RECOLLECTIONS OF THE JAPANESE OCCUPATION
BY KAN TAGAMI
For nearly five years, from late 1946 until his firing by President Truman in April 1951, I had the privilege of serving as personal interpreter-aide to the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers in Japan, General Douglas MacArthur. It was an eventful time, a period that was crucial to the recovery of a nation devastated by war, economic hardship, and military authoritarianism. The work done by MacArthur, and by all who served in the Occupation, was critical in rebuilding Japan, instituting democracy, and planting the seeds for its resurgence as an economic power. Today, in large measure because of the General’s leadership in those early days, Japan is a successful example of how American power and generosity can be used to extract genuine friendship and common purpose from the most bitter of circumstances. I was fortunate to have witnessed aspects of this great undertaking from my vantage point in the Daiichi Insurance Building, MacArthur’s general headquarters in downtown Tokyo.
My military service began in February 1941, when I was drafted into the Army from my hometown of Selma, California. I attended basic training with the 53rd Infantry Regiment at Ford Ord, and in 1942, I was reassigned to the new Military Intelligence Service Language School at Camp Savage, a secret program to train Japanese linguists to support military operations in the Pacific. I was selected to participate because of my relative proficiency in Japanese, which I had acquired in the few years I had spent in Hiroshima as an elementary school student.
Sending their children back to the ancestral homeland for schooling was a practice typical of many Japanese American families at the time. It reflected our Issei parents’ desire for their children to carry on Japanese speech, values, and traditions. Despite the difficult transition to new surroundings – I often got into fights with the local boys because of my foreign status – the experience was valuable. I became much more conversant in Japanese language and sensitive to the nuances of Japanese culture as a consequence.
After attending the MIS Language School as a student, I was retained as an NCO instructor until July 1944, when I volunteered to lead a 15-member MIS team in Burma. Two months later, traveling via fast transport by way of Los Angeles, Honolulu and Brisbane, I joined my new outfit, the 124th Cavalry Regiment. The 124th was part of the MARS Task Force that had replaced the exhausted Merrill’s Marauders, which had been decimated by intense behind-the-lines fighting.
My team, including assistant team leader Art Morimitsu, interrogated prisoners, translated captured documents, provided the commanders with a sense of the enemy’s mindset, and undertook intelligence gathering patrols to eavesdrop on enemy positions. We performed capably and made a positive impact on combat operations, though I grew to hate the conditions: heat, rain, mud, jungle, mosquitos. Burma’s rivers and mountains follow a north-south axis, and because of our mission to disrupt enemy lines of communication, we always seemed to travel east-west, fording rivers and slogging over rain-drenched hills. The latter were so steep and muddy at times that we had to cling to the tails of the small Asian donkeys we used as pack animals.
There is one experience I had in Burma that I have never before related. It took place shortly after I was sent to New Delhi to be commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant. While there, I was assigned to a Colonel Blunda, who was directed to return to Burma as liaison to British forces in Mandalay. Upon arrival, the Colonel obtained information indicating the Japanese were in retreat and had abandoned Rangoon. The British were unsure of the intelligence and wanted to advance cautiously, but the Colonel, an impatient and flamboyant man, decided to proceed alone (that is, with me and a handful of Nisei linguists) to “reconnoiter” the security situation.
With great trepidation, the rest of us jumped into our jeeps after him and drove pell-mell down the road, at last pulling into Rangoon. Sure enough, the city was empty of Japanese troops. Colonel Blunda immediately convened the local leaders and conducted an inspection of city facilities, including the bank. We were, almost certainly, the first Americans, and in all probability the first Allies, to “liberate” and occupy Rangoon -- at any rate well ahead of the main body of British forces. It is possible that British scouts or other advance elements had been there before us, but they were not in evidence when we got there. I heard later that this stunt, which naturally infuriated and embarrassed the British, got the Colonel into trouble. The British accused Blunda, unfairly I might add, of trying to steal money from the bank he had inspected when in fact he had attempted to protect it. An investigation came to nothing, but Blunda was sent home early to the States anyway.
