By RYOKO OHNISHI, Rafu Staff Writer
“I am the first Japanese American who congratulated Mr. Keene for becoming a Japanese citizen of American ancestry, or American-Japanese,” chuckled Don Chikara Oka, 93, a former Nisei MIS soldier.
During World War II, Oka and Keene were both serving in the JICOPA (Joint Intelligence Center of Pacific Ocean Area) and worked in the same building in Honolulu. After 70 years, they reunited for the first time in the spring of 2013. Keene stopped in Los Angeles, where they met at a hotel for about an hour and chatted in both Japanese and English. Both of them kept in touch with each other by writing letters.
“In early 1943, Mr. Keene was a Navy officer, and I was an Army sergeant,” said Oka. “I was translating captured documents from Japanese to English, and I think Officer Keene was conducting interrogations. Among the six or seven Navy officers, Officer Keene was one of the quietest persons, as was I. There were about 30 Nisei language specialists sent there from Minnesota. I didn’t get to speak to Officer Keene much, but he sometimes asked me questions, so I helped him.”
Oka was also thankful because one time Keene wrote a letter that helped him get through his Army career.
“At that time, Japanese American soldiers were not trusted enough to enter the Pearl Harbor area due to security reasons,” Oka explained. He still treasures the letter that Keene wrote for him.
Born in Watsonville, Oka grew up in Okayama Prefecture and came back to the U.S. when he was 17 in 1937. He enrolled in the Otis Art Institute after he graduated from Belmont High. Then the Pacific War broke out. Oka received a draft notice in 1942. Three days before Executive Order 9066 was issued, he enlisted in the U.S. Army at the Presidio of Monterey.
At Camp Robinson in Arkansas, Oka received infantry training. Then at Camp Crowder in Missouri, he worked as KP (kitchen police). In 1943, Oka was assigned to the Military Intelligence Service and deployed to Kiska, Alaska, then to Hawaii. After being discharged, he became a graphic designer in Los Angeles. Oka has one daughter, two grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Keene received his doctoral degree from Columbia University in 1957 and is known as a pioneer of academic studies of Japan in the United States and a lifelong scholar of Japanese. His books include “Anthology of Japanese Literature” and “Sources of Japanese Tradition.” He took Japanese citizenship after the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, even though many foreign residents left the country for fear of radiation from the Fukushima nuclear accident.
“Mr. Keene is a rippa na kata (great man). What a man,” says Oka, who will be turn 94 years old on Jan. 5, 2014. He smiled, “I told Mr. Keene, ‘You are still young, only 91 years old yet.'”