John Dower, the foremost historian on Japanese-American relations, wrote in his seminal text on the postwar era, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, that “people in all cultures and times have mythologized their own war dead, while soon forgetting their victims-if, in fact, they ever even give much thought to them.”[i] In the 1990s, a rash of popular history texts and narratives, most notably Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation, lauded the dead and the living veteran of World War II. This hagiography of the World War II era generation arguably not only offered little insight into the follies of this war, including the anti-communist hysteria and the blinders that led into the Vietnam War, but also softened a large segment of the American public into more follies in the Middle East under the vapid banner of “patriotism,” little different in substance from the nationalism of the Japanese Imperials fifty years prior. This is the excuse for history that has been presented to my generation and to subsequents ones. The guiding questions in evaluating the legacies of veterans are clouded in this fog of war and red, white, and blue.
Such is the context of historiography that informs an analysis a new documentary, The Registry, a film by Bill Kubota and Steve Ozone. The Registry is a spreadsheet of names of Japanese-American World War II veterans who were recruited into the US Army’s Military Intelligence Service (MIS). The MIS specifically recruited Nisei (second generation Japanese-American) as linguists for their acculturation and ability to speak directly Japanese Imperial forces on the front lines of battle and in POW camps. These recruits trained in perfecting their Japanese language skills at a Minnesota camp to fight in the Pacific theater to upend the tactics of the Japanese Imperial forces.
The Registry, using declassified data from the War Department, was compiled not by academics historians, but by two elderly Japanese-Americans veterans, Grant Hayao Ichikawa and Seiki Oshiro. Taking a mostly observational approach, the filmmakers profiled these men and traveled the country highlighting the stories and legacies of veterans in the Registry, breathing life into the names on Oshiro’s computer screen. The Registry memorializes their great act of doing history, collecting the scraps, the ephemera, the records, and building a narrative of a lost episode of our recent past. To Seiki Oshiro, his reason for volunteering is that enlistment “got me out the Plantation, and they offered me a scholarship… to get out of there.” For Japanese-Americans, the question of being imprisoned for their ethnicity, and then signing up to fight for the American cause, opens up the discussion to transformational questions which can shift the paradigm of outmoded ideas of American patriotism.
Many of the stories of these men and their families are filled with contradictions and unanswered questions. Mas Inoshita, raised in a Native American on a reservation outside of Phoenix, finds solidarity within another community that has experienced discrimination and confinement. The camera witnesses the strange spectacle of a recent military parade juxtaposed next to vintage still shots of the concentration (or, in archaic parlance, “internment”) camp being build up Native American lands without their consent.
Despite the sacrifices of Japanese-Americans during the war, predictable, discrimination persisted after the war. Is is apt to question if these veterans regretted their service in the US military considering many of the injustices. How have their views of the war changed as time passes? I think of my own father’s evolution concerning the Vietnam War. He was drafted and avoided the war, luckily serving in the National Guard through the 1980s. As a younger man he told me he would have gone if he had to. Now, as a retired 69 year old with a wider perspective, to him it was “a no good war.” The answer for these World War II veterans, as their stories reveal, is still murky and often unstated, even to their families. The experience of the Japanese community in Hood River, Oregon is brief but instructive. A short profile on a lesson in a local high school is encouraging in instructing the next generation of citizens to break the cycles of hiding history behind the trauma of those that experienced it and the whitewash so convenient to those too cowardly to confront it.
Karen Matsumoto, the daughter of Roy Hiroshi Matsumoto, is one of the heroic figures in the films. She reveals the inherent contradictions in reaching for an enlightened view of her father’s place in history as a Nisei and someone considered a war hero. She reveals that “military history just really doesn’t interest me. It’s sort of against my moral values to really want to know about it, and honor people for it.” The version of military history to which she refers are the jingoistic narratives that obscure how Japanese imperialism was in imitation of western imperialism, to the effect of sculpting World War II as a uniquely “good war.” Among all the family members interviewed, she most bluntly questions the purpose of the mission of her father and the other veterans of the infamous Merrill’s Marauders. After her father’s death in 2014, just short of his 101st birthday, she is filmed going through his dustry archives, the ephemera and artifacts of his life which point to the conflicted nature of Japanese-American sent to kill their Japanese kin. In particular, she wonders what he thought of the atomic bomb destruction of Hiroshima, the city of his birth. Sadly, she’ll, and we’ll, never know.
Also notably, Frank Abe, co-editor of John Okada: The Life and Rediscovered Work of No-No Boy (2018), tells of his own obsession with the subject of his book, an MIS veteran who passed away in 1971 before the truth of the military’s tactics became public. Abe’s appreciation of Okada and his sole novel, No-No Boy (1957), “a foundational work of Asian-American literature,” focuses additional worthy attention the contradictions of war. Okada was witness to the firebombing of Tokyo by the Americans, a city in which 65 percents of residences were destroyed in a type of “hierarchy of fortune” as the destruction focused on the lower class districts with the wealthier and financial districts spared. Not incidentally, American forces quickly moved into the elite centers of Tokyo during the Occupation.[ii] The story of Okada also reflects how postwar experiences tie into the aesthetics of the noir movement, of interest to literary and film students and scholars. Noir was a bleak and psychologically powerful genre of artistic expression, the popularity of which tends to obscure its realism, and a genre that drew directly from the lived experiences of the mid 20th century. Its stylistic trappings and themes express the sense of anomie felt by veterans as they returned home and attempted to reintegrate themselves into civilian life. Significantly, but not fully explored in the film, is that No-No Boy is a story about resistance to loyalty to the United States and unwillingness to enlist in the war effort.
The Registry adds to the many volumes of texts, documentaries, and popular histories of World War II, focusing on a sub-chapter of the role of Japanese-Americans veterans hitherto mostly neglected. However, it’s a mostly rawly sourced film that lacks contextual guidance. There is no evidence in the film that the Nisei shorted the war by two years, and if there is any evidence to support this claim, it is left to other sources to prove or disprove. What The Registry accomplishes is capturing the contradictions in the Nisei veterans, those still living and those long passed. The effort of the US military in recruiting citizens who were powerless and vulnerable, sacrificing for a cause in which their interests were conflicted, torn between citizenship and heritage, is just one example of the necessity in reexamining the legacy of American conduct during World War II.
In the words of Grant Ichikawa, aged 92, after a lifetime of being told to stay quiet and not stick your head out too much, he states, “I’m coming out slowly.” The ten year online collaboration between Ichikawa and Oshiro in compiling the Registry was a meticulous research project that should inspire the public and all historians to reach into the depths of the past, the untold stories, and bring them into the sunlight of a world in the hopes that the nightmares of past conflicts inform our present judgements.
[i] John Dower. Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1999, p. 504.
[ii] Ibid., pgs. 45-47.
The Registry is showing at CAAMFest 2018 on May 13.