Near the end of my overseas service, I, along with fellow MISer Lt. Eddie Mitsukado, was attached to British Army 34th Indian Corps in Ceylon as an American liaison officer. My job was to provide the Corps with language capability in the invasion of Malaya. The 34th’s mission was to effect a landing in Port Dickinson near Kuala Lumpur. We arrived with no resistance, which was puzzling until we discovered that Emperor Hirohito had accepted the Allied surrender terms that very day: Japanese forces were waiting to surrender to us in Kuala Lumpur, some 25 miles inland. I remember that the only casualties we suffered were a couple of tanks and trucks lost to quicksand during the night. I assisted with prisoners, documents, and the surrender generally, and later obtained permission to visit Singapore to see how the rest of the surrender was proceeding. The whole action with 34th Corps lasted a month.
Shortly thereafter I received orders to return home. I left Karachi aboard the SS Santa Rosa, a converted luxury liner, joined by other officers and civilians leaving the China-Burma-India theater. I recall that it was a long voyage, but one made bearable by the bevy of pretty nurses onboard and the prospect of returning stateside. After disembarking in New York, I was assigned to the Washington Document Center (later part of the Central Intelligence Group and CIA) in Washington, D.C., where I processed Japanese documents as a research analyst. I remember that Washington was not to my liking -- for one thing, it was too expensive -- and when the opportunity arose a few weeks later, I volunteered for duty in Japan. I had another motivation too: I was curious about how Japan was faring in the war’s aftermath.
I arrived in Yokohama via Seattle in the fall of 1946. I was initially assigned to a requisition depot, but was soon asked to interview for the position of interpreter-aide to MacArrthur. The position was open, to my recollection, because the highly capable Shiro Omata, who had served in this position for several months prior to my arrival in Japan, had taken home leave and the position needed to be filled. The interview was conducted by Colonel Herbert Wheeler and Colonel Larry Bunker, his aides-de-camps, who were apparently satisfied by my background and qualifications.
I first met General MacArthur in his plain office in the Daiichi Insurance Building, one of the few large structures to survive the wartime bombing intact. He was smoking his famous corncob pipe as Colonel Wheeler introduced me. The General was very gracious: he shook my hand and welcomed me aboard.
I was assigned space in a large administrative filing room off the ADCs’ offices, along with some sergeants and warrant officers. At first, I attempted to translate all the Japanese memos and documents that the General would review; however, the task was overwhelming, and I soon learned the trick of sending them on for translation to G-2. With Colonel Wheeler’s support, I began to reorient my duties more toward interpretation and away from translation. Colonel Wheeler made sure that I was easily accessible to the General at all times.
My personal impression of General MacArthur was that he was a brilliant man, and also a bit of a showman. For example, whenever he met met with a Japanese VIP, he made a great show of displaying some knowledge of the visitor. He read the visitor’s background file before any meeting, and thus was often able to add a personal touch to the visits. He also liked to impress people with his outgoing ways, although his was not a backslapping, hail-fellow-well-met personality – in fact, I cannot remember a single joke he made. He was much older than other generals (he had served as Army Chief of Staff before the war), and formal and dignified in his bearing, attributes that were much appreciated by the Japanese, who tend to place much stock in these things.
As the first foreign “conqueror” in Japan’s history, the General’s public persona also benefited from the people’s reverence for authority. During this period, a number of Japanese embraced Japan’s defeat, even to the point of wanting their nation to become part of the United States; quite a few letters and petions were brought to this effect. And it is to his credit that even when he was relieved by President Truman, the General refused to disparage his superiors: he comported himself like a gentleman at all times. Of course, there was significant infighting between the President’s and the General’s subordinates which I believe helped sour their relationship.
Being MacArthur’s interpreter also meant that I effectively served as a liaison officer. I had contact with palace and government officials, but I also had the chance to talk informally with ordinary people. Headquarters discouraged fraternization with the local populace, but in some cases it was unavoidable. These “street” conversations afforded me insight into the common man’s viewpoint and helped me better appreciate the political and economic situation, which in turn enhanced my interpreting. Most Japanese treated us cordially, though there must have been some resentment of the American occupiers. Overall, I think the Japanese people were grateful that we chose not to treat them as harshly as they themselves might have treated us, had the tables been turned.
