THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Biracial MIS veteran Clarke Kawakami’s multifaceted legacy


bioline_Greg RobinsonClarke Hiroshi Kawakami, a man who made his mark in many different fields, was born in Momence, Ill. in 1909. His mother was Mildred Clarke, a white American, and his father was the well-known Issei author and journalist Kiyoshi Karl Kawakami.

Kiyoshi Kawakami was born in Yonezawa, Japan in the 1870s (most early sources claim 1875 as his birth year, but a more authoritative source gives his birthdate as Aug. 8, 1873). He grew up in Meiji-era Japan, where he attended school and for a time studied law. After being converted to socialism, he took the second name “Karl” (for Karl Marx) and thereafter referred to himself as K.K. Kawakami. The elder Kawakami moved to the United States in 1901 and attended the University of Iowa and the University of Wisconsin. His first book, “The Political Ideas of Modern Japan,” was published in English by the Japanese firm Shōkwabō in 1903. After the Russo-Japanese War broke out in 1904, he visited China, Siberia and Russia. Upon his return to the United States, he married Mildred Clarke, a white American, and moved to her hometown in Illinois.

In the years that followed, K.K. Kawakami published widely in American newspapers and magazines on Japanese foreign policy, diplomatic relations and Japanese immigration. He was the author of several widely-read books, including “American-Japanese Relations: An Inside View of Japan’s Policies and Purposes” (1912), “Asia at the Door: a study of the Japanese question in continental United States, Hawaii and Canada” (1914), and “The Real Japanese Question” (1921).

The young Clarke and his sister Yuri moved with the family to San Francisco in 1913 (a younger sister, Marcia, was born that year), and in 1922 the family established itself in Washington, D.C., where Clarke attended Central High School (today known as Cardozo High School). He then went on to attend Harvard University, where he studied government and international relations, and starred on the tennis team, of which he was named captain. Hoping to enter a career as a diplomat, he applied to the State Department upon graduating from Harvard in 1930, but despite his stellar record he was turned down. It is not clear how much the refusal was based on racism and how much American officials feared his father’s influence. During these years the elder Kawakami was recruited by the Japanese foreign office as a publicist, and wrote books and articles championing Japan’s foreign policy — including subsequently the Japanese occupation of Manchuria.

Rebuffed by the State Department, Clarke Kawakami was awarded a fellowship from the Ecole Libre des Sciences Politiques in France, where he spent a year doing graduate studies. After his fellowship period ended, he moved to Geneva. With help from his father’s connections, he was hired as an interpreter by the Japanese delegation at the World Disarmament Conference at the League of Nations.

While in Europe, Clarke met and married Helen Machilda, a German woman who worked at the Japanese legation as a secretary. Clarke’s job ended soon after his arrival, when Japan withdrew from the League of Nations. He and Helen moved to Washington, D.C., where Clarke served as a press attaché for Yosuke Matsuoka (according to legend, despite Kawakami’s poor Japanese, Matsuoka preferred Clarke because of his striking good looks). In the summer of 1933, Kawakami moved to Japan, and with Matsuoka’s patronage he was hired as a reporter for the Japanese news agency Shinbun Rengo (later known as Dōmei); since he could not write in Japanese, he wrote all his articles in English. There Helen joined him, and worked as a secretary for Kokusai Steam Company. During this period, Clarke also joined a Harvard classmate in touring occupied Manchuria. Following his trip, he collaborated on production of a bilingual propaganda volume about the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo.

In late 1935, Clarke met Chieko (Susuga) Takehisa, a famous stage and screen actress, at a Christmas party. The two soon fell in love, and Clarke asked Helen for a divorce. Helen was not pleased, but finally agreed in exchange for Clarke assisting her to get U.S. citizenship as his spouse. As a result, the divorce took several years to be officialized. In 1939, Clarke moved to London as a European correspondent, and then in June of 1940 he returned to Washington, D.C. While in Washington he lived at his parents’ house and filed a series of English-language articles on American foreign policy to Dōmei. He had great difficulty securing a visa for his wife because of the Japanese exclusion laws. Finally, he persuaded Secretary of State Cordell Hull to order the State Department to issue her a one-year student visa. One year later, in April of 1941, Chieko came to Washington, and the two were wed in August.

