Thomas Taro Higa


Name Thomas Taro Higa
Born September 22 1916
Birth Location Honolulu
Generational Identifier

Thomas Tarō Higa was a 100th Infantry Battalion veteran who conducted a lecture tour between June 1944 and January 1945 under the sponsorship of the War Relocation Authority (WRA), the Department of the U.S. Army, and the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) to combat rumors that Japanese American soldiers were being used as human shields.

Early Life

Thomas Tarō Higa was born in Honolulu, Hawai'i, to immigrant parents, Kamezo and Kana Higa, on September 22, 1916, the third of twelve children. To relieve the burden of caring for so many children, Higa's mother sent Thomas, his older brother, and older sister to their ancestral home in Shimabukuro, Kitanakagusuku, Nakagami-gun, Okinawa-ken to be raised by his grandparents until he was nine years old. He spent his early teen years in Ōsaka before being sent back to live with his parents in Kahalu'u, Hawai'i, where they had a family farm.

In 1937, Higa returned to Japan to study electricity and while studying in Tokyo, he applied for several patents at the Patent Bureau and frequently visited the American Embassy as he needed proof of his American citizenship. However, due to these visits, the Japanese Secret Police believed that he was an American spy and interrogated and beat Higa. Soon after, Higa returned to Hawai'i to escape the increasingly militaristic environment in Japan.

Pearl Harbor Attack and Military Service

Upon his return to Hawai'i, Higa joined the army and entered Schofield Barracks in June 1941 for basic training after being drafted. On December 7th, Higa was home when the Japanese began to attack Kāne'ohe Air Base and he initially thought that it was a joint drill between the army, navy, and air force. After listening to a radio broadcast, however, Higa soon realized that it was not a training exercise and recalled that "although I thought that I was prepared for war, when it actually came I became dizzy and was thrown into an indescribable terror, as if being pulled into a bottomless abyss."[1] Higa soon overcame his shock and served as part of a shoreline patrol before being shipped off to Camp McCoy in Wisconsin with other Nisei to begin basic training in what would become the 100th Infantry Battalion. Authorities first sent Higa and other Hawai'i troops to Northern Africa where he participated in the Italian campaign and then on to fighting in Italy in the European Front. Higa was wounded twice in action and as a result of his second injury, a shrapnel injury to the back in 1943, Higa was sent back to the United States on a convalescent furlough.

Higa soon met officials with the JACL and along with other wounded Japanese American soldiers began attending meetings to combat anti-Japanese sentiment that existed in the United States. He also visited incarceration camps to visit with inmates and share stories of fighting on the front lines. When Higa's convalescent furlough was over, he began a four month lecture tour under the sponsorship of the WRA, the Department of the U.S. Army, and the JACL to combat rumors that Japanese American soldiers were being used as human shields. Scholar Michael Jin, who refers to Higa as a "model Kibei" and as an "assimilated" and bilingual Nisei, argues that members of the JACL, "believed that Higa's tour convinced many elders of the Japanese American community to support Nisei military service."[2] Eventually, Higa's tour extended to seven months from June 1944 to January 1945 and Higa visited a total of forty states and covered about 23,000 miles.[3]

Battle of Okinawa and Return to Hawai'i

After completing his speaking tour, Higa briefly returned to Hawai'i before General Kendall Fielder recruited Higa to go to Okinawa because of his ability to speak Japanese, English, and Okinawan. Higa began to accompany American troops and whenever they were about to blast a cave where civilians were hiding, Higa volunteered to go to the location to try to persuade the stragglers to leave. Speaking Okinawan to the people, Higa entered caves twelve times and was successful in getting the people to surrender in eleven instances. While in Okinawa, Higa continued his correspondence with Toshiko Chinen who had written to him frequently as a result of the articles he contributed to a local newspaper in Hawai'i about the conditions of the Japanese on the mainland. On November 22nd, 1945, Higa married Chinen on Kaua'i where her parents, Saburo and Chiyo Chinen had immigrated to from Tomori, Kochinda-san, Okinawa.

Even after his military service, Higa continued to be active in Japanese American issues and supported granting naturalization rights to Issei in 1947. Between 1963 and 1966, Higa directed and produced a documentary to commemorate the 65th anniversary of Okinawan immigration to the Islands called Hawaii ni ikiru ("Life in Hawaii"). He also wrote a book, Imin wa ikiru ("Immigrants Live On") in 1974 that examined the experience of Okinawan immigrants to Hawai'i and North and South America. Eight years later, he published another book, Aru nisei no wadachi ("Memoirs of a Certain Nisei") in Japan that was eventually published in English in 1988.

In May 1983, the Okinawan government and Ryukyu University honored Higa for his many contributions to the Okinawan people during and after the war. One month later, Higa was honored by the Okinawan Times for his contributions to the Okinawan people, the first foreigner to be honored in the award's history. In August 1984, Higa received a certificate of appreciation from the JACL during its national convention in Hawai'i. Despite his well-traveled life and scholarship, Higa spent the remaining years of his life operating a boat rental business at the foot of McCully Bridge, which ran over the Ala Wai Canal next to Waikiki. Higa passed away at the age of sixty-eight and was survived by his wife Toshiko; sons Alvin, Noland, and Samuel; daughters Pauline and Elsie; his three brothers and four sisters along with seven grandchildren.[4]

Authored by Kelli Y. Nakamura, University of Hawai'i

For More Information

Higa, Tarō. Imin wa ikiru. Tōkyō: Nichibei Jihōsha, 1974.

Footnotes

  1. Tarō Higa, Memoirs of a Certain Nisei, 1916-1985 (Kaneohe, Hawaii: Higa Publishing, 1988), 27.
  2. Michael Jin, "Beyond Two Homelands: Migration and Transnationalism of Japanese Americans in the Pacific, 1930-1955" (Ph.D. Diss., U.C. Santa Cruz, 2013), 210.
  3. Higa, Memoirs of a Certain Nisei, 154.
  4. "Higa," Honolulu Advertiser, Feb. 13, 1985, E-2; "Thomas Higa," Honolulu Star Bulletin, Feb. 13 1985, A-9.