Densho Digital Archive
gayle k. yamada Collection
Title: Sunao "Phil" Ishio Interview
Narrator: Sunao "Phil" Ishio
Interviewer: gayle k. yamada
Location: Washington, D.C.
Date: November 7, 2000
Densho ID: denshovh-isunao-01-0003

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gky: I asked you before about why MIS was considered a secret. Could you tell me again; you don't have your glasses on this time.

SI: Okay. Now, in military operations, the army that succeeds is the army that has the best information about its enemy. The best way to get information about the enemy is, of course, through material that is translated, say operation orders that are captured or interrogation of prisoners. Now, as I explained to you before, the reason that the army did not want that fact too well known is because of the fact that if the names of the students were leaked in the newspapers, the enemy would get a hold of the names and then track the relatives, and give the relatives a bad time or, in addition to that, we didn't want, America did not want Japan to know that we had the capability to translate their material. Now, the military attaches that trade in Japan came back with stories that the Japanese are very confident that no western nation would be able to understand their language to the extent that they could be used in operations. The orders that are given by the Japanese at that time were in very stilted, classical language and, therefore, sometimes very difficult to read. So that had to be overcome by training and, of course, in my case, I knew the language but was not familiar with the military terminology, so that helped out.

gky: So, Japanese was in essence sort of a code itself?

SI: Well, that -- I think someone said that yeah, they sort of consider it as a code in itself, which it wasn't for us because we had all the graduates of school in the field going over the materials, and also in the interrogation field. We had the Kibeis who knew the language and could speak it fluently. It would impress the prisoner because he could talk about his knowledge of the culture of Japan, the schools that he went to, knowledge of the military organizations like the -- Hiroshima has the 6th Division, which is a famous division. And, he could say, "I'm from Hiroshima where the 6th Division was," and all that, and, "Oh, that's so." Whereas, the Nisei would not have the depth of knowledge, you know. Although, many of the Nisei were very good interrogators. I'm not saying that they're not good, but they were limited in their capability.

gky: And what advantage did the Nisei have over Caucasians, or non-Nisei?

SI: What?

gky: What advantage did Nisei over non-Nisei in terms of Japanese language and customs?

SI: Well, strictly in terms of the language, I don't think they would have any advantage over the Kibei. It all depends on the amount of study they've done of the language. I'm very surprised, especially people in Hawai'i. They have good schools, Japanese schools, and this one fellow from Hawai'i who joined there by us who was selected as an instructor. So it's just as good as Kibei.

gky: What advantage did the Nisei have over the non-Nisei, over the Caucasian linguists?

SI: Well, Nisei, the advantage that they would have is that basically they've lived with their family and spoken Japanese and some, of course, have gone to school after regular school. And so they would have the basic foundation so that it would not be too difficult for the Nisei to grasp the higher points of the language that were taught at the school, whereas if you start from scratch, it would take months, years maybe.

gky: Most, or all the team leaders were Caucasian. When you started being trained at University of Michigan and then Camp Savage, how were they as linguists? How were they as your leaders?

SI: There were some, of course, whose parents were missionaries or businesspeople in Japan. I happen to go to New Guinea with a fellow who was from Oklahoma, but his parents had been in Japan as businesspeople so he could speak the language very well. But others, of course, with no such background, had a very difficult time. But they took the, selected the students from colleges with a greater facility to learn languages. Once they started learning the language, they did acquire a pretty good knowledge, but not as well as someone who had been to Japan. For example, take the military attaches. They would spend several years in Japan and they go back again, and in some cases, like one of the officers who went to the Japanese war college. I guess they were selected to do that, but there's some who I'd say have a pretty good facility in the language.

gky: What about accent? It's been said that the Nisei look just like the Japanese, but it seems like once they opened their mouth, you could tell because of the accent.

SI: Yes, that's true. They were told in a number of cases their language is lousy. [Laughs]

gky: When you first went to Japan, you went as an adult, correct?

SI: Yeah.

gky: How did it feel to see for the first time, and learn for the first time, about customs that you may have had in some form in your house, that you'd read about, but which you never actually experienced a whole country doing? How did you feel?

SI: Well, the -- I can only quote my little boy, when I took him to Japan first he said, "Look at all the Japanese here." [Laughs] That was my impression. The one good thing is that when you're a student, you wear a student's uniform and you look like everybody else, and you could go anywhere and they accept you. And the students are, student life, especially college life, was very nice and fairly easy going because it's based on the European system of once you get into the college in your upper division, as you call it here, say, in economics, you have one test a year. Either you flunk it or you pass it. If you flunk it, you take it over again. But during that whole year, it doesn't matter if you go to class or not. Once you get into school, you're in school. It's very easy to fall into the mode of life that the students have in Japan because it's a very easy life. Well, not easy life in the sense that you don't do anything, but you do study. In my case, I had to do extra study because it's hard to keep notes.

<End Segment 3> - Copyright © 2000 Bridge Media and Densho. All Rights Reserved.