japanese American Diaspora in The Pacific, Chapter 4.
9.) “Life in the American concentration camp of Manzanar, 1943, https://rarehistoricalphotos.com/manganar-internment-camp-photographs/
10.) Manzanar Camp Layout, https://www.nps.gov/articles/000/manzanar-cam--layout.htm
11.) Arthur A. Hansen interview with Robert L. Brown, published in Jessie A. Garrett and Ronald C. Larson, eds., Camp and Community: Manzanar and Owens Valley, California State University Fullerton: Oral History Program, Japanese American Project, 1977. http://texts.cdlib.org/view?docId=ft9489p1bz&doc.view=entire_text
12.) “Residents Exchange Opinions, Questions with Assistant Project Director at Open Forum,” Documentary Report Number 23, 12 July, 1942. digitalassets.lib.berkeley.edu/jarda/ucb/text/reduced/cubanc6714_b210.00_0006_2.pdf
13.) Arthur A. Hansen interview with Robert L. Brown.
14.) Letter to the Editor, Time Magazine, 4 May, 1942.
15.) “Masao ‘Mas’ Kadomatsu,” Discover Nikkei: Japanese Migrants and their Descendants. https://www.discovernikkei.org/en/resources/military/168/
16.) Michael R. Jin, 101-102.
17.) See Charles Pederson, “Camp Savage, WWII Asset for Victory in the Pacific.” May 24, 2001. https://www.scottcountyhistory.org/blog/camp-savage-ww-ii-asset-for-victory-in-the-pacific
18.) Michael R. Jin, 103.
19.) “Foreword,” Military Branch History Pacific Military Intelligence Research Section (PACMIRS)
20.) Military Branch History Pacific Military Intelligence Research Section (PACMIRS), 11-12.
21.) “Former L.A. Newsman Gets Army’s Legion of Merit for Role in War Against Japan,” Pacific Citizen, Aug. 31, 1946.
22.) Nisei Wins Fight to ‘Prove Self’,” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, 16 Sept. 1946.
23.) Tomie Watanabe, “Interpretation at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal: An Overview and Tojo’s Cross-Examination.” https://www.erudit.org/en/journals/ttr/2009-v22-n1ttr3935/044782ar/
24.) In 1965 a Japanese magazine article had inspired an independent film company to make Akira the subject of a film. In this film, Akira commits traditional harakiri, by plunging a knife into his stomach. It was Yamasaki’s work, however, that made Akira a national hero.
25.) “Stranded: Nisei in Japan Before, During, and After world War II.” https://densho.org/catalyst/strandednisei-japan-world-war-ii/
26.) Toyoko Yamasaki, 2; World War II draft registration card, 16 Oct. 1940. https://www.fold3.com/image/630351083
27.) Tomoko Otake, “Tried to the limit and beyond.”