Pearl Harbor led to drastic changes in Clarke Kawakami’s life. His father K.K. Kawakami was briefly incarcerated as a potentially dangerous alien. Once the war began, Chieko decided to return to Japan, and in spring of 1942 she left on the Grispsholm exchange ship, despite Clarke’s opposition. Clarke’s job with Dōmei was suspended by the outbreak of war. Clarke formally resigned from his post, and publicly condemned Japan’s attack as shameful and double-dealing. In a letter he wrote to his Washington newspaper colleagues explaining his position — and which was then publicly released by the U.S. State Department — Kawakami described the attack as “The blackest and most shameful page in Japanese History” and expressed his intention to enlist in the U.S. Army so that he could help “Crush forever the type of militarist rule which drugs and drags peaceful people in to war, wherever it exists.” He tried to enlist in the Army (from which he had obtained a deferment before the war) but was declined on grounds of his Japanese ancestry — according to one source, he wrote “Eurasian” in response to the question of “race” but the army corrected it to Japanese. Clarke wrote many articles on Japan and sent them to journals such as the Saturday Evening Post, New York Times and Washington Star, without success. After several months he was able to secure a position as correspondent with the Washington Post. The series of articles he produced on Japan during mid-1942 reveal a clear understanding of Japanese society.

In the spring of 1943, Kawakami enlisted in the U.S. Army Military Intelligence Service, and was sent to Camp Savage camp in Minnesota to be trained as a Japanese specialist. His fluency in Japanese was much greater than the average Nisei’s. Raised to the rank of lieutenant, in the spring of 1944 Clarke was attached to the Office of War Information’s Psychological Warfare Section and was sent to the India/Burma front. Two prominent leftist Nisei, Koji Ariyoshi and Karl Yoneda, were also in his group. Clarke drafted propaganda flyers that were translated into Japanese by Yoneda, and sent into Japanese-occupied Burma. He worked with State Department diplomat John Emmerson on reports of interrogations of Japanese POWs. In early 1945, he was sent to Kunming, China, to work with a psychological warfare unit. He prepared leaflets for the Japanese underlining terms and conditions of surrender, and once the war ended he joined American and Chinese soldiers collecting the surrender of occupying Japanese troops and working with allied rescue units. For his efforts, he was awarded the Bronze Star.

While in Shanghai, he learned that his wife Chieko had survived the war and was active in the Japanese film industry. Hoping to find her, in November of 1945, Clarke returned to Japan, where he was attached to Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s staff at General Headquarters and helped organize the U.S Occupation.

There he was reunited with Chieko, who was astonished to see him — having heard of Nisei combat units, she assumed he was in Europe. The couple would have three children in the following years.

After a short visit to the United States, during which Kawakami was officially discharged, he returned to Japan to serve in the Allied Translators and Interpreters Service as a civilian War Department employee.

At first he was employed as assistant chief of the Periodicals Section of ATIS, where he directed the translation of articles from the Japanese press. He later worked with the G-2 Historical section to produce a history of MacArthur’s wartime campaigns. Kawakami was assigned as chief American editor of a history of Japanese military operations. While he did not keep close contact with Japanese communities in the United States, he furnished an introduction for a copy of the new Japanese post-war constitution that was published in the San Francisco Progressive News in 1946.
Kawakami and his family returned to the United States in 1950, following the death of his father. Back in Washington, D.C. Kawakami served as research assistant to Commodore Richard Bates of the Naval War College on a history of the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Kawakami wrote articles for The Reporter, notably one on anti-Americanism in Japan. Meanwhile, he helped translate and edit a book by two Imperial Navy officers, “Midway: The Battle That Doomed Japan, the Japanese Navy’s Story” (1955). The book was widely reviewed and went through several editions in multiple languages. In 1955, Kawakami was hired as a staffer by the new United States Information Agency, and was named associate editor of the USIA’s journal, Problems of Communism. He remained with the USIA until his retirement in 1976. He died in 1985.

Note: Portions of the article appear in an upcoming anthology: Duncan Ryuken Williams, ed. Hapa Japan: Constructing Global Mixed Roots Japanese Identities and Representations, (USC Ito Center/Kaya Press)

Greg Robinson, Ph.., 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. His new book based upon his Nichi Bei columns, “The Great Unknown: Japanese American Sketches,” was recently published by University Press of Colorado. He can be reached at The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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