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Part IV—After Pearl Harbor

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The Atlanta Constitution, Dec 25, 1927.

Ken Nakazawa was arrested by FBI agents on December 7, 1941, in the wake of Japan’s raid on Pearl Harbor. Presumably his name had already been marked down on the Justice Department’s prewar “ABC list” of potentially dangerous aliens to be rounded up in case of war.

At first, he was placed in detention on Terminal Island, and was then sent on to internment at the Justice Department Camp at Fort Missoula in Montana. In August 1942, after spending several months at Missoula, Ken and Tomiko Nakazawa were scheduled to be repatriated to Japan on the Swedish exchange ship S.S. Gripsholm, as part of a civilian prisoner exchange between the US and Japan. The Nakazawas traveled by train from Montana to join Japanese diplomatic officials at Hot Springs, West Virginia, from which they boarded the Gripsholm, which took them to Yokohama.

In his memoir of his wartime internment, Yokuryujo seikatsuki, the writer Sasabune Sasaki, later recounted meeting Nakazawa soon after they were both placed in confinement at Terminal Island, and being impressed by his positive attitude toward his plight:

“When we got here, I spoke with Mr. Nakazawa and he was glad [to be in prison], too. He said this was a fortunate incident for him and he would like it to last for six months or one year to live with everyone like this, not just for one or two months…He said that he is interested in studying human psychology in this living situation, and writing a thesis in English. And he said to me that I should find another perspective to write about this, too.”

This positive attitude seems not to have lasted. In his memoir, My Six Years of Internment: An Issei's Struggle for Justice, Reverend Yoshiaki Fukuda reported that Nakazawa found the state of affairs at the Missoula Detention Camp so miserable that when he arrived in Hot Springs, West Virginia, in order to board the S.S. Gripsholm, he reported on conditions to the last prewar Japanese Ambassador, Admiral Kichisaburo Nomura.

Upon hearing this, the Ambassador protested to the U.S. State Department. In response, officials of the State and Justice Departments conducted an investigation, which convinced them that Nakazawa and his colleagues had been exposed to unjust treatment. The inquiry ultimately resulted in the dismissal of three abusive immigration officers.

Following his return to Japan, Nakazawa, like other Issei returnees and repatriates from America, was recruited by Tokyo as a propagandist, to give firsthand testimony to the Japanese public and the outside world regarding the barbaric actions of white “devils and beasts.” As Historian Yuji Ichioka recounts in Before Internment, many of the first returnees were met by reporters on the docks after the Gripsholm landed, and they provided stories of ill-treatment received at the hands of American authorities.

Building on such testimony, the Japanese government unleashed an anti-American propaganda campaign, accusing the United States government of "persecuting" Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans and of committing numerous acts of "brutality" and “atrocities” against them. 

As Ichioka reports, Nakazawa provided testimony for this anti-American propaganda campaign. In particular, he charged that Dr. Rikita Honda, who died on December 14, 1941 while in custody at Terminal Island, and whom American authorities reported as committing suicide, had actually been killed by guards. In an interview with the Japanese press shortly after he returned to Japan, Nakazawa charged that Dr. Honda had been tortured to death.

Later he participated in a special NHK Radio series entitled “Disclosures of American Inhumanity.” In his testimony, Nakazawa reported that Dr. Honda's wife, when shown her husband's corpse, was unable to identify it as her husband because the face had been so disfigured. As a result, Nakazawa said, Mrs. Honda had gone insane.

Presumably drawing from Nakazawa’s charges, the Japan Times and Advertiser, in an editorial published on September 24, 1942 and entitled “American Atrocities,” cataloged a list of “acts of insane persecution” committed by the “barbarous inhumanity of the American authorities” against Japanese nationals. This list included the "murder" of Dr. Honda.

In 1943, Nakazawa published the book Amerika no gokuchū yori Doho ni tsugu [An appeal to our Japanese Brethren from an American Prison] under the name Takeshi Nakazawa. According to the description of the book on the website Downtown Brown Books, it represented a day-by-day account of the author’s wartime confinement, with descriptions of substandard conditions, humiliations, and the resilience of his compatriots. (In the introduction, Nakazawa claimed to have kept a diary during his detention, but had then converted it to “ink on the heart" before burning the pages as his departure from Missoula loomed). Nakazawa expressed harsh criticism of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, support for the Japanese Imperial Army, and outrage over the mass confinement of Japanese Americans.

In 1944 the Los Angeles Times cited a report from Tokyo radio that Nakazawa had taken up a series of speaking engagements in cities around Japan that were sponsored by the Japanese Central Association, where he would “expose U.S. bestiality,” including lynchings. The Times quoted USC officials as stating that Nakazawa had been a special lecturer during 1931 to 1941 while working for the Japanese consulate. “It was believed in the University that he was repatriated to Japan in the exchange of diplomats.” 

The Times article also noted that Nakazawa’s stepson was in the US navy. In fact, two of the Nakazawas’ sons enlisted in the US Army, Karl with the 442nd Japanese American infantry unit in Italy, where he was wounded in combat, and Albert as part of the occupation force in Japan at war’s end. According to Downtown Brown Books, it was Albert who located his parents living outside of Tokyo, after several years without any word from them.

