A Nisei’s path to pacifism

MY LIFE’S JOURNEY

MY LIFE’S JOURNEY

By Ted T. Tsukiyama (Honolulu, Watermark Publishing, 2017, 160 pp., $17.95, paperback)

Ted Tsukiyama is a charter member of the Nisei, “the Greatest Generation.” Born in Hawai‘i in 1920, the son of shopkeepers, he was a student at the University of Hawai‘i when he was mobilized into the Hawaii Territorial Guard on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, in the wake of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. For the next weeks, he scanned the beaches, preparing for a dreaded Japanese attack that fortunately never came. In January 1942, however, Tsukiyama and the other Nisei in the Territorial Guard were discharged from the service — a stark episode of racial discrimination. Reeling from this blow to his patriotic pride, Tsukiyama returned to campus. With the encouragement of YMCA worker Hung Wai Ching, he and his colleagues organized the Varsity Victory Volunteers, an all-Nisei construction battalion, to demonstrate their loyalty. Once mobilized, the group engaged in backbreaking labor under the harsh Hawaiian sun. Their good conduct impressed Hawai‘i’s military commanders, and helped lead the War Department to organize the legendary 442nd Regimental Combat Team, for which Tsukiyama and his fellow VVV members were granted priority enlistment. Tsukiyama did not remain long in the 442nd, however, before being transferred to the Military Intelligence Service, where he served as a translator in the Pacific Theater. Following his discharge, he graduated Yale Law School, then returned to Hawai‘i where he spent a long career as an attorney and mediator.

On picking up Tsukiyama’s memoir, I had few expectations. How would the author, now in his mid-90s, shed new light on a tale I thought familiar from Franklin Odo’s “No Sword to Bury: Japanese Americans In Hawai‘i” and the anthology series Tsukiyama helped produce, “Japanese Eyes American Heart: Personal Reflections of Hawaii’s World War II Nisei Soldiers,” among other works. Yet, I was pleasantly surprised. First, the memoir is well-crafted and readable. Tsukiyama is a thoughtful man with a retentive memory for details. (He speaks, for example, of doing cannery work in summers during his teen years and receiving education about sex from Filipino bachelors who frequented local so-called “whorehouses.”)

Moreover, Tsukiyama’s story goes beyond simple narratives of patriotism and “model minority” success. True, he credits his parents for their great sacrifices on his behalf, which allowed him to get a quality education (Unlike most of his peers, who grew up on plantations. and conversed in pidgin, Tsukiyama spoke English well enough to enroll at the elite “English standard” schools). He also speaks with justified pride about his role in organizing the VVV. Yet he expresses regret and shame at having been sent to MIS, and thereby abandoning his comrades in the trenches of Europe (he does tell his own harrowing stories of flying over Japan, prone in the belly of a plane, trying to catch Japanese radio signals). Perhaps most surprisingly, Tsukiyama’s attitude is anything but gung-ho. He writes that he considered military service an “utterly demeaning and dehumanizing experience” and distances himself from the dismissive attitudes he expressed toward mainlanders in his wartime letters. Instead, the lesson of his service is pacifistic. “Anyone who performed military service in World War II must inevitably an inescapably come to hate and be opposed to war as an instrument of national policy pursued by any nation.” (p.91). The perspective of this Nisei Cincinnatus turned Nestor is welcome and valuable.

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