THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: The conflicted and self-destructive life of Tim Osato


Amid all the joys of working on the historical sketches of “The Great Unknown,” one of my favorite pleasures is hearing from readers. I am gratified to see that my recent article on the dancer/activist Sono Osato attracted some positive attention. In gratitude, I am inspired to present another Osato “great unknown” — the unsung career of Sono Osato’s younger brother Tim.

Born in Chicago on Jan. 1, 1925, Tim was the son of Issei photographer Shoji Osato and of Frances Fitzpatrick, a socialite of Irish and French Canadian ancestry whose marriage to a Japanese man caused a scandal in her family. According to a family story, his name was originally Mitsuru Osato, but his mother’s handwriting was so dreadful that it came out “Mitsrune” on his birth certificate. As a result, the Osatos changed the boy’s name to Tim. (Sono Osato, who had a conflicted relationship with her mother, later affirmed that Tim was Frances’ favorite). Tim was separated from his father at an early age; he moved with his mother and sisters Sono and Teru to France. There he spent his early years — Tim’s fluency in French would mark his later career. The young hapa boy attracted a certain amount of attention — in 1931, his portrait was painted by the noted post impressionist artist Leonard Foujita (Fujita Tsugharu).

After a few years living in France, Tim returned with his mother and sister Teru to the United States, while Sono remained in Europe, touring with the Ballets Russes. Once back in Chicago, he was reunited with his father. Tim grew up in Chicago during the 1930s. The senior Osato had a photography business, and took on assignments for the Japanese-controlled South Manchurian Railway. The young Osato became an avid reader of history books, and quickly achieved renown for his phenomenal knowledge and memory for facts. As a result, in 1939 and 1940 he was featured as a regular on a celebrated Wednesday evening radio program “The Quiz Kids,” where he served as an expert in history. In addition, Osato grew interested in painting, and attended high school at the Frances Parker School.

During this time, he became enamoured of his classmate Joan Mitchell, then a champion figure skater and later a renowned Abstract Expressionist painter — though Mitchell’s parents disapproved of her friendship with a Japanese American. According to Mitchell’s biographer Patricia Albers, Osato was attractive not only for his striking good looks and brains, but for his dreamy and mercurial temperament. When Mitchell threw a party, Tim and his friend Jerry Wexler (a future real estate tycoon) together acted in daredevil fashion, hanging off Mitchell’s 10th floor balcony “just to show they could.”

Like Sono Osato (who was barred from the West Coast as a Japanese American and thus could not join her fellow dancers on a national tour), Tim found his life turned upside down by Pearl Harbor. In the period that followed, Shoji Osato was incarcerated as a “dangerous enemy alien,” presumably due to his contacts with the Japanese consulate. The twin events left Tim fatherless and conflicted over the Japanese side of his ancestry. According to one source, he dropped out of sight after leaving high school. In 1943, Tim joined the new all-Japanese American combat unit, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and was placed in the Cannon Company. His proud sister Sono, noting that he was the first Japanese American enlistee from the Chicago area, invited him to visit her in New York and brought him backstage to visit the cast of “One Touch of Venus.” After going through basic training at Camp Shelby in Mississippi, Osato was sent with the unit in Europe, where he earned a Bronze Star.

Osato’s experience with the segregated unit persuaded him to choose the military as a career. Once the war was over, however, he took a leave from the Army and enrolled at Yale University on the GI Bill. There he joined the varsity fencing team. During this time, he and Joan Mitchell met again and became lovers — although they soon split up, and each married other people, Osato remained (according to Mitchell’s later husband Barney Rosset) the true love of her life.

After earning a bachelor’s degree at Yale cum laude, Osato enrolled at Columbia University. He completed his master’s thesis, “Nationalism and the Reforms in French Primary Education, 1879-1882,” in 1950. In 1949, he married poet Ruth Ludlow. The couple had their first child. In 1950, during the Korean War, he returned to combat duty with the 3rd Division, and in 1951 he was awarded the Silver Star.

After returning to the United States, he received his doctorate form Harvard University. In 1952, at the young age of 27, he was engaged as professor of history at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he specialized in Far Eastern history. (For a time, he left his wife, who was pregnant with a second child, and resumed his affair with Joan Mitchell — even after he returned to his family, he insisted on hanging a painting of Mitchell’s in his home). In 1954, Osato visited Indochina to observe the Indochina War. Captain Osato returned to offer a set of lectures, illustrated by color slides. During this time he also helped care for his mother, who died later that year.

