by Samantha Lam
If you were asked to describe a “soldier,” what kind of image does that word conjure up in your mind? Popular media has generally portrayed the American soldier as a muscular white male, or sometimes a white female, and while they may have constituted the majority of the U.S. military force, history fails to give recognition to the Asian American women who contributed to the U.S.’s victory by taking on many different roles during World War II to assist the armed forces.
(continued) Starting in 1943, Japanese women, known as “Nisei” or “second-generation,” were accepted by the Army Nurse Corps (ANC) and the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) to work as nurses and doctors to provide medical care and as Military Intelligence Service officers and linguists. Aside from the Nisei, many other Asian American women have also served in the war, including Chinese American women serving in the Army Air Force and Filipino American women working in the underground resistance in the Philippines. Though Asian American women served many important functions in World War II, they are still overlooked or completely ignored in modern discourse. This post focuses on the Nisei women who served as linguists and their struggles balancing their identities as an American woman and a Japanese woman, while studying their mother tongue under considerable pressure at the U.S. War Department’s Military Intelligence Service Language School in Fort Snelling, Minnesota. Their histories and struggles during the war are just as valid as any other American war veteran’s experiences out on the field. The Nisei women, along with the many other Asian American women who also served, must also be recognized and commemorated as heroes who sacrificed themselves for their country.
World War II deeply impacted the lives of all Americans. While it was a time of great tragedy, it also provided new opportunities for work for certain racial groups and women. For example, African Americans were able to find work in factories in urban cities and move up north and out west. Women began turning them away from their traditional societal roles as homemakers and caretakers towards more proactive roles opening up in the factories and the military. For Japanese Americans, on the West Coast, however, with Japan being the “enemy nation” after bombing Pearl Harbor in 1941, they were labeled as “enemy aliens” and by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, forced from their homes into internment camps. Though the U.S. vindicated the whole Japanese American population after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the military recognized the need to improve intelligence operations and trained and recruited specialists in the Japanese language to serve as interpreters, interrogators, and translators, and so around 5,500 Nisei were assigned to the Military Intelligence Service Language School (MISLS).
With struggles against racism combined with normalized sexism in the military, Nisei women, and many other Asian American women, had a unique experience while serving their country. While Military administrators rationalized the idea of accepting women, especially Japanese American women, it was under gendered and racialized reasoning. The WACs were given assignments that “did not transcend the domestic sphere”, therefore stuck behind desks doing clerical work. Furthermore, they were expected to emphasize their femininity through their physical appearances, “feminine” meaning short skirts and makeup. Along with these demands, the Nisei WACS were also expected to act as “American women” but retain their Japanese linguistic heritage in order “to serve as role models as Japanese women who were able to attain American womanhood.”
Like many second or third-generation Asian Americans today, Nisei WACs did not all possess fluency in Japanese, especially not at the level needed to comprehend military-related documents, hence why they were sent to MISLS to study Japanese.
Harada recalls the difficulties she had there: “I wasn't very strong in Japanese, coming from an area [Idaho] where there were no Orientals. We just didn't speak the language... And so, when we were sent to Japan, I had an awful hard time working with [Japanese] military terms...Some of the girls from Hawaii used to work as radio announcers in Japanese. They had a lot more training and they could read and write [Japanese] fluently. At Fort Snelling, I was in one of the lowest classes, just learning the basics of Japanese.”
After they graduated from MISLS, they were assigned to various military sectors and helped the military forces immensely. Many of the graduates worked at war crimes trials as translators and interrogators and helped link a number of atrocities to individual Japanese by the captured diaries and letters, written during wartime, that they studied. Maybe one of their most impressive contributions, in the Civil Affairs branch, was censorship- screening the press, inspecting the postal system, watching communications of all kinds, and helping to find out what "has gone on in Japan these many years." These linguists classified approximately 2,000,000 Japanese documents according to tactical, strategic, or long-range value. In all, they translated some 20,000,000 pages.
The WAC’s and other Nisei linguists’ work for the United States should be honored and remembered. They wanted to serve in the U.S. military for various reasons, but mainly to show their loyalty to the United States. Some were also motivated by reasons that were rooted in their culture and status in their family and community. One former Nisei WAC, Grace Harada reveals her discussion with her parents on why she felt the need to serve in the military:
“They just felt that I shouldn't be doing something like that, and going so far away from home. But I told them that I just couldn't stay home and do housework. I wasn't accomplishing anything I said. [Harada's brother had already joined the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.] I said [to my parents] "There is a war going on and he can't do it alone." ...I said what I would be doing is replacing all these men to help end the war. I tried to talk with my parents into letting me go, and finally they released me and signed the consent for me to go in.”
With political circumstances so against them, the Nisei had made every effort to forget their Japanese heritage and prove they are “American.” The experience of attending the MISLS was both a challenge and a chance for the Nisei, to balance both of their identities for a cause and prove their loyalty to their homeland, the United States. Furthermore, as Nisei women, they constantly had to navigate social norms and persevere against sexually and racially intertwined expectations to serve as model American women in Japan, yet maintain their “Japanese-ness” to be competent translators. Their experiences are invaluable in that they not only but also expand one’s perspective of what kind of people serve in the military but also add another complex layer to the Asian American narrative.