During World War II, many second-generation Japanese American (Nisei) women wore U.S. military uniforms. Nisei women contributed to U.S. war efforts in various ways, including as army personnel, military nurses and doctors, and Military Intelligence Service linguists. The history of Nisei women in the U.S. military began when the Army Nurse Corps (ANC) and the Women's Army Corps (WAC) started to accept Nisei women in February and November 1943, respectively. The backgrounds, experiences, and struggles of Nisei women who served in these corps have just started to be revealed in the last couple of decades by scholars.
The institutionalization of Nisei women's enlistment can be understood in the context of the histories of both women and Japanese American men in the U.S. military. Although World War II impacted the lives of American women in myriad ways, it also was a significant turning point in that it opened up opportunities for them to serve in the U.S. military. American feminists claimed their right to serve in the U.S. military in the early 1940s, but members of Congress objected based on paternalistic ideology. Due to the shortage of army personnel, particularly clerical workers, however, Congress finally passed a bill that allowed women to support the military on May 15, 1942, by founding the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). On July 1, 1943, the status of WAAC was raised to become a part of the army, the Women's Army Corps (WAC). However, Japanese American women were still not eligible to serve in the WAC at this time. After the United States declared war on Japan, the descendants of Japanese immigrants, including second-generation American citizens, were labeled as "enemy aliens," and those residing on the West Coast were forcefully incarcerated in camps when President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. For various reasons, the War Department decided to allow Nisei men to join the military in January 1943. Nisei women then became eligible to join the ANC in February and the WAC in November 1943. In contrast to the Nisei men who were mostly placed in exclusively Japanese American units, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Infantry Battalion, Nisei women were not segregated from other ethnic groups because there were not enough numbers to form a Japanese American women's corp.
Nisei women decided to serve in the U.S. military for wide-ranging and various combinations of reasons. Similar to Nisei men, some of them were motivated to serve in the military in order to show their loyalty to the United States. They were also motivated by reasons that were rooted in their culture and status in their family and community. Nisei women volunteered for the U.S. military because they wanted to end the war as soon as possible; for many, their brothers were already serving in the Japanese American corps and/or their families were incarcerated in camps. For example, a former WAC, Grace Harada, recalls when she talked with her parents about her joining the WAC:
They just felt that I shouldn't be doing something like that, and going so far away from home. But I told them that I just couldn't stay home and do housework. I wasn't accomplishing anything I said. [Harada's brother had already joined the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.] I said [to my parents] "There is a war going on and he can't do it alone." ...I said what I would be doing is replacing all these men to help end the war. I tried to talk with my parents into letting me go, and finally they released me and signed the consent for me to go in.
Since the opportunities of Japanese American women were limited at the time, Nisei women thought that serving in the U.S. military would provide them with travel and adventure. Furthermore, they would be able to gain education and job skills that they could use after their service. The U.S. military authorities expected that many Nisei women would eagerly volunteer. However, the quota of Japanese American women for the WAC, set at five hundred, was never reached. By October 1945, the total number of Japanese American women who volunteered for the WAC was 142.
As Harada's narrative shows, the decision of Nisei women to join the U.S. military was not necessarily accepted by their family and community. Family reactions ranged from total objection to proud acceptance. Reactions of the community were often negative; Nisei service women were portrayed in the media and rumored to be "sexually promiscuous." This sexualized image of Nisei women in the U.S. military likely reflects the highly gendered and overwhelmingly male dominated nature of the military, and the fact that it had just started to accept female volunteers at the time.
Military administrators rationalized the idea of accepting women, especially Japanese American women, using gendered and racialized reasoning. The WACs were given assignments that did not transcend the domestic sphere—in other words, the majority of them were engaged in clerical work. In addition, they were expected to emphasize their femininity; many photographs show Nisei WACs smiling with red-rouged lips and wearing uniforms with short skirts. Furthermore, Nisei WACs were not only expected to be American women, but also to retain their linguistic heritage. However, not all of the Nisei WACs had sufficient knowledge of Japanese, and moreover, the Japanese language skills that were needed were not for general conversation, but comprehension of military-related documents. Nevertheless, some of them were trained in the Military Intelligence Service Language School at Fort Snelling, Minnesota, in order to be translators because of their Japanese ancestry. Harada remembers her struggle to understand the Japanese military language:
I wasn't very strong in Japanese, coming from an area [Idaho] where there were no Orientals. We just didn't speak the language... And so, when we were sent to Japan, I had an awful hard time working with [Japanese] military terms...Some of the girls from Hawaii used to work as radio announcers in Japanese. They had a lot more training and they could read and write [Japanese] fluently. At Fort Snelling, I was in one of the lowest classes, just learning the basics of Japanese.
Like Harada, some Nisei women served in war-torn Japan. They were expected to serve as role models as Japanese women who were able to attain American womanhood. In reality, however, most of them were in charge of translations of Japanese military records, and therefore had limited opportunities to interact with local Japanese people.
Although the number of Japanese American military service women was relatively small, their histories tell how Nisei women's lives were constrained by various social norms, and how they courageously fought their way through sexually and racially intertwined expectations. Indeed, the Nisei women made their decisions undaunted by family objections and sexual rumors in the community; they survived severe army training while not losing their femininity; and they were expected to serve as model American women in Japan, yet maintain their Japanese-ness in order to accomplish their assignments as translators. Their stories are invaluable in that they not only add complex and important pages to Japanese American history, but also provide significant insights for both gender and ethnic studies.
Authored by Marie Sato, University of Michigan
Fujitani, Takashi. Race for Empire: Koreans as Japanese and Japanese as Americans during World War II. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.
Hirose, Stacey Yukari. "Japanese American Women and the Women's Army Corp, 1935-1950." M.A. thesis: University of California, Los Angeles, 1993.
Moore, Brenda L. Serving Our Country: Japanese American Women in the Military during World War II. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003.
Nakano, Mei T. and Grace Shibata. Japanese American Women: Three Generations, 1890-1990. Berkeley: Mina Press Pub, 1990.
Robinson, Thelma M. Nisei Cadet Nurse of World War II: Patriotism in Spite of Prejudice. Boulder: Black Swan Mill Press, 2005.
5. The U.S. military authorities assumed that Nisei women hoped to be liberated from traditional Japanese culture and to become "modern American women," based on the results of surveys of Nisei women regarding their desire to volunteer for the WAC. See Takashi Fujitani, Race for Empire: Koreans as Japanese and Japanese as Americans during World War II (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 192; Moore, Serving Our Country, 93.
This event article is presented in full from the Densho Encyclopedia
© Densho 2017. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Where indicated, images and other primary source materials may be subject to use restrictions by their respective rights holders.