Tomoya Kawakita

Name Tomoya Kawakita
Born September 26 1921
Died 1993
Generational Identifier


Along with Iva Toguri d'Aquino , Tomoya Kawakita (1921-1993?) was one of two Nisei convicted of treason for collaborating with the Japanese during World War II. Stranded in Japan after the outbreak of war, Kawakita found employment as an interpreter at a POW camp in Oeyama. Back home in Los Angeles after the war, he was identified by a former POW and reported to the FBI. He was eventually arrested and indicted for thirteen counts of treason, each representing a separate act of abuse to POWs. Convicted, he was sentenced to death in 1948, but had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment in 1953. In 1963, President Kennedy paroled and deported Kawakita. Kawakita lived the rest of his life in Japan.


Tomoya Kawakita grew up in Calexico, California. In 1939, after high school, Kawakita traveled to Japan with his father to visit his grandfather. His father, a successful grocer and merchant, returned to the United States, while leaving the eighteen-year-old Kawakita in Japan to attend a preparatory school for Nisei from which he matriculated into Meiji University. Most Nisei lacked adequate Japanese language skills, and the Kawakitas believed that if their son became fluent, he could work in a business importing Japanese goods, one of the few white-collar occupations available to prewar Nisei. During the war, Kawakita entered his name into his family's koseki , or family register, to assure him rights of Japanese citizenship and to secure employment.

In August 1943, Kawakita began work as an interpreter at the Oeyama Nickel Industry Company, Ltd., a mining and metal processing plant located sixty miles from Kyoto near the Sea of Japan. During the war the company used Allied prisoners of war as laborers. Kawakita interpreted between the Japanese military foreman in charge of the adjoining POW camp and the prisoners, who included Britons, Canadians, Chinese and—after late 1944 and early 1945—about four hundred American POWs, most of whom had been captured on Bataan in 1942.

When the war ended, Kawakita served the Americans as an interpreter at Oeyama before making his way back to Tokyo. In December 1945, he applied for a renewal of his U.S. passport at the U.S. consulate, where he explained away his Japanese citizenship by asserting that he registered in his family's koseki only in 1943 and under severe pressure. Having heard similar tales from many other Nisei eager to leave war-torn Japan, the examining officer did not find his story suspicious. After a check of the Eighth Army Counter Intelligence Corps records indicated nothing of concern, the consulate issued Kawakita a new passport in June 1946, and he returned home in early August. By October, he was enrolled as a student at the University of Southern California when a former POW spotted him at a Sears Roebuck department store.


At his trial, Kawakita pleaded "not guilty" to the charges, and his defense primarily rested on the status of his citizenship. His lawyer, Morris Lavine, contended that Kawakita perceived himself to be a Japanese citizen with no allegiance to the U.S. at the time of his alleged crimes. At the very most, Lavine stressed, his client was guilty of "a series of isolated assaults and batteries—nothing more." Kicking a prisoner in the shins or forcing a prisoner to carry an extra bucket of paint "could not possibly rise to the dignity of . . . a treason case," he declared. Lavine explained that Kawakita acted under direct orders to be stern towards the prisoners. More importantly, the lawyer emphasized, the alleged acts lacked the "element of secrecy and cunning" that characterizes treachery and asserted that Americans "have to be careful that our victory over Japan does not enable us for that reason to wreak vengeance against the defendant. We are all on trial here." The case, he stated, should not be "another chance to get a Jap." [1]

Lavine's caution spoke to the inflammatory press headlines that prejudged Kawakita as guilty. At the time of his arrest and indictment, the Los Angeles Times inflated Kawakita's importance at Oeyama: "L.A. Jap Arrested as Horror Camp Leader" and "Jap Camp Boss Indicted Here." Even the Nisei newspaper, the Pacific Citizen , did not clarify that he was only a civilian interpreter. The national press made no mention of his protests against the charges of overt, personal brutality and gave the impression that his case rested only on the status of his citizenship, not the truth of the charges. The Pacific Citizen did not publish his or his family's side of the story when it broke. Instead, aghast at the damage Kawakita's case might do to their improved postwar image, the paper was quick to presume his guilt and try to distance Japanese Americans from him. [2]

The government argued that Kawakita understood that he still owed allegiance to the United States and thus had intentionally betrayed the country of his birth through his actions. Kawakita was on trial not because of his Japanese ancestry, head prosecutor James M. Carter emphasized, but because he used his American citizenship too casually, turning it off and on as if "a faucet." [3] Carter asserted that Kawakita had misled the U.S. consulate officer and that his exhortations helped force prisoners to mine more ore for the Japanese war effort. [4] Bolstering the prosecution's case were the "close to 100" former POWs who had volunteered to testify against him. [5] Personal knowledge of Japanese brutality had convinced many former POWs of Kawakita's guilt.

