|Name||John Fujio Aiso|
|Born||December 14 1909|
|Died||December 29 1987|
|Birth Location||Burbank, California|
John Fujio Aiso (1909-87) was a renowned Nisei lawyer and judge who made invaluable military contributions during World War II as the head instructor of the Military Intelligence Service Language School (MISLS). After serving with distinction during the war and throughout the occupation of Japan, Aiso embarked upon a distinguished legal career in California, holding a number of judicial posts until his retirement in 1983. Tragically, Aiso died after a mugging attack a few years later, but he left behind a remarkable legacy of achievement.
Aiso's Early Life
John Aiso was born December 14, 1909, in the Los Angeles suburb of Burbank and experienced prejudice at a very young age. One of his earliest memories was being called a "Jap" by an elderly woman on a streetcar. He became an outstanding student to challenge those who made derogatory comments about his ancestry. In 1922, he successfully ran for the office of student body president at LeConte Junior High School in Hollywood. However, because of protests by parents, student government was suspended until Aiso graduated.
Aiso first attracted national attention in 1926 by winning the school's oratorical contest on the U.S. Constitution, but he was forced to withdraw from the state finals to coach his high school colleague, second-place winner Herbert Wenig, to a national championship in Washington D.C. Aiso had also been selected as the valedictorian of his class, and the school principal, Dr. Snyder, told him to forgo participating in the oratorical contest as it would be too much responsibility. Regarding this incident, the Rafu Shimpo at the time reported, "because of jealously against two honor . . . John Aiso gives up participating in the speech contest . . . Son of our countryman is cursed by detestable racial discrimination . . . How sad, [that this occurs] even in the educational world."
Despite these setbacks, Aiso went on to graduate from Brown University and Harvard Law School, eventually establishing a successful law practice in New York. During the course of his legal career, Aiso travelled to Japan, where he pursued his study of legal Japanese, engaged in translations and interpretations, and taught English to prominent Japanese in business and community circles. Upon his return to the United States, after serving as legal advisor and director of the British American Tobacco Company in Manchuria from 1937 to 1941, he was conscripted into the army. Within months he was released from active duty to serve as chief instructor for the hastily-formed MISLS.
Aiso's Role at the MISLS
By the summer of 1941, a group of intelligence specialists in the Military Intelligence Division of the U.S. War Department were frantically preparing for an almost inevitable war with Japan. Colonel Carlisle Dusenberry, Wallace Moore, Rufus Bratton, and Clarence Heubener were convinced that Japanese Americans were loyal to America and that they were the only Americans capable of performing Japanese language military intelligence. Approvals were obtained to establish a Japanese language military intelligence school at the Presidio in San Francisco with a budget of $2,000. Lt. Col. John Weckerling, a former Japanese language assistant military attaché in Tokyo, was assigned to be General John DeWitt's assistant chief of staff for intelligence and commandant of the proposed school.
Scanning the results of Captain Kai Rasmussen's interviews of 4,000 draftees in army training camps along the West Coast, Weckerling selected Pvt. John Aiso at Camp Hahn in Riverside, California, to become the chief instructor of the new school because of his educational credentials and knowledge of Japanese. Although Aiso had been working in the motor pool at Camp Hahn, a job he was ill-suited for, Aiso was reluctant to take the appointment. Aiso agreed only after Weckerling told him, "John, your country needs you." Having been berated in America as a "Jap" and socially discriminated against in Japan as a "son of an emigrant," Aiso often felt like a "man without a country." Moved by the colonel's words, Aiso consented.
At the Presidio of San Francisco, Aiso was originally assigned as a student, but was soon promoted to assistant instructor and then head instructor. At this time, Aiso was introduced to Akira Oshida and Shigeya Kihara, who worked with Aiso as civilian Japanese instructors. Together with Oshida and Kihara and several other civilian instructors, Aiso prepared teaching materials and the school was formally opened on November 1, 1941.
Following the outbreak of war on December 7, 1941, and the forced removal of Japanese Americans from the Pacific Coast to incarceration camps, the school was transferred from San Francisco to Camp Savage, Minnesota, and placed directly under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Army, Military Intelligence Division. The army provided personnel, logistical, and administrative support, but the doctrine, development, and implementation of the program remained with John Aiso, now the director of training.
