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Yukuo Uyehara – An Issei Academic in Wartime - Part 2

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Ka Palapala 1951

The bombing of Pearl Harbor turned Professor Yukuo Uyehara’s life around, as it did to countless other Japanese Americans in Hawaii. In the wake of the attack, the FBI arrested dozens of Issei community leaders. Uyehara remained free and continued his work as an instructor at University of Hawaii, although he held the status of “enemy alien.” In September 1942, Uyehara was added to a directory of leading scholars in the United States for his work in Japanese. Shortly thereafter, the University of Hawaii appointed Uyehara as chair of the East Asian Languages Department.

In spite of his continued employment, the emphasis of his Japanese language instruction shifted. Japanese language and culture had become suspect in wartime Hawaii, and Japanese language schools were shuttered. Instead, Uyehara focused on Japanese translation work, and worked closely with the University of Hawaii and the military to provide assistance in the war effort.

Military Japanese, Yukuo Uyehara

In 1942, he began teaching classes on Japanese translation to meet military demand for translators. In December 1942, the U.S. Army’s Military Intelligence Group, or G-2, approached Uyehara with the task of assembling a Japanese translation book for officers. Uyehara authored a text that both provided a dictionary of military terms in Japanese and English and a grammar guide for spoken Japanese. Titled Military Japanese: A Manual in Japanese For the Armed Forces, it was published by P.D. and Ione Perkins of Pasadena in February 1943. The book provided a comprehensive manual for soldiers in the field to help interpret documents and interrogate prisoners of war.

In Summer 1943, Yukuo Uyehara began a collaboration with John Embree on a book of translations Japanese peasant songs. Embree, who had been working for the War Relocation Authority’s Community Analysis section, was at that time transitioning to work with the Army’s Civil Affairs Military Training School at the University of Chicago.

Embree authored several publications on Japanese culture during the war, notably The Japanese (1943). Simply titled Japanese Peasant Songs, Embree and Uyehara’s 1944 book was published by the American Folklore Society with funding support from the Smithsonian Institution. Embree’s former WRA colleague John H. Provinse, then head of the Community Management section, encouraged project directors of the ten WRA camps to purchase the book, in the hope of further educating the directors about Japanese culture.

In March 1945, Uyehara served as a judge for an essay contest organized by Bradford Smith, an officer with the Office of War Information (OWI). Smith, who previously worked as a professor of English at St. Paul’s University and at Tokyo Imperial University, was then employed as the chief of the OWI’s Center Pacific Operations. The assigned subject of the essays was to discuss the experiences of Japanese immigrants on the Hawaiian Islands. The winning essay was to be awarded a cash prize of $100 and be included in Smith’s book They Came From Japan, on the history of Japanese immigrants in the United States. The book was eventually published as Americans from Japan in 1948.

On June 6, 1947, after fourteen years of work with the University of Hawaii, Uyehara was promoted to the position of associate professor. As a testament to his contributions to the war effort, the University of Hawaii appointed Uyehara to Hawaii’s War Records Committee. The committee assisted with the publication of several volumes on Hawaii’s role in World War II, and also secured the transfer of documents related to Hawaii’s martial law government to UH.

Pacific Citizen, March 24, 1951

Uyehara’s postwar career would prove active, as he undertook several initiatives to promote East Asian cultures at the University of Hawaii. In March 1951, Uyehara and Earle Ernst, a professor of theater at UH, secured a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to translate several plays from Japanese into English.

Over the course of a decade, Uyehara and Ernst translated and directed several classic kabuki plays on the UH campus. However, the first play translated, “The Defeated,” was a contemporary drama that explored life in war-torn Japan shortly after the surrender and its impact on everyday people. Most of the roles in the play were played by Nisei, along with several Chinese, Filipino, and White students. Uyehara and Ernst later announced their intention to translate several Chinese and Indian plays as well.

In January 1952, Uyehara oversaw the acquisition of a rare collection of 127 original prints with scenes of kabuki theater from the offices of the Supreme Commander of Allied Powers (SCAP) in Japan. The collection, originally printed by the Buyo no Yosooi Kankokai in 1926, was presented to UH by Professor Tsuyoshi Matsumoto, whose work as an instructor of Japanese for the Army helped pave the way for SCAP’s transfer of the prints. With support from UH president Dr. Gregg Sinclair, Uyehara curated the collection for the university’s library. He would go on to direct several kabuki plays at the UH campus in which he made use of the prints he helped to collect.