In 1957, Osato was stationed with the 4th Armored Division at Fort Hood, Texas. By 1963, Osato had been promoted to major and had been engaged as professor of political science at the Air Force Academy. In 1965, in partnership with Louis Gelas, he published a translation of French scholar Lionel M. Chassin’s “The Communist Conquest of China.” Coming at the dawn of the Cultural Revolution and serving as a guide to Mao’s victory, the book was widely reviewed and cited.

Two years later, he was assigned to the historical project of the Army Air Defense Command. There he produced a pair of studies on air defense. “Militia Misslemen,” on the Army National Guard in Air Defense, was published by the Office of Military History.

“ARADCOM’s Florida Defenses in the Aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis 1963-1968” (written with Sherryl Straup) was preserved in manuscript. In 1968, Osato, by then promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, began a series of lectures at l’École Supèrieure de Guerre (during which time, he once again entered briefly into an affair with Joan Mitchell).
After serving in the Vietnam War, in the 1970s Tim Osato retired from the U.S. military. According to his daughter, he was a man of “dashed dreams and frustrated everything.” He died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in Pittsburgh in October of 1979. Osato is buried in Arlington National Cemetary. Tooru Kanazawa’s book “Close Support,” an oral history of the “Cannon Company” of the 442nd that featured illustrations by Osato, was published in 1994. His life remains a record of great talent and virtuosity but also unrealized promise. How much of Osato’s self-destructiveness was founded in the limitations imposed by prejudice and marginalization as a mixed-race Japanese American is undeterminable.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., the author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. He can be reached at

2 responses to “THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: The conflicted and self-destructive life of Tim Osato”

  1. Antonio Osato Elmaleh Avatar

    Tim was my uncle (I am Sono’s son), a mentor and one of the people who helped instill in me a love of history. Your article filled in some gaps for me. It also brought back many memories, including visiting him at West Point when I was very young.

    He was an original and authentic man. I just think he ran out of wars to fight.

    Best regards,

    Antonio Osato Elmaleh

  2. Sono Osato Avatar
    Sono Osato

    Hi. This is Sono Osato, Tim Osato’s third born daughter, Anton’s cousin, and the niece of his mother, Sono Osato the first.

    This bio’s a bit myopic.

    First of all, my parent’s first daughter, Teru, named after my Dad’s sister was born in 1953.

    Secondly the primary cause of my father’s suicide was a cocktail of a life long struggle with being bi-polar
    aggravated by PTSD, which has come to light only recently as an epidemic and major cause of suicide among vets.

    Thirdly for anyone who actually knew my father, he would find blaming his “self-destructiveness” on racism repugnant due to his scholarly nature and the kind of humility that’s required to get to the source.

    The most accurate assessment of any racism’s impact on his life is the fact that the 442nd was thought of as expendable, and thus sent into some of the worst battles in the French and Italian Alps against the Nazi’s therefore my father witnessed an inordinate amount of suffering and “butchering” as he described it to my mother in one of his many letters to her, at the age of 19.

    Honoring the courage, service and sacrifice of the 442nd didn’t happen until 50 years after WWII.

    I should also note that my father abandoned my mother on when he was manic. Also that Joan not mentally stable either and a severe alcoholic. Most days she was 3 in to her daily fifth of scotch by noon. So if we’re going to expose dark facts, Joan encouraged my father manic episodes because it meant he would go to her, a kind of Sid and Nancy, Kurt and Courtney scenario.

    Further it was I who both Patricia Albers and Tooru Kanazawa approached for information. I told Albers, who interviewed me when she was writing Mitchell’s biography to coincide with her retrospective that what I had to reveal was not consistent either with the Art World’s glorification of Mitchell or the mythology around her romantic saga with my father. Needless to say that she wasted most of the time didn’t make it in.

    With regard to Kanasawa, his glorified and sanctimonious accounts were not authorized by myself or my mother primarily, with whom he corresponded. My father would again, find the hubris repugnant as he had a strong sense of honor, service and scholarship and endowed in his troops, students and his daughters the value of humility and truthfulness.

    The story is extremely complex and a large gap here is that Timothy Osato was also a family man to the best of his ability, and the love of his life was my mother. Conflicted, yes. But it was not all darkness. Like when I was weeping from growing pains as a child, he would pick me up and massage my arms and legs to sooth me, that every Christmas Eve and New Years Eve my dad would gather the family around the tree so we could light its candles for 15 minutes of silence, and before his illness overtook him, there was a great deal of love and perfectly normal family activity and marital love and parenting. Weekly family dinners with the dog in the yard.

    So, since this is public record, I felt it best to balance out what has so often been tinged with a kind of glamorization, often in association with Joan Mitchell among other factors…and…in honor of my father’s memory and true to his spirit, to point out that he found aggrandizing of any kind to be repugnant. Therefore any traces of it in telling his story is inaccurate and unreflective of who he was and what he valued.

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