Shigeya Kihara, the last surviving original instructor of the first U.S. Army language school, which was founded in 1941 to teach Japanese to American soldiers, has died. He was 90. Kihara, who had advanced Parkinson's disease and suffered a stroke in 2002, died of natural causes at the home of his son, Ron, on Jan. 16 in the Bay Area community of Castro Valley [California], said the son.
Originally known as the 4th Army Intelligence School and based at the Presidio in San Francisco, the language training program later became the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center at the Presidio of Monterey.
A nisei, or second-generation Japanese American, Kihara was one of the first four civilian instructors at the original school, which opened in a converted hangar at Crissy Field on the San Francisco Presidio grounds. Classes began Nov. 1, 1941, with 60 students, 58 of them nisei. About five weeks later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, plunging the United States into World War II.
Born in Fairfield, between San Francisco and Sacramento, Kihara earned a bachelor's degree in political science from UC Berkeley in 1937 and, after receiving a master's in international relations in 1939, moved to Japan to study and travel. Although he had promised his father he would study in Japan for two years, Kihara told the Monterey County Herald in 2001, "war fever" made that difficult. Japan had invaded China in 1937 and when it invaded French Indochina in July 1941, Kihara feared he would be trapped in Japan if war broke out with the United States.
His father, however, wasn't happy when Kihara sent a letter saying he was returning home, he recalled. "My father said, if I came back from Japan, I was no longer his son." Kihara nevertheless sold his portable typewriter, his shoes and overcoat to buy a steerage ticket on a U.S.-bound steamer. When he arrived in San Francisco, he was greeted at the dock by his brother, who told him, "Papa says you can come home," which Kihara did.
A UC Berkeley professor suggested that he take a job teaching Japanese to soldiers. His nisei students were thought to possess Japanese language skills, but in many cases they didn't.
Kihara reported to the 4th Army Intelligence officer at the Presidio of San Francisco. A week later, Kihara received an appointment to the U.S. Civil Service as a civilian Army employee and instructor in Japanese. In a 1991 interview with the Herald, Kihara called the government's decision to start the language school "unprecedented."
"Heretofore, Japanese Americans were considered second-class citizens, linked to Japan and not to be trusted," he said. "Here they were asked to do something of vital service to the United States, very critical not only for the U.S. Army but for Japanese Americans."
None of the original four instructors had any teacher training or experience, he recalled. "I spoke 'kitchen Japanese' at home and had gone to the Japanese-language school in Oakland in elementary and high school, and while I was at UC Berkeley," he said. "Some who were more qualified were reluctant to get involved, for fear of being ostracized." Although a large number of Japanese Americans taught Japanese at UC Berkeley, he said in the 2001 interview, none of them wanted to work for the Army language school at first.
"They listened to rumors that the Army was employing spies," he said, and they were torn between their allegiance to the United States and a reluctance "to stab the mother country in the back." But they signed up after the United States entered the war, Kihara said, and were "the backbone" of the language school.
Harold Raugh, command historian of the language center, said of Kihara's involvement with the school: "It was a singularly outstanding contribution to the United States as well as the United States Army, especially during the years of trials and tribulations when we were fighting the Japanese and many Japanese Americans were interred in relocation camps in the United States. It took incredible strength and conviction when one's family may be interred by a country, to serve that country," Raugh said.
Ron Kihara said Friday that his father "was always a loyal American. I remember a friend of mine once listening to my dad talking. He said, 'Shig, you make me feel like I need to stand up and salute.' Dad was that way," Kihara said. "He really felt this was his country, and there was no question where his allegiance was, regardless of the fact that he had the irony of his own family and parents being behind barbed wire in relocation camps."
Because he worked for the language school, Kihara and his wife, Aya, whom he married in December 1941, were exempted from being sent to a relocation camp in early 1942. His parents, in-laws and siblings, however, were sent to a camp in Topaz, Utah.
The hostility toward Japanese on the West Coast, coupled with the relocation order, prompted the Army to seek another site for the language school. The school moved to Camp Savage, Minnesota, about 25 miles south of Minneapolis, where it changed its name to the Military Intelligence Service Language School. The first language class there started in June 1942. Two years later, the school moved to Ft. Snelling in the Minneapolis area.
By war's end, close to 6,000 linguists had graduated from the school.
Graduates were assigned not only to the southwestern Pacific area with Gen. Douglas MacArthur's forces, Raugh said, but also to the China-Burma-India theater with Gen. Joseph W. Stillwell's forces, Merrill's Marauders and other allied units. They interrogated prisoners, translated enemy documents and intercepted radio transmissions. "The nisei helped win the war, then went on to Japan to help win the peace" with the Army of occupation, Kihara said in the 2001 interview.
In 1946, the language school moved to the Presidio of Monterey, where it was renamed the Army Language School a year later and added eight or nine other languages to its curriculum.
Kihara taught and supervised Japanese language training until 1958, when he was assigned to research and development of foreign language programs. He was research and development director when he retired in 1974. He later lectured on Japanese history and the Japanese American experience at colleges in the Monterey and Salinas area. He was also an advisor to the special committee for the Smithsonian Institution's Japanese American exhibit for the bicentennial celebration of the Constitution.
In addition to his son and wife, Kihara is survived by his daughter, Terry Kihara-Twomey; his brother, Hayato; and his sister, Ann Kaneshige. A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Feb. 28 at First Covenant Church, 4000 Redwood Road, Oakland, California.