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 didnt, the momentwhich came at last in November
of this year on the campus of Pomona Collegewas an emotional 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 Navys
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 worlds 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 Americas 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