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“Imagine, living in barracks...some people had to live in these, what is it, horse stalls was it?. We were in one of these new tar paper barracks...You don't have any freedom, no privacy, poor sanitation, bad food.”

- Masato Inouye

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“I thought it was odd going to war with dictionaries, pencils, and papers.”

- Harry Fukuhara


Japanese American Military Intelligence Servicemen and the War in the Pacific

Japanese American Military Intelligence Service (MIS) servicemen made vital contributions to both the Allied victory in the Pacific War and the peaceful Occupation of Japan. This select group of soldier-linguists used their understanding of Japanese language and culture to translate captured documents, monitor enemy transmissions, and interrogate prisoners of war.

Called the “eyes” and “ears” of every combat command, the MIS linguists’ much needed language skills were vital, but their ethnic ancestry and cultural awareness gave them a better understanding of Japanese people and culture. These sensibilities allowed them to approach the Japanese with humanity, even in wartime, which helped them when they communicated with POWs and made them cultural ambassadors during the transition from war to peacetime occupation.
The secret nature of their work, classified for decades after the war, has kept them out of history’s spotlight. As a result, many of their deeds have gone unrecorded and their heroic deeds unrecognized.

Col. Sidney Forrester Mashbir, Commandant, Allied Translator and Interpreter Section, pronounced: “The United States of America owes a debt to these men [Nisei linguists] and to their families which it can never fully repay.” This web site is a tribute to the sacrifices they made for their country and community, and chance for them to receive their due recognition.


Prior to WWII, Japanese Americans primarily lived in small ethnic ghettos in Hawaii, California, and other West Coast states. Issei (first generation) parents strove to provide a strong community for their Nisei children, the first generation of American citizens. They established schools, clubs, and other groups that kept the Nisei connected to Japanese culture and community while they slowly integrated into American schools and society. Their immigrant parents did not want their children to lose the language, and most Nisei, no matter what social class, went to Japanese school. Issei also brought Japanese cultural values of bushido (the way of the warrior) and oyakoko (filial piety) across the Pacific and instilled them in their children. Nisei linguists later took these values and applied them to their notions of citizenship in the United States, which gave them a deep sense of obligation to serve their country.

In June 1942, months before the United States entered World War II (WWII), Japanese aggression increased in Asia and anti-Japanese rhetoric and sentiments intensified on the West Coast. The potential for armed conflict between the two countries grew, and top U.S. Army officials realized they needed to find soldiers fluent in written and spoken Japanese. Two officers who had trained in Japan, Colonel John Weckerling and Captain Kai Rasmussen, began testing the language ability of Nisei who were already serving in the armed forces. Contrary to their expectations, they realized that only a few Nisei soldiers could speak and write fluently, and only a slightly larger group could become fluent after extensive training. On their recommendation, the Army decided to build a secret school to train mostly Japanese Americans as linguists. And so, on November 1, 1941, the Military Intelligence Service Language School (MISLS) opened in an old airplane hangar in Crissy Field in the Presidio of San Francisco.

The director and lead instructor of MISLS was John Aiso, a remarkable Nisei who was fluent in Japanese and had a law degree from Harvard. The First Class of MISLS consisted of sixty students—fifty eight Nisei and two Caucasians.

Many of the students in the first class were Kibei – Nisei who had been sent to Japan to live and study. Due to this experience, the Kibei were fluent in Japanese and had the clearest insight into Japanese culture.

On December 7, 1941 Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and launched the United States into World War II. At MISLS, the pace of their studies increased as they realized that the students soon would play a crucial role in the war.

By February of 1942, anti-Japanese sentiments and war hysteria in the U.S. had increased to a fever pitch, prompting President Roosevelt to sign Executive Order 9066.

The order evicted all persons of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast and incarcerated them in detention camps throughout deserted areas in Midwestern states. Hawaii, which had the largest Japanese community in the U.S., did not incarcerate Japanese Americans, though they were treated with a great sense of suspicion. On the mainland, several hundred community leaders were arrested by the FBI and sent to detention camps on the mainland.

