Ted Kobayashi was tall for a Japanese, typically thin, gray haired, a bit stooped over, and one thing that really stood out was the fact that his English was flawless. He worked in the Manpower Management section of the Personnel Department at Marine Corps Air Station, Iwakuni, Japan. I was privileged to serve as Assistant Director.
The Manpower Management section had undertaken a study of the efficiency of several of our air station support departments, and so I hardly ever saw Ted except when he was en route to, or returning from one of his assessments. One day I asked him to tell me what he was doing, and he just looked at me with a slight smile and said, “Well, of course I am a Japanese employee of the Marine Corps Air Station, and so my primary purpose here is to make the American civil service employee—my boss, look good. If I do that, then I can work here for one thousand years.
I laughed because I knew right away that Ted was a straight shooter. I’ve always appreciated people who weren’t full of their own importance. I have to say that insofar as most cultures are concerned, I only met a few Japanese who were full of self. They are mostly down to earth people, humble, and yet —proud at the same time.
Ted helped to extract me from a problem that I created for myself. I had been working on a report that needed to be completed and forwarded up the chain of command and my Japanese secretary was giving me fits; too many typographical errors. So when they were corrected, she brought the report back and we discovered new errors. This went on for a while and then, in frustration, I looked at her and said, Now Fumiko-san … if we cannot fix these errors without making new ones, I may have to order you to commit seppuku. She bowed as low as I had ever seen her bow before the rushed out of my office.
A few minutes later, Ted came over and said, “May I sit down?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Major, the one thing you have to know about your Japanese secretary is that she is not entitled to have a sense of humor. Your secretary is convinced that you will order her to commit seppuku if she brings in one more mistake.”
“I was only kidding, Ted.”
“Yes, I told her that … but please, no more joking because you know, she might go and do it, and then how would you feel?”
I could feel the color drain from my face. “I would feel like shit.”
“Exactly right. Okay problem solved. Thank you for offering me coffee …” he was smiling when he left my office. In one morning, I learned that the Japanese did not understand the American concept of situational humor, or joking, and also that I was a terrible host. I never joked with Fumiko-san again, and I always made a point of asking Ted if I could get him a cup of coffee. He never accepted, of course … it was all about being polite.
One day I caught Ted sitting in his office and so I took two cups of coffee and helped myself to a chair next to his desk. As I set one of the cups in front of him, he smiled and said, “For me? How nice.”
He sat next to a large window that overlooked the front of the headquarters building. He’d worked at the Air Station for over 40 years. He was then in his 60’s and I asked him about retirement. Most Japanese employees retired at age 55. He told me he had pulled strings to stay on past his normal retirement age. He wasn’t interested in retirement.
I think Ted liked the attention I gave him. Or maybe it was the respect. He really was a nice man. He was intelligent, had a dry sense of humor, even if somewhat sarcastic, and an encyclopedia of information; all one had to do to get that information was ask politely. So when I asked him how in the world he spoke such flawless English, he looked at me for a long moment and he said, “In 40 years, you are the first officer to ask me that. If you want to know, I’ll tell you.”
I wanted to know.
Ted was born and raised in Southern California. When he graduated from high school in the summer of 1941, and as he was getting mentally prepared to attend university there, his parents, who had migrated to the United States in the early 1900s, decided that it would be best for Ted to travel back to Japan and pay respect to his grandparents, whom he had not seen in many years. “I was not too happy with this request, but I had no choice but to do as my parents wanted,” he said.
Once in Japan, however, the Kempeitai would not allow him to leave. Japan was preparing for war. Ted was drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army. “I could have refused,” he told me. “But it would have been a self imposed death sentence after much suffering.”
I was stunned. He smiled at me and said, “Close your mouth, major.”
Because he was well educated, Ted was put to work in the supply corps. “I never once fired my weapon at an American,” he said. But they did send him to one of the Pacific islands: Guam. That’s where he was captured and interned as a POW.
“I kept my mouth real shut during those days,” he told me. “I never revealed that I could speak English or understood what was being said around me. I just smiled a lot, and bowed a lot. Eventually, I was sent back to Japan after the war was over.”
He told me, “I could not return to America —I had served in the Army that was the enemy of my countrymen.” I noticed that his eyes were watery. “No,” he continued, “I could not go back to America. I have been here ever since. I never saw my parents again. Of course, they were interned during the war. I never revealed my English speaking ability to any American until I was looking for work at the Air Station. I’ve been here ever since. And now, I have married and had children here, and grand children … and I have this excellent job working for Americans.
Ted Kobayashi’s story was one of the saddest tales I have ever heard in my life. I could not imagine being placed in a similar predicament. Ted was also one of the most honorable men I ever knew. I respected him, and I enjoyed his friendship.