Damp weather and wind flay away at the paint and tin of an old Quonset hut in San Francisco’s Presidio. And, near the foot of its door, there’s a stone with a message carved onto it. The stone commemorates the work of 60 students and teachers, mostly Americans of Japanese descent, who trained and taught here as linguists and translators during the outbreak of World War II.
Their work was done in secret. But as these Japanese American soldiers studied and slept in the hut, less than half a mile away the Army ordered the internment of their families into concentration camps throughout the United States, their civil liberties stripped away by prejudice and wartime hysteria.
Sons of Japanese Americans living under armed guard, their work as linguists was key to winning the war in the Pacific. Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s chief of intelligence credited them with saving as many as a million lives, and their translation of Japan’s military plans ensured U.S. control of the Pacific.
Through use of language, these Japanese American soldiers also helped create the world’s largest foreign language institute, the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Monterey. Yet their work in military intelligence remained classified until 1971.
But as these men pass away, there is an urgency to tell their story. Shigeya Kihara, a graduate of UC Berkeley, was one of these men. At his memorial service, “Shig” Kihara was remembered as the “founding father” of schools that trained mainly Japanese Americans to become skilled as translators, interpreters, linguists and advisors during World War II and the occupation of Japan.
Kihara was a Nisei, a person of Japanese ancestry born in the United States. When war broke out, he volunteered for military service.
Ironically, Kihara destroyed Japanese-language material at home when the war began. After Pearl Harbor, the FBI began searches of Japanese American homes and seizures of cultural items. Kihara destroyed books in hopes of preventing his family from being singled out.
Like Kihara, Masaji “Gene” Uratsu volunteered for army duty and was well versed in Japanese—a rare skill in those days. Japanese was once considered such a difficult language to master, it was said that the Imperial army did not bother to code messages. The need for linguists became critical.
Soon after entering service, Gene Uratsu was asked to read a Japanese military manual. “The interviewer told me that what took place shouldn’t be discussed,” said Urastu about that first test. He was also told that, “we would be subject to court-martial if we talked about it. It was highly classified.”
As the army secretly interviewed Uratsu, Kihara was tapped to develop a Japanese language school. He recalled that early meeting in a basement that had only “a wooden orange crate with a set of Japanese books and dictionaries.” This was the beginning of the Presidio’s language school where Kihara also served as an instructor.
“In 1941 there were no teaching materials,” said Urastu of those early days, “there were four teachers assigned but who did not have previous teaching experience. They had to make up the teaching materials and mimeograph them to give to the students.”
As the removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast began, the language school was moved to Minnesota where the school was known as the Military Intelligence Service Language School (MIS). Its former students would later refer to themselves as the “MISers.”
The need for linguists remained high and students were pulled out of school and sent on missions before completing the full course.
At the same time, Nisei were secretly recruited from internment camps to go to Minnesota. At Kihara’s memorial, Col. Harry Fukuhara stood straight and firm. In a voice shaking with emotion he recalled that for those Nisei who “left at 3 in the morning, with no good-bye party, no good-byes to their families,” it was a lonely time leaving camp.
After the war, MIS was moved to Monterey where it expanded to include about 30 languages. It is now known as the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center.
But the once secret MIS was “the genesis of the armed services’ only permanent resident foreign language training program of its kind,” says U.S. Command Historian James McNaughton. Now students from across the country attend the Defense Language Center for intensive study of foreign languages.
At Shig Kihara’s memorial, McNaughton recalled working with Kihara and gaining an insight into the unique history of MIS. As the Nisei studied and taught each other Japanese day and night at MIS, they helped to create a way of learning language still in use today. “The method of intensive study of a single subject, using native speakers and authentic materials” for daily use was pioneered at MIS said McNaughton.
After the war, Shigeya Kihara became the Defense Language Institute’s director of research and development. After retirement, Kihara continued to actively document the role of the Japanese American translators and interpreters.
One of Kihara’s projects was working with the National Japanese American Historical Society (JAHS) to transform the Quonset hut into an exhibit hall reflecting its use as a school for Nisei linguists. Fundraising continues with JAHS playing a leading role in this difficult task. In the meantime, the Quonset hut still stands in the face of San Francisco Bay’s relentless elements. But, in the JAHS vision statement, “the importance of language in communication and the ongoing battle against intolerance in the face of global conflict” reflects what the battered hut stands for.
For more information about MIS and about the exhibit hall project, contact the National Japanese American Historical Society at (415) 921-5007.