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Quiet Warriors Takashi Matsui

Takashi Matsui. Photo: Densho

By Mikiko Amagai, For The North American Post

“They say, ‘History is written by the winners.’ Well, it’s not fair to try only the losers. What about the ones who dropped an A-bomb and killed hundreds of thousands civilians in Hiroshima? There are some Americans who criticized the proceedings at the Tokyo Trial in 1946 but the United States was the winner. They said that it should have been conducted by the neutral countries, not the winners.”

Such are the thoughts of Takashi Matsui, who was involved in the “B” Class War Crimes Trials as a US Army Military Intelligence Service (MIS) translator in Yokohama, right after Japan surrendered. He was sent to Japan during its Occupation period (1945-1952) with other American soldiers. The success of Japan’s postwar recovery is credited in part to the Kibei-Nisei soldiers’ efforts, the best translators available to the US Army at the time. This fact has been overlooked for many years.

Takashi’s parents immigrated from Fukuoka-ken in the early 1900s. They worked in an apple orchard in Hood River, Oregon. At age three, Takashi was taken by his mother to Japan to receive a Japanese education, which was common among Nisei in those days. (Such students are termed Kibei-Nisei, or simply Kibei [lit., return-to-America]). In 1934, upon his graduation from junior high school, Takashi returned to Seattle where his uncle resided. With a limited knowledge of English, he enrolled in a school for foreigners, located at 12th and Jackson. Two years prior to his return to the US, his parents (then living in Seattle) had returned to Japan. Matsui was in his senior year (last quarter) at the University of Washington when Pearl Harbor was attacked.

His first reaction was, “This is terrible and a serious matter!”

Takashi was concerned. He first learned of Pearl Harbor on a radio news broadcast at 11 a.m. on Sunday, December 7, 1941. Born in the US and having been reared in Japan from age 3 to 17, he was perplexed. In March 1942, he was drafted into the US Army.

“I was not aware of the mass evacuation and incarceration of the Japanese and Japanese Americans until I received a letter from one of my friends while I was undergoing basic training at Camp Robinson, Arkansas,” he said.

In July, he was transferred to another army camp in Wyoming.

“There was no place for Nisei.”

From Wyoming, Caucasian soldiers were sent overseas while Nisei remained at Fort Warren.

“There was absolutely nothing to do until the 442nd Regimental Combat Team was formed,” said Matsui.

In September 1942, he was singled out to transfer to Camp Savage, Minnesota to attend the Military Intelligence Service Language School (MISLS). The class session was halfway over. Upon graduation in December, he was selected to be an instructor and remained with the school. There, the US Army trained soldiers to be sent to Burma or Islands of the South Pacific and formed a translation center, Allied Translator and Interpreter Section (ATIS), in Australia.

Matsui was at Fort Snelling, Minnesota, where the expanded MIS School had moved in August 1944, when the war ended. It was a relief. The feeling of “no more military service” came first but was followed by anxiety.

“We, Nisei, don’t know what to do, what’s going to happen to us” was the true feeling.

He decided to stay in the military another year on the condition that he would be transferred to Japan where his parents were.

In September 1946, upon arrival in Japan, the US Army asked him whether he had any relatives or friends in Japan, and if so, he could be given a two-week leave.

“I was impressed. They said to go to my family immediately when I said, ‘Yes.’”

His parents’ apple orchard, his “home,” was located on the Nippoh Line in Kyushu Island, on the way from Kokura to Oita. His parents and all the siblings he saw were in good health. One of his sisters had died of illness during the war and a younger brother who served in the Japanese Army somewhere near Port Moresby, New Guinea never returned.

“What a pity. I sound like bragging but he was an all-A student, all the way from the grade school. So, Mom said that it was a great loss for the family. She was crying,” remembers Matsui.

There are no words to describe Takashi’s feelings. He was the only one in his immediate family who stayed in the US during World War II.

“But there were many Kibei Nisei like me in Seattle. There was the US Hotel across from the old North American Post. A Kibei Citizen’s Club (Kibei Shimin Kyoukai) was in the basement. I could meet lots of people there. There were always about 30 to 40 Kibeis before the war. I didn’t feel lonely.”

