A Japanese Canadian Teenage Exile: The Life History of Takeshi (Tak) Matsuba
Part 4: Employment with the US Occupation Forces
by Stanley Kirk
This series tells the life history of Takeshi (‘Tak’) Matsuba, a second-generation Japanese Canadian born in Vancouver to immigrants from Wakayama. It narrates his memories of his childhood and teen years until the beginning of World War II. It also describes his life in postwar Japan, particularly his employment with the American Occupying Forces and then his career with various companies in the private sector. In the process of gathering data for this research, it was discovered that Tak has a real knack for reminiscing in a humorous and catchy way, so large portions of the narrative are told in Tak’s own words in order to keep their original flavor.
Soon after moving to Japan, Tak found work with the US occupation forces. While it included room and board, the salary itself was rather low and was frozen by law at about 1500 yen per month, of which he was only permitted to withdraw 500 yen per month while the remainder was kept in the bank. Yet, he was able to send some money each month to support his parents and siblings. Officially, his main work was to keep statistical records of personnel and cargo moving in and out of Japan.
He recalls, “They tested me for my typing ability which I passed with high marks and I was assigned to Haneda Air Base. Although I was hired as a clerk typist, I never did any typing, but my responsibilities were as a statistician, keeping a record of passengers and cargo arriving and departing from the base. I did not care what kind of job they gave me as I was just happy to be hired. At a time when food and housing were scarce in Japan, my job came with a bed in a dormitory and I could eat three meals a day at the Air Force mess hall, so I could send a large part of my earnings to my parents in Wakayama to support them and my siblings who were in school.”
Tak was also used frequently as an interpreter.
“I was not trained to be an interpreter, but in those days there were so few who could interpret that even someone like me with a limited Japanese language capability was useful. I always did the best I could to be of help and enjoyed helping, but there was one case where I was asked to interpret at a court martial. As things proceeded, the prosecutor would ask me to ask a question of the accused. I was told to reply in the first person. In other words, he would accuse the defendant of a crime and when the defendant replied, I would have to say, ‘Yes, I did’ or ‘No, I didn’t.’ I didn’t like that at all. I felt like I was the person on trial. That was one of the rare times I didn’t enjoy helping.
“I had an aunt who was a school teacher in the Haneda area and one time one of her former pupils was arrested by the police and was in custody at the police station. I used to accompany the U.S. Military Police to the station when U.S. soldiers and Japanese civilians were involved in a crime case and I was a familiar figure in the area. Word got around to my aunt to ask my help in getting the former pupil released. I didn’t do anything to help, but for some reason, the student was released and the village thugs thought I had helped. After that, whenever I was walking through the village, young thugs would come up to me and thank me. That was uncomfortable for me in that, first of all, I didn’t have anything to do with the release and secondly, I was still a naïve young man and afraid to talk with the thugs, even if they meant well.”
Some other uncomfortable situations occurred when the Military Police needed Tak’s interpreting services and asked him to accompany them on night raids on black marketers.
“It was after my working hours and I went to the Military Police Offices where they gave me a handgun. I promptly gave it back, telling them that I had never handled guns and I would be very dangerous with one. During the occupation days, flints for cigarette lighters were sold by watch sales and repair shops. Flints were imported and so much in demand that there was a profitable black market. That night, I went with the patrol unit into the nearby village and we raided a watch shop. We pried open the door and went upstairs where the proprietor and his wife were sleeping. The proprietor knew what his misdemeanor was and was resigned to the fact (of his arrest), but his wife was scared to be awakened by a group of American soldiers and was shaking with fear. I really felt sorry for her.
“At another time, I was called in to go on a raid to nearby base of a U.S. Army Engineering Unit. This was an all colored soldiers unit and they were smuggling prostitutes into their barracks. We arrested several soldiers and women and the next day I had to go and help with the investigations where I oversaw one of the women write an account of what had transpired. I was not that good at writing Japanese, but the woman had very little education due to the war, so I sometimes had to correct her kanji. The officer in charge saw me doing so and thought I was helping her write the account whereas I was only helping her with a few kanji characters. I was starting to be frequently asked to help the Military Police so finally my commanding officer had to tell them to stop. He felt it was not fair for them to take so much time away from my regular job.”
Through his work Tak was able to develop meaningful relationships with members of the occupying forces.
“My main job was to keep records of troop and cargo movement, but it was my nature not to say no when asked to help out elsewhere and I made many friends among the officers. At one time, an officer came to my office and we chatted and in the course of our conversation, he asked what my neck size was. It seemed odd that he should ask my neck size, and I can’t recall now, but at that time, I probably thought there were going to be some excess uniforms and he was getting a shirt for me. It turned out that, at Christmas time, he came to my office with a huge package which was a gift for me. I was very surprised and opened it to find a shirt, sweater, and cardigan. In those days, decent clothing was scarce and the officer and friends had ordered from a mail order catalog for me. Needless to say, I appreciated that very much.”
Likewise, his improving skills as an interpreter and willingness to be of help to anyone made him a valued assistant to Japanese American members of the occupying forces as well as white soldiers with limited literacy in English.
“There were Japanese American soldiers at the base. They had very limited Japanese language skills, so quite often, when their Japanese relatives visited them, I was asked to go with them to help with the language. At first, I was just an interpreter, but after a few meetings the families often got to know me better than the relatives they were meeting. With one family, I became good friends and I was not sure whether they came in order to visit their relative or to visit with me.”
Another experience was with a white American soldier friend who was from the southern part of the US. “To my great surprise, he asked me to write a letter to his mother. He told me very little about what to write so I had to ask him questions and coax information from him before I could write a letter. I was a fairly fast typist so I could type up the letters for him and I got the feeling that he had very little education and couldn’t write.”
During this time, Tak lost his younger brother Gabby. After Tak had moved to Tokyo in 1946 and found employment with the US occupation forces there, Gabby started working in 1947 at an Occupation Forces base in Osaka. Like Tak, he also developed good friendships with members of the American military. However, he later became ill with spinal meningitis. During his illness, some members of the Military Police who had become his friends gave him medicine which they had apparently confiscated off the black market. Unfortunately, however, Gabby did not recover and passed away in 1949. Tak reminisces wistfully, “Gabby was a good student and excelled in studies and sports. He was quite a good swimmer, he could draw well, did some carving. Hate to admit it, but he beat me all around. In my business career, I often wished he had not died so early. He would have been a good partner. He was the most talented of all of us.”
*This series is an abridged version of “A Japanese Canadian Teenage Exile: The Life History of Takeshi (Tak) Matsuba,” in Language and Culture: The Journal of the Institute for Language and Culture, Konan University, March 2020.
Stanley Kirk grew up in rural Alberta and graduated from the University of Calgary. He now lives in Ashiya City, Japan with his wife Masako and son Takayuki Donald. Presently he teaches English at the Institute for Language and Culture at Konan University in Kobe. Recently Stan has been researching and writing the life histories of Japanese Canadians who were exiled to Japan at the end of World War II.
[Editor’s Note] This article was originally published in Discover Nikkei at <www.discovernikkei.org>, which is managed by the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.