In 1955, Uyehara teamed with poet Marjorie Sinclair to produce a book of translations of the poems of the Tokugawa-era poet Ōkuma Kotomichi. Titled A Grass Path, the book was positively received by critics. In his review for Far Eastern Quarterly, Edward Seidensticker commended the translations as “faithful and competent”. Japan scholar and poet Kenneth Yasuda likewise praised the work of Uyehara and Sinclair, stating that translations such as these “enrich our experience…by giving us new thoughts themselves, new attitudes and insights.”

Hawaii Times, April 20, 1956
 In 1956, with assistance from another grant by the Rockefeller Foundation, Uyehara spent a six-month sabbatical in Japan studying postwar Japanese literature. On his return, he was promoted to the position of full professor by the regents of Univeristy of Hawaii. Later that year, he was naturalized as a U.S. citizen. On May 23, 1957, Uyehara was named a regent of the University of Hawaii. He thereafter undertook some administrative functions.

In 1960, then-Congressman Daniel Inouye named Uyehara as the head of a new center at UH, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, that was dedicated to studying East Asian languages. Congressman Spark Matsunaga, speaking in support for the new East-West Center at University of Hawaii, praised Uyehara’s work on Kabuki plays on the floor of Congress. On December 4, 1963, Uyehara and Ernst translated and directed the kabuki play “Benten Kozō” by Kawatake Mokuami to mark the opening of the East-West Center.

Outside of his own academic work, Uyehara contributed regularly to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. Uyehara authored several articles for the newspaper on the nature of the Japanese language, such as his October 23, 1960 article on the incorporation of English words into everyday Japanese with katakana. He also included commentary on Japanese poetry and theater, drawing upon his previous translation work on kabuki plays.

As part of his efforts to promote Japanese culture in the U.S., Uyehara made several connections with postwar Japan. In September 1962, Uyehara spent a sabbatical at the University of Tokyo. He visited Japan again in 1964. During that trip, he married his second wife Toshiko. In 1968, Uyehara entertained Professor Shigeru Goto, the poetry tutor of Crown Prince Akihito, and his wife during their brief stay at University of Hawaii. In 1975, Uyehara published Hawaii no koe, or “Voices of Hawaii” with the publisher Gogatsu Shobo of Tokyo. It was a study of Japanese Americans in Hawaii.

One of Uyehara’s last projects was a translation of the “Horehore-Bushi,” or peasants’ songs sung by Japanese workers in the sugar cane fields of Hawaii at the beginning of the 20th century. Uyehara’s article, which cited his previous work on folklore and his collaboration with John Embree, concluded decades of work he had invested in preserving the songs before the Issei generation passed away. Uyehara provided detailed analysis of the songs, translations of the texts into romanji, and musical scoring for the songs. The article appeared in the Social Progress of Hawaii’s Winter 1980-1981 issue.

Several scholars, including sociologist Yukiko Kimura, consulted Uyehara for his expertise on the Japanese community of Hawaii and his knowledge of Okinawa. Several mentions of Uyehara appeared in Kimura’s landmark work Issei: Japanese Immigrants in Hawaii. More recently, scholar Franklin Odo drew on Uyehara’s work in his book-length study of the songs, Voices from the Cane Fields (2013).

On November 5, 1998, Yukuo Uyehara died at the age of 93. He was remembered by his UH colleague, Professor John J. Stephan, as “an institution here. He was the pioneer and the inspirer of so many who went into the field.”

Yukuo Uyehara’s life attests to the importance of Japanese Americans to Hawaii’s war effort. While the FBI interned a circle of Issei community leaders and military government of Hawaii discriminated in various ways against Japanese Americans, individuals like Uyehara symbolized the loyalty of Japanese Americans. Likewise, Uyehara shaped University of Hawaii’s East Asian Studies department, and transformed the university into a hub for Japanese studies.


© 2022 Jonathan van Harmelen

academics Issei kabuki military translations University of Hawaii World War II Yukuo Uyehara