THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: In praise of the cook: Remembrance of Jack Shirai, A Nikkei antifascist fighter

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bioline_Greg Robinson(Editor’s note: The following article was co-written with Jonathan Van Harmelen.)

Traditionally, discussion of the Nikkei combat experience starts with World War II and centers on the exploits of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the Military Intelligence Service, and the actions of individual veterans such as Sgt. Ben Kuroki or Frank Fujita. Yet one of the earliest examples of heroic Nikkei soldiers is that of Jack Shirai. While Shirai did not serve with the U.S. Armed Forces, his service fighting on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War is an important example of Japanese Americans fighting fascism in Europe.

Shirai was born in 1900 in Hakodate, Japan. Little is known about his early life in Japan, except that he grew up in an orphanage. Shirai decided to immigrate to the U.S. in the 1920s. He initially traveled to San Francisco, where he established himself as a cook. He later moved to New York City, where he continued working as a cook. Shirai soon joined the Japanese Workers’ Club, an affiliate of the Communist Party USA.

During his time in New York City, he befriended leftist artist Eitaro Ishigaki and his wife, the writer Ayako Ishigaki, who would later write a book about him, “Supein de tatakatta Nihonjin” (“Japanese People Who Fought in Spain”). Ishigaki later recorded that when she and her husband were destitute and near starvation in New York, during the depths of the Great Depression, Shirai managed to bring up some food for them from the restaurant where he worked.

Shirai was deeply troubled by the rise of fascism in his native Japan and throughout Europe. Following news of the fascist revolt in Spain on July 17, 1936, Shirai searched for a way to join the fight. After learning of other Americans traveling to Spain, Shirai boarded a ship in the fall of 1936 bound for Spain.

Upon his arrival, Shirai was assigned to an International Brigade unit — units organized with the help of the Soviet Union, that fought alongside the Republican forces. Shirai and his unit fought in a besieged Madrid on Christmas 1936 against Nationalist forces. According to Pacific Citizen editor Larry Tajiri, Shirai participated in an international radio broadcast by the Republican forces, and spoke as a representative of men of “Japanese ancestry who hated fascism and (said) that he was fighting in their name.”

In the spring of 1937, Shirai was reassigned to the newly formed Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a volunteer unit comprised of Americans. Although Shirai initially wanted to serve as a machine gunner, he was assigned as a quartermaster’s assistant because of his background as a cook. Shirai soon took part in offensives in the Jarama Valley, where he doubled as cook and a machine gunner. During this time, he earned the nickname “the man with the laughing heart.”

Shirai’s best friends in Spain were Mel Offsink and Max Krauthamer. According to another veteran, Harry Fisher, the three friends talked about their plans for the future. After the war, they agreed to open a restaurant together in New York, in which veterans of the International Brigades would be served without charge. Shirai took pleasure in imagining what food would be on the menu.

Following the battle of Jarama, Shirai left his cooking duties and threw himself physically into battle with his comrades.

In the summer of 1937, the Lincoln Brigade was sent to Brunete as part of an offensive against Nationalist forces. Shirai finally received his wish and was given the chance to serve in the trenches as a machine gunner.

However, on July 11, 1937, at the end of the Battle of Brunete, he was killed by a Nationalist bullet.

News of Shirai’s death did not travel to the U.S. until Oct. 3, 1937, when the Abraham Lincoln Brigade released an updated death list of killed Americans. Shirai’s death notice was listed by the Communist party paper The Daily Worker, as well as mainstream papers such as the Los Angeles Times and the Baltimore Sun. The Lincoln Brigade’s bulletin, The Volunteer for Liberty, eulogized Shirai with a poem by Austrian writer Ludwig D. (Ludwig Detsinyi) that noted his affable personality and bravery under fire.

Among Japanese American newspapers, Shirai’s death was noted by the San Francisco Shin Sekai Asahi Shinbun, which mistakenly listed him as a “New York Nisei.”

Among Japanese Americans, memorialization of Shirai was taken up by journalist Larry Tajiri, who began the work of transforming his exploits into a legend. In June of 1942, in one of his first columns as editor of the Pacific Citizen, Tajiri extolled Shirai’s heroism. Although Shirai had fought in Spain out of international solidarity, and not fundamentally as an American, Tajiri referred to him as a prize symbol of the Nisei struggle for democracy at home and abroad. “The Japanese in America have given a Lord Hee-Hee (sic) to Radio-Tokyo, but they can be proud that they have given a Jack Shirai to the world struggle against the lords of slaughter and slavery.” Soon after, in a column for the Japanese Canadian paper The New Canadian, in July of 1944, Tajiri called Shirai the “first Japanese American to fight and die in the war against fascism,” but added that he would be “not the last to fight nor the last to die.” Tajiri produced a subsequent column on Shirai’s exploits that ran in the Jan. 11, 1947 issue of the Pacific Citizen. In it, Tajiri hailed Shirai as a fighter against fascism, and comparing his deeds to those of Nisei Sgt. Ben Kuroki during World War II.

In later years, activists in Japan and the U.S. presented Shirai’s actions as part of the history of Nikkei leftism. In addition to Ayako Ishigaki’s biography, a documentary was released in Japan in 1983, detailing the life of Shirai and his service in Spain. In 1985, the Daily Worker published a call from an unnamed Japanese antifascist group for information about Shirai’s life. In 1986, Nisei union activist Karl Yoneda evoked Shirai’s name as part of a call to the fledgling Japanese American National Museum to remember the labor history of Japanese Americans and the importance of labor activists like Shirai. In 2009, Shirai’s name was listed alongside those of Yoneda and other Nikkei labor activists in the Rafu Shimpo’s obituary of Black Panther member Richard Aoki.

In contrast, recent articles have presented Shirai’s story as part of the transnational experience of Japanese Americans. Melissa Redwood, a Ph.D. candidate at Yale, has written about Shirai’s relationship with the Ishigakis, and the latter’s attempts to help memorialize his name for the New York University History Department. Likewise, the Asian American review Hyphen Magazine published an article by Rocky Choi on Shirai’s international life as an immigrant and freedom fighter, who traveled from Asia to the U.S. and later to Spain. A 2004 article by Nancy and Len Tsou in the journal Science and Society documented Shirai as one of many soldiers of Asian descent, but noted Shirai was the only soldier of Japanese descent in the Spanish Civil War. In 2014, the French center-left newspaper Le Monde presented an article on Shirai. In 2016, a biography of Shirai written by Keishi Yasuda of Ryukoku University, was published in Spain, as part of a volume on relations between Japan and the West.

Shirai’s life story is fascinating to scholars and activists alike, not only for his international life and heroic deeds, but also in symbolic terms, as a martyr for freedom. 

Today, Shirai’s life story as labor leader and antifascist soldier has emerged as the stuff of legend. Additionally, Shirai’s story reminds us that the American volunteers fighting in Spain were not only unified against fascism, but were from various racial backgrounds and saw the fight as part of combatting racism and anti-Semitism. 

While Jack Shirai does not follow the traditional Nisei combat narrative, his deeds are further evidence of the international experiences of Japanese Americans during the prewar era. 

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., 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 robinson.greg@uqam.ca. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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