Nisei or Japanese Americans born in the United States who grew up and were educated in Japan were called kibei. Perhaps 15 to 20 percent of the nisei were kibei, numbering more than 11,000. There were various reasons for the practice of issei parents sending their children, generally males, to Japan. Some were sent to learn the language and culture; others accompanied their parents' return to Japan, and later, chose to return to the United States, which was the land of their birth.
During World War II, the kibei became a particular source of anxiety among some in the U.S. government because of their education in Japan and not in the United States. In that way, they believed, the kibei were more Japanese than U.S.- educated nisei and were, accordingly, less loyal to the United States. Although the assumption was unproven, the kibei as a collective group encountered greater suspicion as potential security threats and as “troublemakers.” At the same time, because of their Japanese-language fluency, the kibei were much sought after by the U.S. Army for their Military Intelligence Service Language School and value in army units as translators and interrogators.
Ty Sasaki was born in Oakland, California in November 1924. He was the oldest in a family of eight brothers and two sisters. In 1934, Sasaki's mother took him and three of his brothers to Japan to live with their grandfather. That move might have been spurred by economic necessity, his parents not having the means to take care of or feed the children. In Japan, Sasaki felt alienated as an American, and his grandfather was a poor caregiver, drinking using most of the money his parents sent from the United States for the children's upkeep. Sasaki, the eldest, cared for his younger brothers while trying to cope in school.
Sasaki passed junior high school, and earned admission to a five-year high school program. Because Japan was at war the entire time Sasaki lived there, his schooling included heavy doses of military training such as drills with wooden guns and military camping expeditions. After nearly six years of schooling in Japan, Sasaki and his brothers returned to California. “It got so bad that [I] couldn't take it any more,” he said. The immediate problem was his grandfather's failings, and the brother had “to run away from grandpa” with money supplied by their parents. Sasaki, 16 years old at the time, returned to Los Angeles in July 1941 with war on the near horizon (Takahashi, 76).
Sasaki found it difficult to readjust to conditions in the United States. At home, he was a stranger to his parents and other siblings. It took them years to develop intimacy as a family. At school, Sasaki knew only Japanese so he had to relearn English. Then the war broke out between the country of his birth and Japan. He
encountered racism like all other Japanese Americans, but Sasaki felt discrimination from other nisei who treated him as an outsider, racism from whites as an “enemy alien,” and suspicion from the concentration camp administrators as a “troublemaker.”
Kibei, given their multiple problems, formed support groups like the Kibei Citizens Council of San Francisco. They held conferences in which they discussed Americanization programs and their role as kibei citizens within Japanese American communities and the U.S. nation. But the war intervened, and the kibei were cast as a “pro-Japan” faction. As Sasaki explained it, “I got no country now. Even my own country, come back from Japan, come to my own country, come home, and then we're treated like this. So, why belong to America? They don't treat us as loyal” (Takahashi, 79).
Harry Ueno, a kibei, organized the Manzanar Mess Hall Workers' Union after hearing complaints about the poor quality and meager quantity of food and charges of theft from the camp supplies. Sugar and meat especially were in short supply; “they just disappeared altogether,” Ueno remembered. Things improved after Japanese Americans agitated, and Ueno organized workers into a union. His intention was justice in an unjust camp situation, which Ueno described as “hatred, discrimination, and everything like that … we felt every day, and in the camp, the way they treated the people was the same.” He was not a “troublemaker” or a “pro-Japan” agitator, Ueno explained. “Many people misunderstand the Kibei image. When the war started, many of them volunteered to join the Army and also many volunteered to teach in the Army language schools, and many joined in the military intelligence unit…. They participated and were a big part in the United States war effort” (Embrey et al., 36, 89, 95). Kibei, too, were patriots.
Gary Y. Okihiro
Embrey, Sue Kunitomi, Arthur A. Hansen, and Betty Kulberg Mitson (Eds.). Manzanar Martyr: An Interview with Harry Y. Ueno. Fullerton: Oral History Program, California State University, 1986.
Takahashi, Jere. Nisei/Sansei: Shifting Japanese American Identities and Politics. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997.