"Here I’m in uniform and doing what I’m supposed to be doing and they take my family. I could understand my parents, they were not American, but the others were just as American as I was. There were thrown in behind barbed wire, I kinda felt that, “What the hell is going on?”

- Kan Tagami

The government’s decision confused and angered many Nisei students. While they prepared to fight as U.S. soldiers, the Army rounded up their families and friends into temporary assembly centers.

With classes cut short, from one-year to six months, the First Class of MISLS graduated in June 1942. Of the first sixty students 45 graduated and most quickly left California to participate in campaigns in Alaska, Hawaii, and Australia.

MISLS was not immune to Executive Order 9066. After graduation, the school moved from San Francisco to Camp Savage, Minnesota, where the governor and the state welcomed the Nisei linguists. As the war expanded to various fronts in the Pacific and the demand for linguists grew, the school expanded. A few of the graduates from the First Class stayed in the U.S. to teach at Camp Savage, and a new class of soldiers began studying in June 1942. By 1944, increased enrollment and the need for larger facilities force the MISLS to move to Fort Snelling, Minnesota. Eventually, over 6,000 soldiers are trained at MISLS for the war effort.

The Pacific War

By the time the first class of MIS linguists had graduated, the Japanese military had captured the Philippines, New Guinea, and other islands in the Pacific. On the Asian mainland, China and South East Asia had come under Japanese control.

The first 35 members of the First Class arrived at their destinations in time to participate in battles in the Aleutian Islands, on Guadalcanal, and on New Guinea. Initially, the Nisei linguists were treated with skepticism, but once commanders realized their value, the MIS linguists began to work behind the front lines and at command posts. By translating captured documents, interrogating prisoners, and intercepting radio transmissions, they immediately proved to be strategically vital to the war effort. In fact, the success of the first class of MIS soldiers convinced the War Department to create the all-Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team, one of the most decorated units in the European theater.

But compared with the Nisei of the 100th and 442nd who fought in Europe against Germans and Italians, the Nisei of the MIS faced the risks of being mistaken as the enemy by their own troops. Further, for many of the MIS Nisei soldiers, the thought of being taken prisoner by the Japanese Military was of greater concern than being wounded or killed, as they would be branded traitors and suffer horrible punishment. During the early phase of the war in the Pacific and China-Burma-India (CBI) Theaters, MIS linguist soldiers were assigned body guards to protect them from being mistaken by fellow American soldiers.


MIS linguists participated in almost every battle throughout the Pacific War. As their importance increased among the Allied commanders they were under great demand and deployed with other Allied country forces such as the British, Australians, Canadians, Dutch, and Chinese. The small numbers of linguists made each one a valuable member on the battlefield, and they received orders in small teams that moved them from unit to unit depending on where they were needed. The nature of their deployment and movement without any commanding officers also made it difficult for their work to be recognized.

The U.S. Navy did not accept Nisei during WWII, therefore the linguists were attached from the army service to all Navy and Marine unites and participated in all of the their campaigns. Also, MIS linguits were attached to the Army Air Force and to the strategic bombing campaigns that bombed Japan.

Once stationed in the Pacific War they worked on a few primary tasks:

Translation – Allied soldiers captured documents and diaries, many off dead soldiers. Many Japanese soldiers also had a habit of maintaining their own diaries. On the battlefields up in the front, the linguists, at times obtained important and timely tactical information from the translated documents, such as when the next attact would occur or about the morale of the enemy troops. In many cases, this timely tactical information resulted in Allied victories. These captured documents were then sent to the higher echelon headquarters where larger groups of linguists further translated and prepared briefings of more strategic information for the commander. The information could include technical information on new equipment and weapons, identify troop strengths, movements or planned military strategy.

One of the most significant translations of tactical importance happened when a Philippine guerilla discovered the Japanse plan "Operation Z" for an all-out counter attach in the Central Pacific Theater. After the MIS linguists deciphered and found what the enemy planned, the Allied Forces prepared for the attack and were able to shoot down hundred of enemy planes, crippling Japan's naval air attack in the battle dubbed by the Allied Forces as "The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot".

