The child of Japanese immigrants in Hawaii, Kazuo Yamane helped America bring the war against Japan to a swifter end. His contribution came at a time of hysteria and suspicion toward the Japanese community.
“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.”
I don’t know how many times I’ve said those words between grade school and now without really thinking about what it means to give oneself to one’s nation. For a lot of us, loyalty to country is second nature, a quiet assumption that goes without saying — even when our country fails to show its loyalty in return.
That realization washed over me when I spoke to Joyce Yamane about her late father, Kazuo Yamane, a Japanese-American veteran and World War II hero.
The elder Yamane, who died in 2010 at the age of 93, is the central figure in a new documentary on Japanese-American WWII soldiers that airs on PBS this weekend in celebration of Veteran’s Day, “Proof of Loyalty: Kazuo Yamane and the Nisei Soldiers of Hawaii.”
The film and Yamane’s life story are all-too-timely historical testaments to the profound role played by Asian immigrants and their American-born children, who were granted birthright citizenship under the same 14th Amendment protection that President Donald Trump has threatened to unravel.
Too many times in periods of conflict and anxiety in our history, and often on shaky grounds, America has questioned the sympathies, allegiance and basic humanity of whole populations based on the color of their skin, religious background, cultural heritage and national origin.
This was painfully true for Japanese Americans before, during and after World War II.
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, everything changed for the community.
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Between 1942 and 1945, about 117,000 Japanese Americans, most from the West Coast, were relocated and imprisoned in internment camps as the United States fought the empire of Japan in the Pacific.
Virtually overnight, America’s Japanese community had been branded as an enemy within. The internment was one of this country’s grimmest acts.
What’s less known is that the experience of Japanese Americans living in what was then the U.S. territory of Hawaii wasn’t the same as for those on the mainland. Ethnic Japanese made up about 40 percent of Hawaii’s residents, but only a fraction of them, about 1,500, were sent to internment camps.
Despite a climate of hysteria, and despite the treatment of ethnic Japanese in Hawaii as second class in some respects, Japanese-American soldiers from Hawaii performed tremendous acts of bravery in wartime.
Their patriotism and valor in the face of prejudice are on full display in “Proof of Loyalty.”
Made by Bainbridge Island-based Stourwater Pictures, the film tells the story of the second-generation Japanese Americans, known as Nisei, who not only fought against the homeland of their immigrant parents and ancestors but against the suspicion among their fellow Americans, including those in their own military ranks, that they might betray the United States.
Yamane was the son of a successful immigrant businessman in Hawaii who had arrived in the territory in total poverty. The family eventually prospered there.
While putting down roots in Hawaii, Yamane’s strict parents tried to instill an appreciation for Japanese language and culture by sending him to a special Japanese after-school program when he was a child.
After finishing high school, he went to study at an elite university in Tokyo. While studying, he learned about Japanese military efforts to expand across East Asia up close and he developed an unusual proficiency in the Japanese language compared to most people back home in Hawaii.
All of these things would come in handy after the Pearl Harbor attack as Yamane, who by then was serving in the U.S. Army, went from helping to protect the beaches of Hawaii as a member of the mostly Nisei 100th Infantry Battalion to translating captured Japanese war documents for U.S. military intelligence.
His discovery and translation of papers containing details of Japan’s armaments industry, and the empire’s struggle to build more weapons, proved crucial to America’s war strategy.
Yamane received the U.S. “Legion of Merit” medal for his work in 1997.
Joyce Yamane lives in Edmonds. Speaking to her, I wasn’t surprised to hear that her father didn’t talk much about his wartime experiences.
The trauma of WWII, both in the Pacific and in Europe, wasn’t something U.S. veterans tended to share with their families. By and large, they kept their memories locked away. Their sacrifice to the country would have to speak for itself. This was especially true for the Nisei veterans returning home to an American society still rife with anti-Japanese discrimination and for the Japanese who had been cut off from the world during their internment, Joyce told me.
“It’s that whole attitude of people who were in the camps of, ‘You persevere,’ ” she said. “The combat veterans, the Nisei, they didn’t talk about the horror of combat, and those in the Military Intelligence Service, like my father, were sworn to secrecy.”
Inspired by her own later discoveries about the role Asian Americans have played in building and defending the country, Joyce wants to make sure those stories, and the patriotism demonstrated by people like her father, don’t fade into obscurity.
Immigrant Japanese like Kazuo Yamane’s parents, a generation known as Issei, weren’t made eligible for U.S. citizenship until 1952 because of decades-old discriminatory policies aimed at excluding and marginalizing foreign-born Asians.
Still, they raised their U.S.-born children to love this country.
In a community that was often viewed as a threat, America found some of its greatest defenders.