Godfathers of Japan Studies Take Look Back


When Japanese fighters bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, propelling America into war against Japan, the U.S. Navy was caught flat-footed in more ways than one.

Only 12 officers in the entire ranks were fluent in Japanese. The Japanese Issei (first generation) immigrants and their American Nisei offspring who understood the language were about to be rounded up into internment camps. In a panicky scramble to plug the gap, the Navy plucked more than 1,000 men and women from Harvard, Yale and other elite institutions and sent them to a crash course in the Japanese language at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Those “Boulder Boys"--who included some girls--served critical roles as interpreters, translators and code breakers, helping bring an end to the war. But their greatest contribution came later, when many became America’s first real brain trust on Japan.

Many of these unheralded veterans, now mostly in their 70s and 80s, gathered in Pomona over the weekend for the first--and probably last--conference to share their little-known experiences. The lineup included some of America’s most distinguished names in Japanese studies.

There were Donald Keene and Edward Seidensticker, internationally renowned scholars and translators of Japanese literature who brought to the West such treasures as the “Tale of Genji” and the modern classics of Kobo Abe and Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata. Keene, 79, recalled his first glimpse of the emotion in the Japanese soul when he translated the blood-soaked diaries of dead soldiers: the terrible anguish at approaching death, the ravages of malaria and malnutrition and the bitter disillusionment over Japan’s World War II aggression.


There were William Theodore deBary, James Morley and Robert Scalapino, who improved and expanded East Asian studies programs at such universities as Columbia and Berkeley. Scalapino, 80, has pioneered the study of Japanese democracy, briefed three American presidents on Asia, met virtually every postwar Japanese prime minister, and started the University of California’s Institute of East Asian Studies to meld traditional academics with concrete policy analysis.

Some of the “Boulder Boys” became politicians and business leaders; some were among the first journalists who could interview the Japanese in their own language. That fluency helped Frank Gibney become the first American correspondent to uncover rapes, murders and other crimes against the Japanese by American GIs during the postwar Allied occupation. Gibney, 75, is now president of the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College, which sponsored the conference.

“These are the godfathers of Japanese studies in the U.S.,” said David Arase, a professor of politics at Pomona College. “They not only demystified Japan, they also dispelled the vicious negative stereotypes of Japan by giving Americans an image based on deep knowledge of Japanese language and culture.”

The story of the Boulder Boys, however, also includes the painful contrast with their Japanese instructors--most of them Issei and Nisei dispatched to Boulder from the internment camps. While the war launched the careers of the Boulder intellectual elites, it destroyed the lives of many of their teachers. Like other Japanese Americans interned during the war, they lost their homes, businesses and sometimes family members who succumbed to illness in the camps. Conference organizers Roger Dingman and Pedro Loureiro are trying to preserve these stories as well and, at the conference, presented videotaped remarks by three former teachers.

The Navy’s decision not to accept Japanese Americans for language training also repeatedly surfaced at the conference: Several veterans criticized it as racism. By contrast, the Army recruited for its Military Intelligence Service vast numbers of Nisei, whose work as translators and code breakers has been widely recognized for helping end the war.

For many in the Navy program, it began as a lark. Gibney was studying Greek at Yale; Scalapino was studying European politics at Harvard; and Keene was studying French at Columbia. They ended up applying for the language program when the call went out for Phi Beta Kappas or language specialists after the Navy exhausted the short list of Americans born in Japan--"BIJs"--and students in the handful of universities teaching Japanese.

The recruits were young, bright and intellectually curious. Although some veterans, like Oregon native Omer Ostensoe, had grown up with Nisei friends, many others were almost entirely ignorant about Japan. There was only one Japanese restaurant in New York City, Keene recalled.

The thought of eating raw fish horrified him. The man who would become America’s preeminent interpreter of Japanese culture had only vague, conflicting images of “beautiful Japan"--kimonoed women holding parasols on humped bridges--and “brutal Japan,” led by ruthless warriors ravaging Asia.

Those images were soon fleshed out through what the veterans universally described as warm relations with the school’s Japanese American instructors. As they recounted their school experiences, the participants brought out their yellowed textbooks and other mementos like children at show and tell. Remember memorizing snippets of the Japanese defense code? That immortal first sentence: Kore wa hon desu--"This is a book”? The stern schoolmarm Ms. Wong, who barked out orders to clean off the crumbs at the toaster table?

Upon graduation, most were sent to Pearl Harbor. Others ended up around the Pacific or, eventually, on Okinawa and the Japanese mainland. Much of the work was “stultifyingly inconsequential,” Keene said--translating lists of Japanese soldiers already dead or the specifications for obscure weapons. But sometimes they stumbled onto key military intelligence--descriptions in diaries of troop movements, for instance.

The lucky ones got the more interesting work of interrogating Japanese POWs. (In doing so, the participants acknowledged, they covertly flouted the Geneva Convention, which restricted to name, rank and serial number the information that prisoners could be forced to divulge.)

Sometimes the intelligence culled was gruesome. In the soldiers’ diaries, Keene came across descriptions of how the Japanese killed an American aviator. He learned of Japanese who were killing Chinese prisoners and cutting out their livers for medicine. The atrocities added to Keene’s inner conflict over Japan, which he says he eventually resolved by simply focusing on the beauty over the beastly. He ultimately saw the beauty as the more important aspect, given the country’s current status as a major power that has renounced war.

“Almost all of us who had this experience realized that any depiction of the Japanese as this or that is bound to be mistaken,” Keene said. “There are bad Japanese and good Japanese.”

When they completed their military service, some of the Boulder Boys returned to the mainland, lost their language capabilities and carved out lives unconnected with Japan. But whether they stayed with Japan or not, they say, their experiences remained unforgettable.

Morley was one who stayed. The retired scholar has written numerous books on Japanese diplomacy and security, helped navigate the sensitive negotiations over the U.S. mutual security treaty in the 1960s, and helped build Columbia University’s East Asian Institute.

Those lifelong endeavors were inspired by his first, devastating visit to Japan in 1950. Morley saw a land nearly flattened by war: Ex-soldiers without arms and legs begging on the street; hungry families offering their household possessions for a bit of food. He can’t recall those scenes, even now, without swallowing tears.

“I thought: ‘We can’t have this sort of thing. No more wars,’ ” Morley said. “That’s when I determined to devote my life to a relationship with Japan.”