An example of more strategic information was when MIS linguists assigned at Camp Ritchie, Maryland, near Washington D.C. uncovered among many documents a large book that documented Japanese artillery warehouses and installagtions. This strategic information was then used for targeted bombing missions during the war. It was also used early in the Occupation of Japane to easily located and destroy store weapons without conflict.

POW interrogation – In Japanese military training, soldiers learned to avoid capture at all costs, even by suicide. By the time Nisei linguists met them they felt they could not return to Japan did not feel obligated to withhold information. Once the Allies provided medical care, food, cigarettes, and other amenities many POWs opened up and often provided the Allies with intelligence about the troops and military strategy.

Radio Intercepts – Throughout the war, linguists around the Pacific listened to the radio waves for any information broadcast by the Japanese. Because the Japanese believed their language was too difficult for foreigners to master, they did not use codes. In one instance, linguists in New Guinea, Hawaii, and Alaska, intercepted a broadcast that indicated the time when Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto would arrive at Bougainville to meet front line troops. Yamamoto had orchestrated the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Allies anticipated his arrival and shot down his plane in what General MacArthur called on of the single most significant actions in the Pacific War.

Undercover Agents – Before MISLS opened its doors, two young Hawaiian Nisei, Arthur Komori and Richard Sakakida were recruited by the U.S. Army to work undercover in Manila, Philippines. They made contacts with Japanese businessmen and were the first linguists in the Pacific War. The Japanese military captured Sakakida in the surrender of Corregidor and he suffered torture and near death before finally escaping when the Japanese began retreating from the Philippines.

The Occupation

In 1945, on August 6th and 9th the United States dropped atomic bombs on the metropolitan areas of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Soon, Japan issued a formal surrender and the war ended. In battle zones around the Pacific War, MIS linguists interpreted surrender ceremonies and translated documents. In Tokyo Bay, three Nisei linguists witnessed the surrender ceremony on board the U.S.S. Missouri where General Togo and the Emperor came to officially sign the surrender with General MacArthur.

Many Nisei who had not received promotions during the war, regarded by some as a prejudiced snub, quickly received commendations to encourage them to continue their service in Japan. Those who arrived in the first year after the war witnessed the devastation in Tokyo, Hiroshima, and other areas. They watched city dwellers sell their silk kimonos in the countryside for sweet potatoes and saw women and children waiting by the Army’s cafeteria for table scraps.

In every aspect of the Occupation and the rebuilding of Japan, the linguists served vital roles as interpreters and cultural diplomats. They taught both U.S. troops and Japanese how to get along with each other—a task they learned growing up in America. They translated and interpreted the War Crimes trials, screened POWs returning from Siberia, and worked in the Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) and the Civil Censorship Detachment (CCD) and many other offices. Their unheralded yet key contributions towards winning the peace in post-war Japan were essential in helping make the U.S. Occupation a success.


In 1988 President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act into law, which apologized for the unjust incarceration of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry. The loyalty, courage, and sacrifices made by Nisei soldiers in World War II played an enormous role in convincing the American public and political leaders of the injustices suffered by people of Japanese ancestry. If it were not for the Nisei linguists of the first class, together with the 442nd Infantry Regiment and the 100th Battalion, it could be argued that the historic redress bill would not have passed.

Finally, after living in the shadows of Pacific War history, the Army awarded MIS linguists the Presidential Unit Citation in June 2000. The citation states: "The Military Intelligence Service not only played key roles in battlefield situations, they also provided United States forces with an unprecedented amount of intimate, authoritative, detailed, and timely information on enemy forces to support planning and execution of combat operations....”

Serving in the U.S. Army during WWII, Nisei soldier served because they were Americans like any other American boys. Having been interned themselves or having family in the internment camps, made it difficult, but their decision to serve their country during war-time was firm and decisive. The decision to fight against the country of birth our parents and grandparents was difficult, but they had to decide. For many MIS linguists who volunteered from within the confines of internment, it was also difficult because they had been reclassified by the Draft Board as 4C "Enemy Alien". To fight in Europe would have been an easier decision, but to fight Japan and eventually fight on Japanese soil was not an easy choice to make. That is why even to this day many Nisei MIS veterans are reluctant to talk about their role during WWII.

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