At this time, Tokyo was a devastated city. Bombs and fires had leveled much of the metropolis, countless citizens were living in temporary wooden structures; it was only until 1948 or 1949 that the city began to recover. Food was a problem too; many people did not have even basic staples like rice. Cigarettes, of course, were an unobtainable luxury. It was common sight to see people scrounging in the gutters for cigarette butts discarded by GIs. Even high officials knew deprivation; on several occasions, I felt compelled to offer c-rations to officials of the imperial household. But somehow the citizens of Tokyo managed a bare living, despite the hard times, and it is a testament to their fortitude and work ethic that they survived and eventually thrived.
After an initial slow period, as the Japanese government gradually took shape, General MacArthur increasingly required interpretation services. Beginning in early in 1947, many Japanese officials came to visit. Courtesy calls were made by Supreme Court justices, Diet members, and Bank of Japan presidents. Successive Prime Ministers scheduled interviews with him. One of them, Prime Minister Yoshida, spoke some English and often tried to bypass me by requesting to meet alone with the General. This ploy allowed Yoshida to claim that he had MacArthur’s blessing for this or that, without having anybody contradict him.
Another visitor was the chairman of the Lower House of the Diet. I remember seeing tears of gratitude in his eyes as I interpreted MacArthur’s assurance to him that in the future, Japan could exercise its democratic prerogative to change its constitution to deploy military forces to defend itself from attack. Ultimately, as we know, Japan did in fact establish a self defense force.
In carrying out my duties, I tried to make sure that the words I interpreted were correct in spirit and tone as well as content; I also tried to convey the cultural context. It was very important to include these nuances because the Japanese were extremely sensitive to MacArthur’s every word; his views carried great weight, similar in gravity to those of the Emperor.
MacArthur himself was respectful of the institution of the monarchy. He understood viscerally the degree to which the Japanese Emperor was revered by the populace at that time. It is ironic that MacArthur’s own stature, in comparison, undoubtedly contributed to the diminishment of the imperial office in the eyes of modern day Japanese. Nevertheless, MacArthur made every effort to protect Hirohito and his prerogatives, including an instance in which I played a small role.
When the American press was besieging the Emperor with unprecedented requests for interviews, palace officials became worried that MacArthur would be angry if the requests were denied. The General decided to send me to deliver a personal message to the Emperor to allay such fears. MacArthur wanted to convey to Hirohito that he had a right to privacy, just like any other citizen, and that he did not have to meet with the journalists if he did not wish to.
Arrangements were made between the chancellery and the General’s staff for me to meet the Emperor alone, an unprecedented occurrence. To anyone’s knowledge, no individual had ever met with the Emperor before in private audience, without any retainers. I was aware of this singular fact when I drove myself at 7:30 in the evening to the Sakuradamon gate of the palace, a complex of graceful buildings in the heart of Tokyo ringed by a wide moat. I was ushered into an ante room and asked to wait. A few minutes later, Hirohito entered, a small man in a conservative suit. He motioned me to sit across from him at a small round table.
I delivered MacArthur’s message, intensely aware of the irony of the situation: I, an American Nisei, only one generation removed from Japan, was having a private conversation with a man who, until recently, was considered a divinity. I recalled an instance during my youth in Hiroshima when all the students were pulled out of school to greet then Prince Hirohito at the train station. We had gathered there in front of the station, hundreds perhaps thousands of us, all required to bow, prohibited from lifting our eyes from the ground, as the god-incarnation entered and left the station. I remember trying to look up, to get a glimpse of him, before being rebuked and slapped into a more submissive posture by a teacher for my unwitting disrespect. Now, here I was, years later, dressed in the uniform of Japan’s conqueror, talking across a small table to the same personage, like an equal. Nothing could speak more eloquently of changes that had occurred in those intervening years, or the difference between my life as an American and my life as it would have been had my parents not made the fateful decision to emigrate from Japan.
