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Winter 2002
Volume 39, No. 2
Issue Home

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PCMOnline Editor
Sarah Dolinar


At Long Last

More than half a century after they served their country, Japanese American "sensei" receive long-overdue recognition, thanks to the efforts of the Pacific Basin Institute.

Only a tiny fraction of the 138 Japanese Americans who were recruited as Japanese language instructors for the U.S. Navy during World War II lived long enough to receive the long-belated thanks of their country, but for the 12 men and women who did, and for the families of many of those who didn’t, the moment—which came at last in November of this year on the campus of Pomona College—was an emotional one.

One by one they came to the front to receive their Distinguished Public Service Awards from Rear Admiral Richard Porterfield, director of Naval Intelligence. All of the surviving “sensei,” as they were known at the Navy’s Japanese Language School at the University of Colorado at Boulder, are in their 80s or 90s. Some walked with the help of a friend or family member. One man was wheeled to the front in his wheelchair. Most of the awards were accepted posthumously by sons or daughters.

During the war, the honorees were dedicated teachers who, according to their students, performed their duties with “quiet dignity in the face of adversity,” working long hours for the same government that had placed their families and friends in internment camps. Using innovative methods, the sensei succeeded in teaching their charges the essentials of reading, writing and speaking one of the world’s most complex languages in only 12 to 14 months.

According to Professor Theodore de Bary of Columbia University, a former student of the school, “Through the conscientiousness and dedication of these sensei, the students were introduced to the essentials of Japanese culture, as well as the essentials of the language. This was vital to these officers’ future success as code-breakers, translators, combat interrogators and occupiers of a defeated Japan. They gave students a perspective on Japan, its people and culture, that disarmed prejudice and helped make the language officers more effective both in combat and in relations with the Japanese people in postwar Japan.”

Many of their students went on to become some of America’s most distinguished names in Japanese studies. Frank Gibney, currently the president of the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College, served as bureau chief in Japan (1949-51) for Time magazine. Other former students include Donald Keene and Edward Seidensticker, internationally known scholars and translators of Japanese literature; and de Bary, James Morley and Robert Scalapino, who built East Asian studies programs at Columbia, the University of California at Berkeley, and other institutions.

While the war launched the careers of many Navy men and women, it set back the lives of many of their teachers. Like other Japanese-Americans interned during the war, they lost homes, businesses and sometimes family members who succumbed to illness in the camps.

The Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College, in cooperation with the University of Colorado, Boulder, was the prime force behind the effort to recognize the efforts of the sensei. Following a reunion of the language students in April 2000, Gibney wrote to the U.S. Secretary of Defense to suggest that recognition of this important contribution should be accorded. The Secretary agreed. Pedro Loureiro, curator of PBI, worked closely with the Navy to coordinate the program and to locate the teachers and their families, most of whom live on the West Coast.

Photo by Trish Branley