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Where are those boys from back then? - Peter Ota, a second-generation Japanese-Okinawan, and Okinawa's boy soldiers - Part 1/3

Ota's "only" war experience

Peter Ota, who lives in Tustin, Orange County, is a second-generation Japanese American of Okinawan descent whose father was a first-generation Japanese American from Okinawa (now Uruma City, Okinawa Prefecture). He was born and raised in Rafu, and when the war between Japan and the United States began, he and his family were sent to an internment camp in Colorado. Then, like other young second-generation Japanese, he joined the U.S. military from the internment camp. After basic training in the army, he spent every day working hard to learn Japanese in order to become a member of the intelligence unit.

However, the fate that was given to him after he learned Japanese was something no one expected. It was not intelligence work for the Japanese military in battlefields around the world, nor was it a member of the occupying forces in Japan after the war. Instead, he was assigned to a position on Angel Island, a small island in San Francisco Bay. It was the first place that immigrants to America would set foot on when they arrived in a new world after crossing the Pacific Ocean, and it has left its mark in American history as the place where immigration inspections were carried out, along with Ellis Island on the East Coast.

Ota was one of five second-generation Japanese who were assigned to serve on this small island. During World War II, enemy prisoners of war were temporarily held on Angel Island. Ota and his team served as interpreters for the interrogation of Japanese soldiers who had been captured by the American military in various areas of the South Seas (such as Guadalcanal and Rabaul).

Okinawan boy soldiers on Angel Island

One day, Ohta and his friends saw an "unbelievable sight."

"I was very surprised to see Japanese boys there," said Ota.

Conscription of minors is inhumane, both now and in the past, but Mr. Ota was shocked to find that there were dozens of boys among the prisoners of war. He soon learned that these boys were prisoners of war during the Battle of Okinawa. They had been held on the island for a while, but soon after the war ended, they disappeared from the island.

The sight of the young boys who were taken to Angel Island as prisoners of war during the Battle of Okinawa left a strong impression on Mr. Ota, who is of Japanese descent from Okinawa Prefecture. His Okinawan identity led him to have a special attachment to the young boys who were taken prisoner.

After his service on Angel Island, Ota was honorably discharged from the Army, qualified as an accountant, and moved with his family to La Mirada in Orange County. He was active in American society as an accountant and became a father of two children. Although Ota was living a fulfilling life, he would sometimes remember the young soldiers he had seen while serving in the military. Each time, he would wonder why they were sent to Angel Island and what their lives were like after the war.

In the 1980s, Ohta was actively involved in redress efforts, especially during the hearings held in Rafu by the CWIRC (Commission of Investigation into Human Rights Violations against Civilians during World War II), where he testified and spoke about his wartime experiences in front of a large audience.

War burns many memories into people's minds. Sometimes, they can become severe trauma and cause suffering. For Ota, the shocking experience of interrogating an underage child soldier is still engraved deep in his heart.

A sudden visit to Okinawa

Now, this story about Ota-san is based on an oral history conducted by my boss, Susan Shoho-Uyemura, in 2007. When this interview was conducted, Ota-san asked Uyemura to find out what the Okinawan boys he saw on Angel Island back then were doing now.

Using the San Francisco Chronicle article from that time that Ota had in his possession, Uemura made enquiries with the Japanese American Veterans Association (JAVA) and other organizations to trace the whereabouts of other Nisei soldiers stationed on Angel Island at the time, in addition to Ota. However, he discovered that of the four Nisei soldiers other than Ota, he was the only one still alive.

After the new year, Uemura asked me to research the Okinawan boy soldiers who were on Angel Island. I immediately began making inquiries about Okinawan boy soldiers at that time to the major media companies and the prefectural government in Okinawa.

Soon after, I received a message from Mr. Asato, a reporter at the Okinawa Times, who wanted to write an article about them. I immediately sent him a photo of Mr. Ohta and a copy of the article from the San Francisco Chronicle at the time. Within a few days, the article about Mr. Ohta was published in the Okinawa Times, and it was also available online. (The article is no longer available online.)

The night the article was published, I received a phone call at home. It was from Mr. Yoshinori Asato, who is now the chairman of Okinawa Bayarees. He told me over the phone that he was one of the boy soldiers who had been detained on Angel Island. When I heard this, I was overwhelmed with joy.

I learned that Asato and the other boy soldiers sent from Okinawa to Angel Island at that time belonged to an organization called the Tekketsu Kinno-tai, and that they were captured by the U.S. military during the Battle of Okinawa and taken to Angel Island.

A few days later, Asato took the lead in bringing together former members of the Tekketsu Kinno-tai corps he knew, Okinawa Times reporter Asato, as well as Ryukyu Shimpo reporter Uchima and Uehara Masatoshi, who was active in Okinawa Prefecture.

In April 2008, I traveled to Naha to hear their stories directly.

Part 2 >>

© 2013 Takamichi Go

Angel Island (Calif.) armed forces Battle of Okinawa California child soldiers generations Hawaii Japan Nisei Okinawa Prefecture retired military personnel soldiers Tekketsu Kinnotai United States veterans World War II
About the Author

He studied American social history and Asian-Ocean American society, including the history of Japanese American society, at Orange Coast College, California State University, Fullerton, and Yokohama City University. Currently, while belonging to several academic societies, he continues to conduct his own research on the history of Japanese American society, particularly in order to "connect" Japanese American society with Japanese society. From his unique position as a Japanese person with "connections" to foreign countries, he also sounds the alarm about the inward-looking and even xenophobic trends in current Japanese society, and actively expresses his opinions about multicultural coexistence in Japanese society.

(Updated December 2016)

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