It is not clear what work Nakazawa pursued once back in Japan. According to one source, he acted as a liaison officer during the U.S. Occupation. He clearly had up-to-date information on the United States and American culture, a rare commodity in postwar Japan. Indeed, in 1946 the Japan Times (then called Nippon Times) reported that the Columbia University Club in Tokyo planned a series of books on the United States, including one by Nakazawa on “American Characteristics.” Nothing seems to have come of the project. 

In the following two years, Nakazawa published a set of articles in the Nippon Times magazine. They combined art criticism with nostalgia for a lost Japan. In October 1947, he wrote “The Road to Japan’s Yesterday,” a little travelog of the Tokaido road. In the months that followed, he put out “Democracy in Old Japan” (April 1948); “Old Japan in New Perspective” (May 1948); “Humor of Edo Period” (June 1948); “Japanese Gardens: Designs and Devices” (July-August 1948); and finally “Ghosts old the Kabuki” (October 1948). In this last piece he proposed preparing for Halloween by studying the place of ghosts in classic Kabuki Theater. His final published writing was a two-part piece for the piece for Nippon Times, “Tale of the Heike Clan” (February-March 1949). 

In 1952, at the close of the U.S Occupation of Japan, the Nakazawas were allowed to return to the United States. It is intriguing to note that Nakazawa was prepared to take up residence in his adopted country, only a few years after the wartime propaganda campaign in which had roundly denounced Americans as barbaric and racist.

It is also interesting to note that the United States government granted Nakazawa, whom it had previously interned and deported as a dangerous enemy alien, permission to return, and that potential employers were ready to take him on. Neither University of Southern California nor the Los Angeles Museum seems to have employed him. Instead, he was hired to teach a course at Loyola University.

However, before he could restart his teaching, he fell ill and died on September 28, 1953. His funeral was held at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Los Angeles. Both the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times reported his passing with obituaries.

Tomiko remained in the United States after Ken’s death, and became a United States citizen almost as soon as Japanese nationals were allowed to do so. In 1974, she provided an oral history to Yuji Ichioka which is on deposit at UCLA. She died in 1985. In the early 1980s, Albert Nakazawa edited an anthology volume, The Writings of Professor Ken Nakazawa, that included illustrations by Tokiko. 

Ken Nakazawa was one of the most visible ethnic Japanese public figures in 1930s America. In a period when few Asian Americans were able to access mainstream society, he was a prolific writer and admired lecturer on things Asian. In the period that followed the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, he achieved further notoriety as an uncritical defender of Tokyo’s foreign policy. However, like many ethnic Japanese actors and musicians, he faced generalized hostility due to his association with Japan.

Over time, the battery of speaking and writing engagements he had previously taken on steadily diminished, and by 1941 had dried up altogether. After the war years, he fell into almost total oblivion. Other than in the Nakazawa family’s self-published anthology volume, his writings ceased to be read or studied, even in Asian American literature anthologies.

Even today, there is no real record of Ken Nakazawa’s career, at least in English. His life and career deserve further attention, both to commemorate his real achievements and to clear up a number of uncertainties still surrounding his life and education and ideas.


© 2024 Greg Robinson

1940s ABC list biographies California concentration camps Department of Justice camps enemy aliens Fort Missoula internment camp journalism Ken Nakazawa Montana MS Gripsholm (ship) noncitizens Pearl Harbor attack, Hawaii, 1941 persons repatriation Terminal Island United States World War II World War II camps
About this series

This series recovers the life and writings of Ken Nakazawa, a multi talented Issei playwright, essayist, and critic who taught at USC in the prewar era. Nakawaza was one of the first ethnic Japanese to hold a position as professor at a major American university. He also was an employee of the Los Angeles Japanese consulate and a public defender of Tokyo’s foreign policy during the 1930s. His prewar popularity career reveals the space open to outstanding talents, even on the West Coast, but also the price of identifying with the Japanese “enemy.”

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About the Author

Greg Robinson, a native New Yorker, is Professor of History at l'Université du Québec À Montréal, a French-language institution in Montreal, Canada. He is the author of the books By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans (Harvard University Press, 2001), A Tragedy of Democracy; Japanese Confinement in North America (Columbia University Press, 2009), After Camp: Portraits in Postwar Japanese Life and Politics (University of California Press, 2012), Pacific Citizens: Larry and Guyo Tajiri and Japanese American Journalism in the World War II Era (University of Illinois Press, 2012), and The Great Unknown: Japanese American Sketches (University Press of Colorado, 2016), as well as coeditor of the anthology Miné Okubo: Following Her Own Road (University of Washington Press, 2008). Robinson is also coeditor of the volume John Okada - The Life & Rediscovered Work of the Author of No-No Boy (University of Washington Press, 2018).

His historical column “The Great Unknown and the Unknown Great,” is a well-known feature of the Nichi Bei Weekly newspaper. Robinson’s latest book is an anthology of his Nichi Bei columns and stories published on Discover Nikkei, The Unsung Great: Portraits of Extraordinary Japanese Americans (University of Washington Press, 2020). It was recognized with an Association for Asian American Studies Book Award for Outstanding Achievement in History Honorable Mention in 2022. He can be reached at

Updated March 2022

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