Tried to the limit and beyond

by Tomoko Otake

He was born in America, raised in Japan, and felt like a misfit in both societies. Had he lived somewhere else in some other time, he might have been a renowned scholar of Chinese classics, in which he was an outstanding student. Or an artist in the United States, like his daughter is now.

Instead, Akira Itami found himself caught between two countries when Japan-U.S. relations nose dived in the first half of the 20th century.

Born in 1911, and college-educated in both Japan and the U.S., because of his ethnic origin Itami had to endure a year in an American internment camp after the Pacific War broke out in 1941. Then, after he volunteered for the U.S. military, he was attached to army intelligence translating Japanese documents, before being posted to Japan as an officer in the U.S.-led postwar Occupation. He went on to serve as head translator at the 1946-48 International Military Tribunal for the Far East, commonly known as the Tokyo Trials.

Itami was the model for a 1983 novel by Toyoko Yamasaki titled “Futatsu no Sokoku (Two Motherlands),” which was later serialized in the TV drama “Sanga Moyu” (which can be translated as “The Burning Mountain River”). But Itami did not live to savor this fame — in 1950, at the age of 39, he shot himself in the chest.

But now, on the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, with 55 years having passed since his suicide in Tokyo, and two decades since the novel and TV series posthumously projected him into the limelight, Itami’s role in the Tokyo Trials and the emotional torment it caused him have come vividly back to mind for many of those whose lives he touched.

A California-born child of Japanese first-generation immigrants, at the age of 3, Itami was sent to his parents’ hometown of Kajiki in Kagoshima Prefecture, Kyushu, where he was raised by an aunt.

In his youth, he volunteered for the Japanese military, but was rejected on health grounds. In reality, however, Itami had been told by his junior high school teacher that it was because of his dual nationality, recalls Kozo Kinashi, who later lived with him and his family for a few years at Washington Heights, a housing complex for U.S. Occupation officials in Yoyogi, Tokyo.

After his rejection by the military, Itami went to Daito Bunka Gakuin, the predecessor of Daito Bunka University in Tokyo, where he studied Chinese classics and Indian philosophy. But then, in 1931, just before he was due to graduate, his parents’ health problems forced him to return to the U.S.

Interned in the desert

Back in America, he attended the University of California at Los Angeles before embarking on a six-year stint as a reporter for Kashu Mainichi, a newspaper for the Japanese-American community in California.

Then came Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and after being interned in a camp at Manzanar in the California desert, Itami volunteered for the U.S. Army. His work deciphering Japanese military communications and gathering intelligence from items recovered from dead or captured Japanese soldiers led to him being awarded the Legion of Merit, the highest medal for non-combatants.

However, despite his steadfast service, and the honor bestowed on him, the fierce discrimination against Asian-Americans at that time hurt him dearly, recounts Michi Itami, his only daughter.

Now a 67-year-old art professor at The City College of New York, she said in an e-mail interview, “I think one of the things that most affected him was the prejudice toward Asian-Americans in California that existed before and during the war.

“Before the war, Japanese-Americans could only get jobs as houseboys, gardeners and fruit and vegetable salesmen,” she explained. “If you were better educated, you could only get jobs within your own community. I think that was one of the reasons why he committed suicide . . . he had no realization that the world would change, and that there would be more opportunities for him professionally.”

What made things especially complicated for Itami was that he was different from most other Japanese-Americans. As opposed to nisei (second-generation Japanese-Americans) who were born and grew up in the U.S., he was a kibei, a U.S.-born Japanese-American raised in Japan. Hence his native tongue was Japanese, though he could speak and write English extremely well.

“I think that being a kibei . . . was difficult for him as he did not belong to any group,” Michi said. “Nisei did not trust kibei because they were so different from themselves. Also, he was alienated from other kibei because he was too intelligent to believe the propaganda of the Japanese military government at the time.”

But despite the prejudice he experienced, Itami was always willing to help people, and after the war he often had visitors at his American-style, three-bedroom home at Washington Heights.

“He took very good care of people, even including people older than him,” said Kinashi, a friend from back then who now lives in Ito, Shizuoka Prefecture.

“I once saw a Japanese-American man, who was much older than him, crying and consulting with him whether he should stay in Japan or go back to the U.S. . . . Many Japanese visited him too.”

While Itami was reticent about his wartime and tribunal jobs, he would divulge his deepest feelings over drinks with Kinashi, including his identity problems, he said. It was at such times that Itami’s thoughts also went back to the trials, and it was that experience which, in Kinashi’s view, drove him first to clinical depression and finally to suicide.

Itami was deeply saddened by the way the trial proceeded — “as if the rail had already been laid,” said Kinashi, who recalls Itami saying just that. “He had truly believed that the U.S., with its Christian ethic, would ensure each defendant a fair trial. But as time passed by, he realized that the trials were not going the way he had expected them to.”

Michi, who was a child at the time, says she can only guess what her father thought of the outcome of the trials. But she recalled that he “suffered emotionally from the strains of the trials and had a nervous breakdown.” For her own part, she added that she, too, is skeptical about any war-crime trial, “as it’s only the ‘victor’ who gets to try the ‘loser,’ when all kinds of unjust acts are committed during war.”

While the scope of the tribunal might have been limited, Itami did his very best to convey what the defendants wanted to say in court, said interpreter Tomie Watanabe, who analyzed the interpreting at the tribunal in her 1997 master’s degree thesis at Daito Bunka University.

From among the voluminous trial transcripts, Watanabe chose to study the transcript of the trial of wartime Prime Minister Gen. Hideki Tojo, and the work of the three “monitors” — headed by Itami — whose job was to correct the work of the mostly Japanese team of interpreters.

Watanabe’s research is the only academic work to have focused on the interpreting aspect of the tribunal. From it, she concluded that — given that very few people at that time could speak both languages, and the lack of training to hone interpreting skills — the interpreters and monitors together pulled off quite an amazing feat. In particular, she said, Itami’s eagerness to let Tojo speak his mind was evident.

For example, she explained how the transcripts detail confrontations between the prosecution and Tojo over the use of the word taian in relation to a key Japanese government telegram to its U.S. ambassador in Washington in the run up to the attack on Pearl Harbor. In the telegram, which was intercepted by U.S. intelligence, the word “taian” was rendered into English by the intercept translators as “counter-proposal.”

At Tojo’s trial, the prosecutor referred to this “counter-proposal” telegram and argued that in English “counter-proposal” clearly suggested a confrontational tone. Tojo, however, argued that the use of the word “taian” in Japanese did not suggest a confrontational tone.

But, as Tojo tried to explain about the different nuance being put on the word from that which had been intended in Tokyo, Chief Prosecutor Joseph Keenan interrupted him. When that happened, Itami tried to give Tojo a chance to finish, by saying in open court, in English: “Just a minute, please.”

In a court today, no interpreter would ever likely intervene in that way, which is the prerogative of judges, Watanabe said.

Sadly, history fails to record the details of Itami’s comments, though here and there, the transcript shows Itami’s passion for accuracy, she added.

“He had the highest standard of professionalism,” Watanabe said. “He knew that his translations would affect the sentence the defendant received. He took the job very seriously, and of all the translators, he made the greatest effort to have the defendant’s testimony translated as accurately as possible.”