Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Historian Pamela Sakamoto talks about the Japanese-American experience during WWII

The Fukuharas’ story is one of military service and institutional oppression

(Collegian File Photo)

(Collegian File Photo)

(Collegian File Photo)

By Kyle Lai, Collegian Correspondent

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On Feb. 14, at Amherst College, historian and diplomatic consultant Pamela Sakamoto gave a lecture on the World War II experiences of two Japanese-American brothers, Harry and Frank Fukuhara, whose lives were marked by military service and institutional oppression.

Sakamoto, an Amherst College alumnus, detailed the story of the Fukuhura family, as part of an event titled, “Commemorating the Day of Remembrance: A Japanese American Family Caught Between Two Worlds.”

According to Sakamoto, the Fukuharas’ story is in many ways a microcosm of the overall Japanese-American experience during the war, in part due to their cultural and familial ties in both belligerent countries. Harry and Frank are the focus of Sakamoto’s book “Midnight in Broad Daylight,” based on interviews with both brothers.

Both Harry and Frank Fukuhara were born in the U.S., but  they and their mother moved back to Japan in 1933 when their father died. Harry, the elder of the two, eventually moved back to the U.S. in 1938 after finishing high school. When the Imperial Japanese Armed Forces attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7,  1941, Harry was still in the U. S., while his brother Frank was living with his mother in Hiroshima.

The wartime societies of Japan and the United States scrutinized and discriminated against the two brothers due to their mixed cultural background. In Japan, Frank was singled out for punishment by the students at his high school due to his American upbringing. In the U.S., Harry was arrested and detained under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s infamous Executive Order 9066 and put into an internment camp in the Gila River internment camp. Both brothers would eventually join the military, with Harry becoming a Japanese-English translator for the 33rd Infantry Division in the Pacific Theater.

Sakamoto highlighted the unique cultural experiences each brother underwent. Frank’s high school turned into a military academy, indoctrinating Japanese boys to become soldiers through a series of dehumanizing rituals. Sakamoto described how Frank and other freshmen were beaten by their classmates.

“One upperclassman stepped forward, took a deep breath, and began to lecture. He and a couple of others selected ten or fifteen first-year students, including Frank, to stand apart,” Sakamoto said. “You didn’t salute me!’ he screamed…The sound of a hand meeting flesh reverberated in the open space.”

She added, “One after another, the freshman were hit, slapped and pounded. When Frank’s turn came, the upperclassman screamed, ‘Nnamaikia!’ [(spoiled brat]). Frank watched him throw back his arm…to wind-up for a punch. When the fist came hard on his jaw, Frank tried not to flinch and stumble…He tasted blood, and then took another round.”

The boys were beaten for two hours straight. In Sakamoto’s words, this beating “was a ritual that took place once or twice a month,” and Frank was always selected.

Frank had done several things that angered the other students: he unintentionally revealed his Japanese-American heritage due to his fluent English during English class, and he appeared insubordinate for questioning teachers. Additionally, he expressed individuality rather than conformity to Japan’s stringent cultural dress code, wearing blue shirts “when white was the only color permitted.”

Frank was eventually selected to join a Tokubetsu Kōgekitai, Japanese special attack units, colloquially referred to by the Americans as “kamikazes.” By 1945, the Imperial Japanese General Headquarters for the Japanese believed that the U.S. would launch an amphibious invasion of Japan in November. Frank was taught to strap an explosive to his chest and charge American soldiers once they landed ashore. Thankfully, no such amphibious invasion occurred, and the war ended in August.

Meanwhile, at the Gila River internment camp in the United States—a duration of time that was “a void in Harry’s life,” according to Sakamoto—Harry was conflicted over his American identity. He was given a chance to leave the camp when the U.S. Military Intelligence Service  came to the camp looking to recruit translators. The MIS was in charge of interrogating Japanese prisoners and translating captured documents. Harry had lived five years in Japan and possessed excellent language skills, so he was recruited and sent to the Southwest Pacific.

“It was a time of great despair in his life,” Sakamoto said, “and although later stories would detail him as volunteering out of camp as a patriot, [those stories are] truly a glossy approach to the truth, which is that he saw no other way to save his soul from embitterment than to leave camp.”

Harry was deployed to New Britain, New Guinea, Morotai and the Philippines. Once, Harry was nearly shot by a fellow American soldier, who believed he was a Japanese infiltrator despite Harry’s attempts to convince him otherwise. He was only saved by the timely intervention of his bodyguard.

Despite this incident, Harry was fully committed to fighting for the United States. He saw the Japanese as his enemy and referred to them as “the Jap.” However, he also took steps to ensure Japanese POWs were well treated, according to Sakamoto. During this time, no one was allowed to take pictures of Harry or any other MIS translators, for fear that the Japanese would identify them and track down their relatives in Japan to hold them hostage. Luckily, this did not happen to Harry’s family. Like Frank, Harry was lucky enough to survive the war. Further details about Frank and Harry’s experiences can be found in “Midnight in Broad Daylight.

The tale of the Fukuharas is an all-too-often occurrence in wartime, Sakamoto noted, wherein people must choose between loyalty to their nation, defined by a common ethnicity or religious sect, and loyalty to their country, defined by citizenship. In these times, the definition of patriotism is called into question.

In response to a question about whether patriotism is simply an act of supporting one’s current government, Kate Seid, an attendee of the lecture, said, “I think it’s much more. I think our culture, our society and our government is multitudinous, and I think there are a variety of ways to work to further and benefit that system.”

“With the benefit of time and space from the event of World War II, people can now look back more fondly on those Japanese Americans who enlisted; people nowadays will uphold all the people that enlisted in the 442nd or the MIS or any of the other Japanese-American units…I have relatives who joined the MIS, who fought and died in various wars fighting for this country,” said Kaitlyn Tsuyuki, a senior at Amherst College majoring in biochemistry and Asian languages and civilizations. “In my opinion, I think American imperialism has often been used as a mechanism for exerting a lot of American power…in places where [we] have seen our ourselves as doing the right thing, but have left behind a lot of chaos and turmoil and haven’t really taken steps to redress that.”

Kyle Lai can be reached at [email protected].



2 Responses to “Historian Pamela Sakamoto talks about the Japanese-American experience during WWII”

  1. Ed Cutting, EdD on February 19th, 2018 10:18 am

    ” By 1945, the Imperial Japanese General Headquarters for the Japanese believed that the U.S. would launch an amphibious invasion of Japan in November. “

    They were right, Hiroshima and Nagasaki is what saved us from having to do that.
    Yes, the Atomic Bomb saved JAPANESE lives…

  2. NITZAKHON on March 15th, 2018 8:57 am

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