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Nisei Linguists: A Bridge Between Nations

Nisei linguist William Hiromu Wada interprets surrender talks between American and Japanese naval officers aboard the USS Panamint.

Voices Across Borders

The Blog of the Race and Resistance Research Programme at TORCH

Posted by: Evan Matsuyama

Date: 14th October, 2016

Nisei Linguists: A Bridge Between Nations


In light of the recent anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the upcoming 75th anniversary of bombing of Pearl Harbor, I have chosen to write about of a group of Asian Americans that witnessed the traumatic events that both started and ended the Pacific War.


In 1941, Japanese American (Nisei) watched in horror as Imperial Japanese aircraft bombed their adopted home in the Hawaiian Islands. The Nisei were subject to witness a second tragedy in 1945 as the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the capital of their ancestral homeland in Southern Japan.[1] Although caught in the military and political crossfire between the country of their forefathers and their country of nationality, the Nisei’s American identity transcended their familial relationship to Japan. Over 6,000 joined the U.S. Army in response to Imperial Japanese aggression against the United States.


The study of Japanese American participation in the Pacific Theatre allows for a comparison of the Nisei’s complex sense of racial and cultural identity with both American and Imperial Japanese perceptions of the Japanese American community. Prior to the outbreak of hostilities in 1941, Nisei political allegiance to the United States was balanced by the community’s retention of the Japanese language and cultural traditions. However, following the Pearl Harbor raid, American authorities increasingly viewed the Nisei’s language abilities and Japanese cultural practices as evidence of their political fealty to the Japanese state.


Although the tremendous demand for Nisei linguists eventually overcame these prejudiced restrictions, Japanese Americans endured intense scrutiny by the American military for the duration of the war. Inversely, Nisei soldiers were often met with hostility during their interactions with Imperial soldiers, who accused them of betraying their filial and racial obligations to the Japanese state.


The Nisei defied both Imperial Japanese accusations of political and racial disloyalty and American suspicions of Nisei cultural and racial affiliations with Japan through their invaluable use of the Japanese language in support of the Allied war effort. Their active participation in the Pacific conflict served as a dual assertion of their American national identity and Japanese cultural heritage. In spite of the initial scepticism and hostility directed against the Nisei, their efforts in minimizing casualties on both sides of the conflict dramatically altered both American and Japanese perceptions of the Nisei linguists in the postwar era.[2]


The Japanese Americans’ pivotal service in negotiating and maintaining the 1945 peace between the United States and Japan is now recognized by both nations, with the Nisei linguists described as “a bridge across two countries.”[3]


Evan Matsuyama is a DPhil student researching for a thesis on Japanese ethics and culture in the 20th century advancement of Asian American civil liberties.


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[1] Hawaii’s population was over forty percent Japanese American in 1941. Over half of Japanese immigrants to the United States arrived from Hiroshima and surrounding prefectures.

[2] It is estimated that Japanese American linguists contributed to the preservation over 100,000 lives in the Pacific Theatre.

[3] As mentioned by Emperor Hirohito to Nisei linguist Kan Tagami during the occupation of Japan.