These Japanese-American Vets Once Faced Discrimination, but Now They’re Heroes

Remembering the Japanese-American veterans who became America’s secret weapon.
Pearl Harbor veterans World War II
Photo: David Croxford 


table setting
Photo: David Croxford 

Ben Kaito grew up in ‘Aiea in the 1940s, where second-generation Japanese kids went to Japanese school in the afternoon as routinely as kids today head for soccer or math tutoring.


After the bombing of Pearl Harbor plunged the U.S. into the war, those skills helped Kaito with advanced language studies on the Mainland, preparing him to be part of the Army’s distinguished Military Intelligence Service. About 6,000 Japanese Americans— roughly half from Hawai‘i—served in the MIS using their Japanese language skills to translate enemy messages, interview prisoners of war, spy and eavesdrop in behind-the-scenes work credited with saving countless lives and shortening the war.


After he left the military, Kaito served on the Honolulu City Council for a decade beginning in 1961. But today he points out the irony that the Japanese language teachers, priests and other community leaders who taught them felt the most discrimination and were among the small percentage of people from Hawai‘i imprisoned in internment camps.


Years later with about 900 people filling a ballroom at the Hawai‘i Convention Center for a luncheon to honor 66 veterans and others who already passed away, Rev. Yoshiaki Fujitani feels that battle is behind them. “I feel that we’ve been sort of liberated from that kind of thinking.”


In a room dotted with humble heroes, most now in their 90s, survivors and family members, the stories needed to be pried from these veterans. It is far easier to talk to people in pairs, where one veteran gladly recounts the other’s story.


While Kaito is enjoying this month’s get-togethers with fellow veterans 75 years after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he is reminded of how fear can translate to discrimination.  “It’s happening to the Muslim community right now,” he says, of the anxiety that fuels suspicion of people based on their appearance or religion.


Rev. Yoshiaki Fujitani
Photo: Aaron Yoshino 


Fujitani, now 93, felt that harsh reality in the 1940s. He was a sophomore at the University of Hawai‘i, serving in ROTC when all those students were immediately inducted into the Hawai‘i Territorial Guard after Dec. 7.  But, after about a month-and-a-half, the suspicion of the time ended that arrangement. “These guys all look like the enemy,” Fujitani explains.


Pushed out of the guard, he served with the Varsity Victory Volunteers, helping the Army build roads and other wartime construction, then worked in private industry to help support his family after his father, bishop of the Honpa Hongwanji, was shipped to an internment camp in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Later, Fujitani served in the MIS, despite the fact this his father was labeled a “potentially dangerous enemy alien.”


Editor Robbie Dingeman with Herb Yanamura.
Editor Robbie Dingeman with Herb Yanamura.
Photo: Aaron Yoshino


Another veteran of the MIS, Herb Yanamura played a particularly heroic role during the bloody Battle of Okinawa.


Yanamura asked to go to the front lines where the Army was about to begin bombing at Okinawa, so he could try to persuade some people to see the wisdom of surrender over near-certain death.


The commander got him a loudspeaker, and, in Japanese, for nearly three hours off and on, he delivered the message: “Please come out, we’re going to bomb.”


He said he told them he was of Japanese ancestry, from another island, and even though the Japanese military had fought valiantly, the end was near. “But we are now trying to save as many of your lives as possible.”


Although that battle resulted in an astounding 250,000 casualties, officials say that Yanamura’s call coaxed 1,500 civilians and 150 soldiers in the village of Maehira to peacefully surrender. (This incident has been retold in the short film The Surrender Call which was shown at the 2015 Honolulu International Film Festival.)


Yanamura was later awarded the Bronze Star.


Admiral Harry Harris.
Adm. Harry Harris speaks to the crowd. 
Photo: David Croxford

Harry Harris, the four-star admiral who serves as commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, delivered the keynote speech at the lunch at the convention center, the son of an American military man and a Japanese mother. He thanked those gathered, many second-generation Japanese: “Nisei warriors literally shaped our military and our nation.”


“They also had to deal with discrimination, distrust and outright hostility from the very same country they were defending with their very same lives. From our country, yours and mine,” Harris said.


“So it’s no exaggeration for me to say that I stand on the shoulders of giants. For me to be a Japanese American four-star admiral in command of all the joint forces across the  Indonesia Pacific, well, it’s because of these Nisei trailblazers.”


Harris noted the legacy helped prepare the way for a historic upcoming meeting of Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Obama on Dec. 27 in Honolulu. The two will visit the Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor and “showcase the power of reconciliation, that has turned former enemies into the closest of allies.”


For Yanamura, the message from the brutal war is simple.


“I saw so many dead human beings scattered over Okinawa. War is terrible,” he said. “We should never have another war.


See more photos from the event Fighting Two Wars: Japanese American Veterans Tribute.


Read More Stories by Robbie Dingeman