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Nikkei Heritage

An "Enemy Alien's" Mysterious Fate

Much has been written about the experiences of the 120,000 Japanese Americans interned during World War II. Much less is known about the 5,000 Japanese “enemy aliens” who were taken into custody by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI). As early as 1939, the Justice Department, the Office of Naval Intelligence and the Army’s Military Intelligence Division compiled lists of persons considered to be potentially “dangerous” enemy aliens who could commit acts of subversion.

By the evening of December 7, 1941 the FBI had arrested and detained 736 Mainland Japanese aliens. By February 16, 1942, more than 2,000 had been apprehended. In addition, by early 1942, close to a thousand Japanese in Hawaii were under arrest. In most cases these aliens were held in county or city jails or in Immigration and Naturalization Service stations. Some were questioned and immediately released, others were kept for days and weeks before their release. Those remaining were shipped to an alien detention station and later transferred to a permanent enemy alien internment camp in such locations as Missoula, Montana; Bismark, North Dakota; Losrdburg, New Mexico; Santa Fe, New Mexico; or Crystal City, Texas. In these camps, there were reported instances of abuse, threats of physical harm, physical beatings, shootings and actual killings of Japanese aliens.

One such account concerns the death of Seiichi Nakahara of San Pedro, as told by his son, Peter Nakahara, now an attorney in San Jose, California. At the time of his father’s death, Peter had been drafted into the U.S. Army and was away from home doing his basic training at Fort MacArthur, California.

The elder Nakahara was a pioneer in the Southern California fishing industry, dominated by Japanese Americans, that flourished in San Pedro, California. For close to 30 years, Mr. Nakahara was a major wholesaler of fish and a ship’s chandler, or supplier of provisions, to ships entering San Pedro harbor, the primary seaport for Los Angeles. Nakahara’s family consisted of his wife and three children—Peter, his twin sister, Yuri (Kochiyama), and an older brother.

On December 7, 1941, within hours of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, FBI agents were ransacking the Nakahara home in search of incriminating evidence of subversive activity. Mr. Nakahara was arrested and led away without any explanation of why and where he would be taken. The FBI warned Mrs. Nakahara not to tell anyone what had happened.

Peter later learned from family members and relatives more about this episode but not the complete story which still remains a mystery. For some time the Nakahara home was under FBI surveillance from a rented house across the street. The FBI’s suspicions were supposedly aroused by Mr. Nakahara’s sale of provisions to Japanese merchant ships, such as the Nippon Yunsen Kaisha (NYK), the Osaka Shosen Kaisha (OSK) and Kawasaki Kisen Kaisha (KKK), and ships of the Japanese Navy that visited San Pedro. What the FBI overlooked was the fact that Nakahara also sold supplies to the ships of the U.S. Navy.

Much was made by the FBI of the discovery in the Nakahara home of photographs of Japanese Navy ships. They also knew that the Nakaharas often entertained officers of visiting Japanese ships. The authorities may have suspected Mr. Nakahara of passing on information of possible military value. The FBI also found the existence of an antenna beside the Nakahara home, installed by Mr. Nakahara to receive news broadcasts from Japan. Listening to broadcasts from Japan was a favorite pastime as with many other Issei. But more than anything else, the FBI agents were unrelenting in their interrogation of Mr. Nakahara about an intercepted cable message. The cable was sent to Mr. Nakahara by Ambassador Kichisaburo Nomora, who was also an Admiral in the Japanese Navy. Ambassador Nomura and Special Envoy Saburo Kurusu had been Japan’s principal peace envoys to the U.S. in the days preceding Pearl Harbor. Mr. Nakahara and Ambassador Nomura had been childhood friends in Morioka, Japan and they had regularly exchanged visits both in Japan and the U.S.

In the intercepted cable message to Mr. Nakahara, Ambassador Nomura expressed regret that urgent business in Washington would not permit him to visit San Pedro and enjoy “sanma” with his dear friend. The FBI agents were confounded by the use of the word “sanma.” They were convinced that “sanma” could only be a secret code known to the Japanese Navy. They could not believe the simple truth that “sanma” was a fish widely relished by the Japanese, especially from northern Japan.

Even more bizarre was Peter Nakahara’s experience in his first and only visit with his father who was being held at the Federal Penitentiary on Terminal Island. As a member of the U.S. Army, Peter was the only family member permitted to visit their father. When he was brought face to face with this father, Peter recalls his astonishment and disbelief upon hearing his father say emphatically, “This is not my son. This person is here to interrogate me.” He refused any further conversation and turned away. It was the last that Peter saw of his father.

Peter’s interpretation of his father’s irrational denial and rejection of him is that Mr. Nakahara was so physically or mentally abused that he actually did not recognize his son and thought that the person appearing before him had been sent to interrogate him. Shortly thereafter the Federal authorities came to believe that Mr. Nakahara was dying and therefore released him. On the following day, he died at his home. The authorities could offer no explanation as to the cause of his death. He had no previous history of serious illness and had been in good health except for occasional discomfort from an asthmatic condition. The Nakahara’s family physician could find no signs of physical mistreatment. However, Peter was told by a cousin that Mr. Nakahara, during his incarceration, was repeatedly awakened in the middle of the night and interrogated for hours while sitting under a bright light.

Peter went on to serve in the Military Intelligence Service in New Guinea, Leyte and Luzon Islands. He concluded his military service in January 2, 1946 with the rank of Tech/Sgt. By a curious twist of fate, Peter was subsequently employed by the U.S. Government as a civilian monitor and official Court Interpreter at the War Crimes Trial in Yokohama and Tokyo. Peter recalls that in his role as a court interpreter in the interrogation of war prisoners, his words could make the difference between life and death. However, his conduct with the prisoners was bound by the mandates of the international accords known as the Geneva Convention, which prohibit the use of force and guarantees the safe and humane treatment of all prisoners of war.

In reflecting on the past, Peter Nakahara has cause to wonder what would have been his father’s fate had his interrogators similarly complied with the dictates of the Geneva Convention.


Tetsuden Kashima, American Mistreatment of Internees During World War II: Enemy Alien Japanese in Roger Daniels, Sandra C. Taylor, and Harry H. L. Kitano, eds., Japanese Americans: From Relocation to Redress , Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1986.

* This article was originally published in Nikkei Heritage Vol. IX, Number 1(1997), a journal of the National Japanese American Historical Society.

© 1997 National Japanese American National Museum

Sobre esta serie

This series republishes selected articles from Nikkei Heritage, the quarterly journal of the National Japanese American Historical Society in San Francisco, CA. The issues provide timely analysis and insight into the many facets of the Japanese American experience. NJAHS has been a Discover Nikkei Participating Organization since December 2004.

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