Lavine tried poking holes in POW testimonies, suggesting that they were blaming the wrong man. He argued that the more serious offenses charged against Kawakita—like delaying medical attention to a prisoner who sustained a spinal injury, striking a mortally ill prisoner, or pushing a prisoner repeatedly into a cesspool as punishment for stealing Red Cross supplies—had actually been attributed to other camp guards in POW affidavits for the war crimes trials in Japan. The absence of Kawakita's name in a diary kept by the medical officer who recorded violations of the Geneva Convention at Oeyama also supported his innocence. Moreover, no prisoner retaliated against him after the war ended. Instead, the Allied officers chose him to be their main interpreter. Lavine emphasized that his client did not hide or change his name after arriving home; instead "he went to a university loaded with GIs"—an unlikely act for someone who had any cause to fear their retribution. Unlike the other two Nisei translators at Oeyama, Kawakita's role at the mine as translator of military orders meant that he handed down or barked orders to extract the most work from the mostly enlisted men under grueling circumstances. His job as a voice of the hated captors hardly made him a fond memory after the war for Camp Oeyama's former prisoners, Lavine asserted, and now Kawakita was being punished for merely being a messenger. [6]

Yet the POWs insisted that Kawakita added gratuitous, demeaning remarks as he interpreted and that he abused his association with their Japanese captors to act like "a big shot." They remembered him as an embittered minority man who declared that America "never gave [him] a damned thing" and who lashed out at white POWs because he was in the position to do so. Kawakita, reported one veteran, "seemed to take satisfaction in seeing Americans degraded in the presence of Japanese soldiers."

Trial Outcome & Aftermath

The jury approached Judge William C. Mathes several times for a dismissal during their eight days of deliberation, claiming they were impossibly deadlocked, but each time the judge insisted they continue. [7] Finally, on September 2, 1948, the jury reached a verdict: Kawakita was guilty of eight of the thirteen "overt" acts of treason. Before the sentencing, Lavine filed a motion for a new trial, charging that the jury had been unduly influenced. The bailiffs, he claimed, told the jurors, who had already endured a long trial in sweltering heat, that the judge would keep them cooped up until they returned a guilty verdict. Lavine added that a juror told him that she had been pressured to agree to a conviction. Judge Mathes, however, had the authority to rule on this appeal, and he ruled that there had been no coercion. He then sentenced the twenty-seven year-old to die in a gas chamber.

Mathes emphasized that Kawakita's Japanese ancestry had no effect on his sentencing. "My views would be the same no matter who he was," he claimed. Lest capital punishment be deemed too harsh, Mathes went on to explain that Kawakita's crime of treason violated more than the well-being of a few American prisoners. Instead, the judge intoned, his "crime [was] against the whole people of this country where he was born and where he was fed and where he was educated." Not all traitors, Mathes asserted, are "given the chance to commit treason in a grand manner," and he speculated, without any evidence, that had Kawakita been given the opportunity, he would have "willingly blown up our Pacific Fleet and disclosed to the Japanese the secrets of our atomic bomb." Contrasting Kawakita's behavior with the "good" Japanese Americans, particularly those who served with distinction in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Infantry Battalion and who died for their nation, the judge reasoned Kawakita should die as well. [8]

The appellate court, on June 22, 1951, and the U.S. Supreme Court, on June 2, 1952, affirmed both the conviction and the death sentence. A majority of the Supreme Court justices ruled that neither Kawakita nor any American should be able to "turn [U.S. citizenship] into a fair-weather citizenship, retaining it for possible contingent benefits but meanwhile playing the part of the traitor. An American citizen owes allegiance to the United States wherever he may reside." [9]

Unable to reverse his conviction, Kawakita and Lavine tried to have the severity of his sentence lessened. President Eisenhower reduced Kawakita's sentence to life imprisonment on October 29, 1953, and Lavine continued to press for an executive clemency. Eisenhower received many petitions—mostly from Japan—and continued to receive them after the commutation requesting that Kawakita be released from prison and allowed to return to Japan. Kawakita had friends in high places. The governor of Mie, the Kawakita family's home prefecture, personally cabled Eisenhower expressing his appreciation when the president commuted Kawakita's death sentence. [10] Another politician, Takeo Miki, who went on to become prime minister of Japan in 1974, was a family friend who had found Kawakita the job at the Oeyama Nickel Company in the first place. As a member of Japan's House of Representatives, Miki secretly used his influence to have top Japanese officials make personal appeals to Robert F. Kennedy and John F. Kennedy.