MISLS Instructors and Students
During the formation of the school, Aiso combed Japanese communities and incarceration centers for instructors. Kibei with high school and university educations in Japan, particularly from Waseda and Meiji Universities were chosen. Similarly, 100th Battalion transferees from Camp McCoy were picked. Vernacular newspaper reporters and Japan-America trading company employees who had lost their jobs at the outbreak of war were also good candidates. Top students from each class were kept on for a year or so after graduating to serve as instructors. Eventually, Aiso developed a staff of over 150 supervisors, curriculum developers, and teachers. Shigeya "Shig" Kihara, one of the original four instructors of the Japanese language program recalled the diversity of the students at the language institute:
They came from varied backgrounds: nisei and kibei-nisei; city slickers and country boys; college grads and kids just out of high school; Hawaii buddhaheads and Mainland kotonks. There were Caucasians and BIJs (born in japan). ROTC officers and OCS students from the universities, Marine officer graduates, and even Canadian Japanese military intelligence specialists. There were classes of Chinese American and Korean American GIs, as well as nisei and Caucasian WACs. Aiso had to somehow manage to fit them all into the constantly evolving mosaic of the MIS training program.
In December 1942, 100 individuals were recruited from Camp McCoy, Wisconsin, where the 100th Infantry Battalion from Hawai'i was training. In June 1943, 250 more came from Camp Shelby, Mississippi, where the 442nd Regimental Combat Team was training. In September 1942, Sgt. Edwin Kawahara, Cpls. Kenji Goto, Benjamin Tashiro, Masaji Marumoto, and Randolph Ideue were sent to Hawai'i and came back with 350 volunteers. As the war dragged on, Aiso graduated class after class and, by the end of the war in 1945, Aiso had turned out over 6,000 military intelligence specialists. General Charles Willoughby stated that the MIS men shortened the war by two years and saved a million lives.
At the conclusion of the war, the curriculum was changed to civil affairs in order to prepare students for occupation duty in Japan. MIS men participated in the rebuilding of Japan as a democratic ally of the United States and laid the foundation for the economic revival of Japan.
In January 1946, Aiso was given a direct commission as major and was assigned to General Willoughby's Civil Information Section as a legal assistant. He retired from the army in 1947 and reentered the practice of law in Los Angeles. After the war, he served as a Superior Court Commissioner until 1952, when he was appointed a Los Angeles Municipal Court judge—the first Nisei to hold a U.S. judicial post. In 1957 he was elevated to Superior Court judge, and in 1968, Governor Ronald Reagan promoted him to the 2nd District Court of Appeals.
Aiso's Distinctions and Awards
Aiso would pass away in December 29, 1987, two weeks after a fatal mugging outside a mini-market gas station on Hollywood Boulevard, tragically ending a distinguished career marked by a number of accolades. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded Aiso the Legion of Merit for his service during World War II. In 1984, the Emperor of Japan awarded him the 3rd Class Order of the Rising Sun for his contributions to understanding and friendship between the United States and Japan. Aiso was also inducted into the Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame in 1991. Today, the Aiso Library at the Defense Language Institute (DLI) Foreign Language Center is named for his contributions as the chief instructor of the MISLS. In the Little Tokyo community of Los Angeles a one block segment of San Pedro Street between Temple Boulevard and 1st Street has been renamed Judge John F. Aiso Street in his honor.
For More Information
Aiso, John. "Japan's Military System Must Be Crushed." Vital Speeches of the Day 10: 5 (December 15, 1943): 136-138.
Bess, Demaree. "California's Amazing Japanese." Saturday Evening Post 227: 44 (April 3, 1955): 38-83.
California Courts. "John F. Aiso, Biography." http://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/AisoJ.pdf.
Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center, Aiso Library. http://dlilibrary.monterey.army.mil/aisolib.htm.
Japanese American Veterans Association. "Military Intelligence Hall of Fame." http://www.javadc.org/Hall%20of%20Famers.htm.
Ichinokuchi, Tad, ed. John Aiso and the M.I.S: Japanese-American Soldiers in the Military Intelligence Service, World War II. Los Angeles: The Club, 1988.
Kihara, Shig. "In Memory of John Aiso." Hawaii Herald, February 5, 1988, Section B.
Morrision, Patti, and Santiago O'Donnell. "John Aiso, Prominent Nisei and Jurist, Dies After Mugger's Attack." Los Angeles Times December 31, 1987. http://articles.latimes.com/1987-12-31/local/me-7802_1_john-aiso.
- Research for this article was supported by a grant from the Hawai‘i Council for the Humanities.
- Tad Ichinokuchi, ed., John Aiso and the M.I.S.: Japanese-American Soldiers in the Military Intelligence Service, World War II (Los Angeles: The Club, 1988), 5.
- Ichinokuchi, John Aiso and the M.I.S., 6.
- Ibid., 15.
- Shig Kihara, "In Memory of John Aiso," Hawaii Herald, February 5, 1988, Section B.