At the end of the audience, the Emperor thanked me for the message, and then inquired about my family. I told him that we were from California, but that we had originally come from Hiroshima. He expressed appreciation for the work of the Nisei in Japan and enjoined us to continue in our efforts to ease the US-Japan relationship. “You are a bridge between our two nations,” he said. He then took his leave, disappearing through a side door, and I in turn made my way out of the palace, crossing over a moat that no longer seemed quite so wide.
Of all my experiences as MacArthur’s interpreter, my meeting with the Emperor was the most memorable. Hirohito’s words reflected my own thoughts on the value of the Nisei to the U.S.-Japan relationship. It is true that without Japanese Americans, the Occupation would not have gone as smoothly. This was particularly true at the prefectural and municipal level, where the linguistic skills of Japanese Americans proved invaluable in clarifying American intentions and control over every aspect of governance, from the teaching of democratic ideals in schools to reforming farm ownership practices. At the national level, Nisei were involved in facilitating security and economic policies and the development of a new constitutional and legal framework. They were the communications link between the occupiers and the occupied; they were the oil that minimized friction in the gears of the Occupation machinery. In short, the Nisei were integral to the success of the Occupation; they had an impact that lasts right up to the present.
There were other duties that I undertook for the General, each memorable in their own ways. On one occasion, I delivered a congratulatory message from MacArthur to the Hiroshima Atomic Bomb Convention and its peace-minded organizers and participants. I remember thinking that sending a message on the subject of the atomic bomb was unwise, since U.S. policy was not to comment about any aspect of nuclear policy. MacArthur, however, was accustomed to having latitude in his area of operations, first as a theater commander and now as Japan’s overlord. In those days, Washington exercised less direct control over its official representatives abroad, diplomatic or military. Nevertheless, I had my own thoughts about the bomb, insofar as the devastation of Hiroshima affected me personally.
As I have noted, my family came from Hiroshima, and I still had many relatives there. Some were killed, of course, by the blast, and others were maimed, including a close cousin who had been blinded and burned by the radiation and who had undergone dozens of medical procedures to ease her pain and disfigurement. Despite my revulsion at Japan’s role in the war, I have always believed that we bombed Hiroshima less out of necessity than because we could – we wanted to see if it worked.
But if I left for Hiroshima with these somber thoughts in mind, my spirits were lifted by a happy circumstance, one that was to change my life. During the train ride back, after I had delivered MacArthur’s message, I noticed an attractive girl sitting a few rows up, a Nisei from Honolulu as it turned out. I rolled some oranges down the aisle to get her attention. The ploy must have worked, because I ended up marrying her.
I was still assigned to the General when he was fired by President Truman. The word came when he was home having lunch. Colonel Bunker showed him the telegram, and according to what the Colonel told us later, MacArthur did not say anything. No loud outcry, no protest. He may have been expecting it one way or another.
His last acts were to help his staff. For myself, he made sure that I received orders to go to the Counterintelligence Corps at Fort Holabird, in Baltimore, as I had requested. It was typical of the General to take care of his staff. Some time before, he had personally signed the recommendation for my promotion to Captain, an unusual honor for a field grade officer. So it was no surprise that all of us on his personal staff loyally chose to depart with him when he left Japan. After a memorable, full dress departure ceremony at Haneda Field, MacArthur, his wife and child, and nurse boarded a plane and departed. We, his close personal aides, followed minutes later in a second transport.
A last word concerning the Occupation: I strongly feel that we should never lose a war, because the enemy will come and take over, just as we did. We were lucky in that we were able to employ the full administrative capabilities of Japan’s government. We used the Japanese government as an instrument of our will. MacArthur had the luxury of making pronouncements that were carried out unquestioningly by the Japanese government. His word was law, even on such contentious issues as labor strikes. It was a successful Occupation because we refrained from meddling except at the top level. We were also fortunate in that the Japanese people took their cue from the Emperor, acceding to the Occupation in principal and spirit. We learned the value of not being a harsh victor. It is a lesson that has paid dividends for our nation in the 54 years since the end of that great conflict, and one that we would do well to remember in this new century.
(Revised April 2005)