Date of Infamy
Since his childhood in Japan, Takanobu “Nobu” Mitsui knew that he would end up at Dartmouth College. His father, Takanaga, class of 1915, was an influential industrialist in his native country and decided that his sons would follow in his footsteps, as per the Japanese family traditions of the time. But Nobu would never have imagined that his college career would coincide with the outbreak of WW II and the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Instead of bringing him home, Takanaga insisted that Nobu stay in Hanover. “He did not want his eldest son to come home and get involved in the war. Nobu would have volunteered or been drafted, and Dad didn’t want that to happen,” says Nobu’s younger brother, Mori ’58, who now lives in Maine.
Nobu finished his degree at Dartmouth, returned to Japan in 1947 and became the assistant editor-in-chief of the first Japanese Reader’s Digest. While at Dartmouth he kept extensive journals and writings. After Nobu’s death in 1965, his wife, Tamiko, organized and published them
privately in Japan under the title Thank You and So Long. She gave copies to the College and to several of Nobu’s college friends.
What follows is an adapted excerpt from the book that addresses Nobu’s campus encounters in early December 1941.
It was the 8th of December, 1941, in Japan when the bombing attack on Pearl Harbor took place, but in Hawaii, it was the 7th of December. It is the nature of the earth to revolve continuously, so people agreed as a matter of general convenience to draw an imaginary line down the middle of the Pacific Ocean as a dividing line, west of the line being today and east of the line being yesterday, something which even now I don’t know quite how to explain.
Thus it was the evening of December 7, just about the time when my friends and I were on our way to have dinner, that Pearl Harbor was attacked. For the College, some 10,000 miles away from Hawaii, this was completely unexpected. We were simply unable to absorb the news. Even though we understood that what was happening seemed certain to mean war, we didn’t feel impelled to change our plans to go to the movies after dinner.
Whatever movie we saw that evening is completely forgotten. It was a movie like hundreds of others. Everything there in the movie theater was normal, a news short, some cartoons and then the main feature.
However, when the show was over and we were casually leaving the theater, we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by five or six young men. We also were young men and, being in a college town, we not unreasonably took the men surrounding us to be students. It was a relief when they identified themselves as reporters and not out to make trouble. Instead, what they wanted was a street interview with me.
Coming directly to the point, one of them asked me, “You have heard about the bombing in Hawaii, haven’t you?”
I responded simply, “Yes, I have.”
“In effect, Japan has declared war on America, hasn’t it?” another one asked.
“Is it so?” I responded, half believing and half unbelieving—no, not half, rather 30 percent to 70 percent.
“You don’t see it that way?” he persisted, as if finding my answer incredible. “Don’t you think that was the plan?”
“I can’t say at this point what I don’t yet know.”
“What are you going to do now?”
“I don’t think that will be up to me. Until I have official instructions from the authorities, I guess I just have to stay as is.”
While this was taking place, we were moving little by little closer to my dormitory. I looked over to where my room was and saw that in my absence a crowd had gathered outside of it. Besides the reporters, there were my friends who never expressed hostile feelings to me, but who, as much as they could, tried to say what was helpful and supportive.
Something I particularly felt grateful for was that the student governing body in a majority decision voted to ensure my personal safety within College limits. They also kindly asked me to report to them if any student gave me trouble in the future. They explained to me that the dean represented the administration, but seldom if ever went to students’ rooms and such; however, so long as the government had not issued instructions, they would guarantee to me that I could go on doing what I had been doing up to now.
The next morning—the morning of December 8—I went as usual to my classes. In any nation, in any society, you can never be certain that in a crowd of people there may not be some fanatic out of control, so to some extent I felt a vague uneasiness, but leaving a class at 2 p.m. I realized I had not experienced the slightest change in atmosphere.
That morning when I had some free time I went to the office of the College president, Dr. Ernest Martin Hopkins, class of 1901, to pay my respects.
“What has happened is terrible,” he said in a quiet, level tone. “You have had the misfortune to have become a victim of circumstances.”
While I was absorbing these brief and forceful words I was wondering if our roles had been reversed, would I have been feeling hostile thoughts, seeing this person before me as having become a threat? Instead, here I was, gazing gratefully into the frank, unwavering eyes of a man who harbored no discrimination whatsoever against someone from a foreign country.
“I have full confidence in the common sense of the faculty and students of the College, although I suppose in any large group there may be an extremist element,” he said. “But aside from that, I would expect that for someone in your situation, there will unavoidably be a number of difficult matters to be dealt with. However, with regard to the sentiment of the school and faculty, what came from the student governing body yesterday evening was that, in event of a crisis, you are to come directly to me!”
Unable to speak, I could only listen in hushed silence as he continued: “Even with the coming of war I think it would be unwise for you to alter your plans as long as it is not necessary to do so. Until such time as the government has definitely decided what is to be done, the plans our people and your people have made have served us well until now….”
While the College president said these things in such a matter-of-fact manner I was listening with deep emotion. Matters I had to deal with that had no connection to the bombing of Pearl Harbor were matters that anyone with normal judgment could comprehend. But now, I see this man of many responsibilities doing all he can to help me, a victim of circumstances that have struck me without warning, to deal with things that have to be done.
Even in Japan there would no doubt have been examples of individual acts of kindness toward enemy aliens. The point of difference between Japan and America would be, for example, that the president of a Japanese university could not possibly have shown publicly such concern for a foreign enemy student studying abroad. If he were to do so he would be labeled as unpatriotic, and it would become impossible for him to stay in office. In America the laws and government regulations must be observed, but beyond that what you choose to do outside these specific provisions is not a matter for concern.
This piece was reported and edited by Leanne Mirandilla ’10, a former DAM intern. Thanks to Edward Rasmussen ’42 for bringing Nobu’s writings to our attention.