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Part 46: Were there any Japanese who served in the American Civil War? Read "Japanese who fought in the American Civil War"

The American Civil War (April 1861 to May 1865) was a civil war fought over issues such as the continuation of slavery, and is probably something most Japanese people only see on television or in movies as a setting or theme in Western movies. It seems like there is no commonality between the American Civil War and Japan.

However, it turns out that two Japanese men actually served as soldiers in the Civil War. What does this mean? Who served and why? Aside from being a simple question, it is also extremely intriguing from the perspective of American immigration history.

Speaking of Japanese serving in other countries' wars, I have written in this column before about Jack Shirai, a Japanese who fought as a volunteer soldier on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Shirai, originally from Hakodate, Japan, stowed away on the border and lived in New York, from where he voluntarily traveled to Spain to join the war, where he was killed in action.

Going back a little further in time, there were Japanese Americans who served in the U.S. military during World War I. Although these cases are rare, it is strange that Japanese people were involved in a civil war in another country, the Civil War, before Japan had even opened its borders to the world.

Published last year, "The Japanese Who Fought in the Civil War: A History of Pacific Rim Immigrants at the End of the Edo Period" (Chikuma Shobo) is a research and non-fiction book that follows the facts.

From a Japanese American Inquiry

The authors are Suga (Shichinohe) Miya and Kitamura Shinzo. Suga, born in 1969, is a professor at Tokyo Gakugei University and specializes in American history and immigration/migration history. His books include "The American Census and the Boundaries Surrounding 'Race': A History of Surveys of Minorities as Seen in Individual Records" (Keiso Shobo, winner of the 2021 Nakahara Nobuyuki Award from the Society for American Studies).

Born in 1940, Kitamura is a professor emeritus at Kobe University and holds a PhD in systems engineering. His books include "Japan Defeated by Codes: The US Military's Code-breaking that Determined the End of the Pacific War" (co-author, PHP Institute).

One day, Kitamura received an inquiry from Terry Shima and Jeff Morita of the Japanese American Veterans Association (JAVA), who asked for information such as the real names and birthplaces of Simon Dunn and John Williams, two Japanese-born soldiers who served in the Civil War. Shima is a second-generation Japanese-American born in Hawaii who served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team during World War II and worked for GHQ after the war. Morita is a third-generation Japanese-American living in Hawaii. "If it is true that Japanese soldiers served in the Civil War, they would have been the first Japanese-American soldiers in the U.S. Army, and we would love to hear information about their Japanese side," he said.

Kitamura told Suga about this, and "a research project combining the humanities and sciences on the Japanese who fought in the Civil War was born" (from the afterword). However, Suga, who had been researching Japanese immigrants and American society for many years, found it hard to believe that Japanese people had served in the American Civil War, which was a civil war within the United States.

Conversely, if this is true, it goes without saying that it will pique the curiosity of researchers (and non-fiction writers as well). Why did they serve in the military? How did they get to America in the first place, when there were restrictions on Japanese people traveling overseas? Did they stow away? This book was written with these questions in mind, and examines various records and materials, including the American census (a sort of national census), in an attempt to shed light on the concrete image of "Japanese who served in the military."

First, according to the enlistment records preserved at the US National Archives, Simon Dunn's residence is Brooklyn, New York. He enlisted in the Army in Brooklyn on December 7, 1863. He was born in Japan and was 21 years old. John Williams enlisted in the Army in Brooklyn on August 25, 1864. He was born in Japan and was 22 years old. The records also reveal the date and time of discharge, their occupations, heights, skin and hair colors, etc.

In addition, after the end of the Civil War, a newspaper in Alexandria, Virginia, reported that "a Japanese man who came here as a soldier in the United States Army during the war and had lived here since then has passed away and been buried." From these, the author is almost certain that there were Japanese who served in the Civil War.

From here, we will look into censuses and other contemporary historical materials, but the investigation will not proceed easily. One major reason is that the names in the records are not Japanese to begin with. They are Western-style names, and common names at that, so it is difficult to narrow them down. Secondly, there was no Japanese community at the time the two Japanese enlisted. It is believed that the two men came to this area alone, so it is not possible to trace their connections with other Japanese people.

A castaway, a stowaway...?

As such, it was extremely difficult to approach the subject directly. Therefore, the author's approach was to base his research on several hypotheses and compare them with the circumstances and historical facts of the time to narrow down what kind of person he might have been, if he had actually existed.

As a researcher, he will use his specialized knowledge and methods to approach this issue, examining the circumstances of Japanese immigration to America and the travels of Japanese people from Japan in the very early days before the country opened up to the world, and from there attempting to paint a picture of the Japanese who fought in the Civil War.

This was before the official start of immigration from Japan to America. Specifically, the author speculates that the two men may have been among those who traveled to America as castaways like John Manjiro and Joseph Heco, as stowaways who boarded ships on foreign routes as sailors, or as people who accompanied missions to America in some way during the late Edo period. In particular, the author speculates that "they are most likely to have been castaways or people who deserted the country (or dropped out of an official mission)."

In the end, the real names and birthplaces of the two anonymous Japanese-born people who were inquired about from the United States were not known, and it also remained unclear why they were involved in the Civil War. However, the process of searching for these two people and the inferences that emerged from it are sure to stimulate the reader's imagination.

Where did they come from in Japan at the end of the Edo period, and why and how did they end up in America? During the Civil War, it is said that conscripts would sometimes pay others to serve in their place, so did they go to war for money? What was their life like after that? Perhaps their descendants are still around today, but are simply unknown to the public... If we let our imaginations run wild, fiction could also be born.

The Significance of the Anonymous in History

What remains of history is mostly what is left as records, and when it comes to people, it is those who have left records themselves or those who have achievements or titles that are worthy of being recorded. Records of unknown people are almost never left.

Thinking about this, I was reminded of the words of Okiura Kazumitsu, a scholar who has studied the history of the Japanese people from the very bottom up. In the afterword to his book, "The Sanka: The Phantom Bleached People," he says: "Those who only trace the surface of history on the surface would say that the history of these bleached people is merely an 'afterthought' that never appears in the official history of the nation. (Omitted) I don't think that their existence was an afterthought to history. The surface cannot exist without the dark, and there can be no light without the shadows. I think there are many people who have no interest in reading a theory of history or philosophy of life that only focuses on the surface and does not reveal the truth that lies behind the scenes."

The "Japanese who served in the Civil War" are unknown and do not feature in historical records, so there are almost no records of them. However, this makes it difficult to get to the truth about them, and is therefore meaningful.

(Titles omitted)


© 2024 Ryusuke Kawai

American Civil War Brooklyn John Williams Nanboku sensou wo tatakatta nihonjin (book) New York (state) Shinzo Kitamura United States
About this series

What is Nikkei? Ryusuke Kawai, a non-fiction writer who translated "No-No Boy," covers a variety of topics related to Nikkei, including people, history, books, movies, and music, focusing on his own involvement with Nikkei.

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About the Author

Journalist and non-fiction writer. Born in Kanagawa Prefecture. Graduated from the Faculty of Law at Keio University, he worked as a reporter for the Mainichi Shimbun before going independent. His books include "Yamato Colony: The Men Who Left Japan in Florida" (Shunpousha). He translated the monumental work of Japanese American literature, "No-No Boy" (Shunpousha). The English version of "Yamato Colony," won the 2021 Harry T. and Harriette V. Moore Award for the best book on ethnic groups or social issues from the Florida Historical Society.

(Updated November 2021)

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