Harry Akune. Ken Akune. George Fujimori. Yoshiaki Fujitani. Harry Fukuhara. Bruce Kaji. Richard Hamasaki. Takehiro Higa. Warren Higa. Grant Ichikawa. Thomas Sakamoto. Hitoshi Sameshima. Ted Tsukiyama. Elaine Yagawa. Herbert Yanamura.
Those are some of the names of the Americans of Japanese heritage who relate their WWII experiences in filmmaker Junichi Suzuki’s “MIS: Human Secret Weapon.” It’s Suzuki’s final installment of a trilogy of documentaries about the Japanese American experience that began with 2006’s “Toyo’s Camera,” about famed photographer Toyo Miyatake. That was followed by 2010’s “442: Live With Honor, Die With Dignity,” the subject matter of which was the storied 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team.
In his final exploration, Suzuki devotes full attention to a subject that has received less attention, comparatively, than a different group of second-generation Japanese Americans, namely the aforementioned 442.
Though connected by American nationality, Japanese ancestry and service in the U.S. Armed Forces, the experiences of the 442 men and the Military Intelligence Service members had significant differences.
The MIS served in the Pacific Theater of Operations during WWII, while the 100th/442nd served in Europe and North Africa. The 442 were trained as combat troops and fought with guns, grenades and artillery. While some MIS members had occasion to fight, their specialty was more cerebral; as the movie’s subtitle says, they used their minds as human secret weapons to assist in the Allied war effort against imperial Japan as linguists, interpreters, translators and interrogators.
They studied captured Japanese documents, monitored radio transmissions, and persuaded Japanese soldiers and civilians to surrender rather than commit suicide. Later, as the movie relates, their unique blend of cultural and linguistic knowledge smoothed the postwar occupation and assisted in the reconstruction of Japan, and helped set the stage for Japan’s phoenix-like economic recovery in the decades to come.
Comparisons between the 442 and the MIS are bound to be problematic. It’s inherently easier to understand events like the 442’s many battles, the medals won, the lives rescued and lost, the wounds suffered, the towns liberated. Yet it is safe to say that the contributions from the service to the United States by the MIS Nisei and Kibei were as important, if not more so, when observed from a more dispassionate perspective. It’s fitting, then, that “MIS” is bilingual, subtitled in Japanese with English narration by Lane Nishikawa.
“MIS” relates the genesis of how Japanese Americans from Hawaii and the U.S. mainland came to serve in the Army, from prewar origins in San Francisco to a surge that occurred after Pearl Harbor, with transfers to Minnesota’s Camp Savage and Fort Snelling. Suzuki’s story hops through time and place, from present to the past, to Hawaii to California to Virginia to Washington, D.C. to Japan.
Best of all, however, is that Suzuki’s efforts preserve the faces and voices of the MIS men (and some women) and their recollections from a brief, yet intense period of their long lives — the youngest among those interviewed is 85 — when their unique blend of cultural and linguistic knowledge gave their lives a special purpose.
Even more amazing is the vitality of the interviewees, in their late 80s and early 90s. While it’s somewhat of a self-selecting sample, since only those who are still alive and have their faculties could be interviewed at this late date, it’s nevertheless inspiring to see them shown walking, driving, cooking, using computers. The minds that served them so well many decades ago are still sharp.
Giving perspective as non-MIS members are historian Carol Jensen, Professor Emeritus Toru Kobayashi of Nagasaki International University, Sen. Daniel Inouye, former JANM President Irene (Hirano) Inouye, chief historian of U.S. Army Europe James McNaughton, former U.S. Rep. (and Cabinet member) Norman Mineta, ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, actress Tamlyn Tomita and Defense Language Institute Command historian Stephen Payne.
There are many marvelous stories — funny and horrifying, poignant and wistful, ironic and wondrous — that made it into the documentary and no doubt many, many more that simply could not make the cut due to time considerations, since “MIS” runs 100 minutes. The Battle of Okinawa and the atomic bombings get their due, but for me, one of the best stories, culled no doubt from the video archives of the Go for Broke National Education Center, is told by the late Kan Tagami.
Not all that different from other MIS Nisei, Tagami is nevertheless chosen by Gen. Douglas MacArthur to interact with Japan’s emperor, newly humanized from deity status. It’s the sort of assignment that would no doubt make his Issei parents’ heads spin in disbelief. He recalls Hirohito asking him if his mother and father were Japanese. He answers yes. The emperor tells him: “The Nisei are very important people to Japan now. They are a bridge between Japan and America. Thank you for your continued help.”
That sentiment still holds.
Screenings of “MIS: Human Secret Weapon” will take place on Saturday, May 19, at Nishi Hongwanji in Little Tokyo; Monday, May 28, at the James Armstrong Theatre in Torrance; Saturday and Sunday, June 2 and 3, at the Woodbridge Movies 5 in Orange County; and Saturday, June 9 ,at the Gaslamp 15 in San Diego. For more information, visit MIS-FILM.com.
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at George@NikkeiNation.com. The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2012 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.