Key Kobayashi, second from left, with other Nisei soldiers in Japan during the post-World War II occupation. They worked as interpreters and translators. (Family photo)

U.S. occupation forces landing in Japan at the end of World War II immediately needed staff who could communicate with the defeated Japanese. Japanese American soldiers formed the core of the translation and interpretation service, putting them in the often awkward position of being conquerors who shared a heritage with the enemy.

One of the most common questions they were asked by the Japanese was: “What is democracy?”

Key Kobayashi, a 23-year-old U.S. soldier in Tokyo in 1945, found that a difficult question to answer. He was a Nisei, a second-generation Japanese American, in his second year at the University of California at Berkeley when Pearl Harbor was bombed. President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the Army to move 120,000 Japanese Americans living on the West Coast into camps, behind barbed wire, against the possibility that some might be spies in the new war against Japan.

Kobayashi was sent to the Gila River War Relocation Center in Arizona with his sister’s family before being drafted near the end of the war.

More than 30 years later, Kobayashi gave this account of his struggle to define democracy in an oral history project conducted by Marlene J. Mayo, a history professor, for the University of Maryland’s Gordon W. Prange Collection:

That was, I guess, the favorite catchword, so to speak, after the war that Japanese realized that one of the reasons United States won was because it was a democratic country. And they thought they had to know what the secret of democracy was.

Q: What kind of answer did you give to them?

Kobayashi: That was very difficult because I said, “Gee, I can’t explain to you what democracy is.” And they said, “Sure, you must know because you lived in the United States. And I said, “No, I really couldn’t.” And actually, now that I look back, I often wonder if I told them about my wartime experience of being sent into a camp as an enemy alien and then later on being drafted into the Army and then being sent overseas and say, “Okay, that’s what a democratic country will do,” whether that kind of lesson, so to speak, or moral would be appreciated. Because to me, I still have a difficult time trying to define democracy, especially to the Japanese that were brought up under the emperor system.

In early 1944, Japanese Americans were added back to the selective-service system and draft notices started going out, including to the young men still in camps like Kobayashi. (Many had volunteered to fight, lobbying for the right to enlist, to prove their patriotism. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team of Nisei soldiers, formed by volunteers in 1943 and sent to the European theater, became the most decorated unit of the war.)


Gila River Relocation Center in Arizona, where Key Kobayashi was sent with his sister’s family. (National Archives and Records Administration)

Some of their dog tags were stamped with the address of the internment camp where their parents were held. In the case of Yukio Kawamoto, who died earlier this year at the age of 99, his ID tag showed this home address — 57A, Topaz, Utah — indicating the camp where his parents lived under armed guard. It was stamped with a letter to indicate religion. When he was inducted, the Army gave him three choices: P for Protestant, C for Catholic and J for Jewish. Kawamoto asked for a B, for Buddhist, but the military could not accommodate him, so he selected P and carved it into a B for his own satisfaction, according to his son, Brian Kawamoto.

At Camp Topaz, his parents displayed in a window of their quarters the pennant with a single blue star, which indicated a family member serving in World War II.

This second generation of Japanese Americans was not uniformly fluent in the language of their parents. Many understood only limited, conversational Japanese. Those with more fluency, like Kobayashi, went into training as Army linguists for the Military Intelligence Service, to translate captured documents, interrogate prisoners of war and interpret for war crimes trials, among other duties.

The war ended by the time Kobayashi completed the course at Fort Snelling, in Minnesota, so he was assigned to the Allied Translator and Interpreter Section in Tokyo, returning to a country he had lived only briefly as a child and had not visited since. His parents ashes are there.

The appearance of U.S. soldiers with Japanese faces was confusing for the Japanese.

Shortly after we got to Tokyo, about three of us, all in GI uniforms, were riding the trolley in Tokyo. And as we got on, we inched our way inside and it was pretty crowded. We noticed three or four Japanese middle-aged women looking at us, and they were saying, “Gee, they have a GHQ patch … but they have Japanese faces.” And they were puzzled, they couldn’t understand how a member of the Occupation Forces could look like a Japanese. We overheard them; we knew exactly what they were saying, but we didn’t make any comment. But just at the time when the trolley came to our stop, we had to brush past them and said in Japanese, “Please excuse us. We are getting off here.” The women looked at us and they heard us speaking Japanese, and they were just shocked … because they thought the Occupation were all Caucasian members.

He said he found his nonofficial duties more interesting.

We would be translating at our desk and a GI would come walking in the door and beckon to one of us. So we would go over and ask him, “Yes? Can we help you?” And this GI invariably, one after another, brought a love letter from a Japanese girlfriend. And so we’d translate the love letter for him and invariably it was like the case of Madame Butterfly, where the Gl had received his orders and he’d have to go back to the States, and the girl was writing how much she loved him and how much she was going to miss him and hoped that they would get together again.

Although U.S. immigration law banned Japanese until 1952, some servicemen found ways to bring home Japanese brides during the years of the occupation, either by meeting the strict requirements of paperwork and permissions during a couple short-term legal windows, or by getting their congressional representatives to help arrange visas. The door opened for them with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, and by the end of the 1950s, more than 30,000 Japanese spouses of U.S. servicemen entered the country.

Contrary to his expectations, Kobayashi married a Japanese woman, whom he met on a blind date. In 1951, he wed Kyoko Toyoda.

He recalled that not all the lessons taught by Americans were appreciated:

When we got on the train, especially if there were Japanese women standing, we would give up, relinquish our seats for the Japanese women. And the Japanese men would look at us out of the side of their eyes as if to say, “What are those GIs doing giving their seats to Japanese women?” … [On a train], I saw some Caucasian GI actually order a Japanese man to give up his seat, not for himself but for a Japanese woman. And here you saw a very embarrassing situation because … the Japanese men were not hesitant about remaining seated while the women passengers are standing. … She was very hesitant about accepting the seat, but it was only after much strenuous urging by the GI that she finally thought she’d better take the seat to placate him. So I don’t think the woman was appreciative at all.

Kobayashi went back to college for a couple of years before being recalled to active duty for the Korean War. He later became assistant head of the Japanese section at the Library of Congress. He and his wife spoke Japanese to each other but not to their children. One of his sons, Turner, said they thought it would make life difficult for their children, as it had for families in the 1940s.

Kobayashi, a baseball fanatic, was an active volunteer with Little League baseball in Northern Virginia and for the national organization, interpreting for Japanese Little League teams that came to the United States. The baseball field at Jefferson Village Park in Falls Church was dedicated and named in his honor two years after his death in 1992.

For more than 70 years, he and his family have organized a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery on the Sunday before Memorial Day to remember the sacrifices of Japanese Americans. (The annual Cherry Blossom Freedom Walk to raise awareness of the experiences of Japanese Americans during World War II will take place at 10 a.m. April 6 at the National Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism During World War II.)

The first Japanese Americans interred at Arlington Cemetery were two members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team killed during the rescue of a battalion trapped in the Vosges Mountains in eastern France. After Kobayashi’s death, his son Turner assumed responsibility for the remembrance, along with the local chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League and the Japanese American Veterans Association.

Decades after his father attempted to explain democracy to the Japanese during the occupation, Turner recalled a conversation with his father in which he asked his son, “What is your favorite word in the entire English language?”

Turner said that was a tough one, and that he’d have to think about it. He came back later with the word “excellence.”

“What’s yours, Dad?”

“ ‘Choice.’ Because if you have a choice in something, you’re free. That’s what America is.”

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