Takashi says this without bluff, underneath his “military face.”

In Japan, Matsui was involved in the “B” Class War Crimes Trials (for “conventional war crimes”) as a Defense Investigator (civilian). He learned the 20th-century history of the Japanese Empire from the Imperial Japanese Army point of view — the complicated situation resulting from the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), and the effects of the economic embargo from the Allied nations (1939-). There was also a strategy conflict between the Japanese Army and Navy (1930s). With Japan finally driven into an inescapable corner, the Pearl Harbor attack was the last resort. In his investigation, Matsui saw materials by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto that admitted that Japan could defend itself only for one or 1-1/2 years. Additionally, he viewed politician and army general Hideki Tojo’s testimony that “Japan started the war to protect ourselves.”

Matsui, when he understood the Imperial Japanese Army’s Catch-22 situation, admits that Japan’s pre-Pearl Harbor setting can be interpreted Tojo’s way.

“They say, ‘A mouse, when cornered by a cat, would fight back.’ Anyone who can understand Japan’s point of view may have a similar opinion,” according to the MIS veteran.

The trials lasted two and a half years.

As a bilingual and bicultural American Nisei, Takashi and other Kibei contributed greatly to the postwar rehabilitation of Japan. He also has personal memories of mediating and arbitrating between Japanese and Americans and acting as a peacemaker.

Once, he and other Americans were stopped by “pan-pan girls (also called ‘onrii’, prostitutes for only US soldiers)” waiting under a train overpass near Ginza, Tokyo, on the route to a dance hall.

“The dance hall was open for the American GI’s after 6 p.m. and they stopped us, calling ’Hey, soldiers…’ We scolded them to go home and they said, ‘We were the ladies of the defeated country.’ We gave them some money and they left,” Takashi remembers. “How shameful it was to think that Japanese women would do such conduct.”

Another incident was at an outdoor market in Ginza. A retired military man was selling his medals. Takashi, thinking that he must have fought hard in war to receive them, told him not to sell such souvenirs. He paid about three times more than what the man was asking for and said to take them home. The man, with tears overflowing from his eyes, said that he never met anybody like Takashi and accepted the money. Takashi went back later to return the medal he received but the man was gone. Matsui has kept it all these years for him.

Finished with his duty as an investigator, Matsui stayed a few years in Japan and came back to the US in 1950 to complete his interrupted studies and graduate from the UW. He later worked for a trading company and then for Mitsubishi for 30 years until retiring. He met Mitsuye, from San Francisco, who later became his wife of 59 years. She was a secretary for Major John Aiso, the director of the Japanese language school at Camp Savage.

Takashi is well-known in Greater Seattle for his lifelong commitment to community service. As a bridge between the US and Japan, he has participated in numerous organizations including the Nisei Veterans Committee, Japan-America Society, Japanese Community Service, Seattle Japanese Language School, Seattle-Kobe Sister City Association, Fukuoka Kenjinkai, Cherry Blossom Festival, etc.

Nothing can stop his passion. He received a “100 Newsmakers of Tomorrow Award” from Time Magazine in 1953 as the only Nisei and “the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Rays” kunsho award from the Japanese government in 1994.

During my conversation with Matsui, who is going to celebrate his Beiju year (88 years) next year, a light of anguish and the great pride of being Kibei Nisei alternated on the surface of his military face.

Editor’s notes.

The Imperial Japanese Army versus Navy inter-service conflict led to World War II. In short, Japan needed petroleum reserves to develop, which it lacked. The army approach was to get them in Siberia, which was logical because it adjoins Manchuria, which was already a part of the Japanese Empire. The navy approach, however, prevailed: to get them from the Dutch East Indies, today’s Indonesia.

Takashi Matsui also recorded a video interview on Densho (Dec. 1997).

This article, the 12th in the 13-article series, is reprinted with light editing from The North American Post-Northwest Nikkei, May 1, 2004. The remaining interview, and an epilogue, will appear in the next two months..