At first, the Kennedy administration stood by its predecessor's decision not to parole Kawakita. In 1963, however, the attorney general's office reversed its opinion and endorsed commutation to time served on the condition that Kawakita leave the U.S. forever. [11] Judge Mathes remained adamantly opposed, but emphasized that the former U.S. Attorney James M. Carter, now a U.S. district judge in the Southern District of California, and the appellate judge who wrote the opinion affirming Kawakita's conviction now "unhesitantly recommend[ed] clemency." Although Kawakita was found guilty of brutality toward fellow Americans, "justice would not be ill-served" to release him since he had been incarcerated sixteen years during which he had been a model prisoner. [12] The cover memo by RFK's executive assistant also mentions that the Japan desk at the State Department favored the action, as Kawakita's release "would be helpful" to U.S.-Japan relations. President Kennedy paroled Kawakita on October 24, 1963. By mid-December 1963, Kawakita was in Tokyo, where he lived for the rest of his life until his death in the mid-1990s.

Authored by Naoko Shibusawa , Brown University

For More Information

Shibusawa, Naoko. America's Geisha Ally: Reimagining the Enemy . Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006.

Shimojima, Tetsuo. Amerika Kokka Hangyakukuzai [lit. American National Treason]. Tokyo: Kondansha, 1993.

Stephan, John J. "Hijjacked by Utopia: American Nikkei in Manchuria." Amerasia Journal 23.3 (Winter 1997-98): 1-42.


  1. Reporter's Transcript of Proceedings United States vs. Tomoya Kawakita , criminal case 19665, RG 21 Records of the District Court of the United States, Southern District of California, NARA-Laguna Nigel (hereafter Kawakita transcript), 5041, 5217.
  2. "Nisei Is Accused in Los Angeles Of Abusing GI Prisoners in Japan," New York Times , June 6, 1947, 10; "Meatball," Time September 13, 1948 25; "Not Worth Living," Time , October 18, 1948, 28; "Tomoya Kawakita Will Face Treason Charge as Case Opens in Los Angeles Court," Pacific Citizen , June 19. 1948, 2.
  3. Kawakita transcript, 5418.
  4. Kawakita transcript, 5003, 5028.
  5. "Kawakita Will Face Federal Treason Charge for Alleged Mistreatment of U.S. POWs," Pacific Citizen , June 7, 1947, 1.
  6. Kawakita transcript, 4153-55; 4213.
  7. United States v Tomoya Kawakita , 96 F. Supp. 824, 853-857.
  8. 96 F.Supp. 824, 860.
  9. Justice William O. Douglas wrote the majority opinion; Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson, Justice Hugo L. Black, and Justice Harold H. Burton dissented; and Justices Tom C. Clark and Felix Frankfurter did not participate. United States v. Tomoya Kawakita , 343 U.S. 717, 737.
  10. Route Slip to the State Department from Office of the President, November 7, 1953, and Cozart to Koro, July 20, 1960, copy in File GF 6-X Amnesty & Pardons (22), Box 151, General File, White House Central Files, Eisenhower Presidential Library.
  11. Memorandum from Andrew F. Oehmann, Executive Assistant to the Attorney General, to Lee C. White, Assistant Special Counsel to the President, October 9, 1963 in Subject File JL1-1, Approved Applications 08/15/1963-11/1963, Box 450, White House Central Subject File, Kennedy Presidential Library.
  12. Memorandum from RFK to JFK, October 9, 1963, In the Matter of the Application for Executive Clemency of Tomoya Kawakita in Subject File JL1-1, Approved Applications 08/15/1963-11/1963, Box 450, White House Central Subject File, Kennedy Presidential Library.

Last updated June 12, 2024, 9:09 p.m..