Frank Abe at King Street Station

John Okada’s MIS service shared in new PBS film

The story of John Okada’s wartime work in the U.S. Military Intelligence Service is now airing nationwide in a new film on PBS.

Frank Abe in office
photo: Steve Ozone

The filmmakers of The Registry, Bill Kubota and Steve Ozone, flew out from Detroit seven years ago to speak with me about the author of No-No Boy. In particular we focused on the two years Okada spent training at the MIS Language School at Camp Savage, Minnesota, and then flying in the belly of a B-24 out of Guam to intercept and translate Japanese air-to-ground radio transmissions. If my words seem to falter it was because this interview was conducted in 2013, well before I had begun the final round of research and writing on the featured biography in our recent volume, John Okada.

Frank Abe at King Street StationBill and Steve then took me out on what Okada might describe as a typical rainy Seattle afternoon (as opposed to how Bill the midwesterner describes it in the Q and A below!) for the nickel tour of John’s old stomping grounds in Pioneer Square and Chinatown. That shoot was cut short by rainfall which soaked the pages of my paperback copy of the novel as I was trying to read aloud from it. 

The Registry can be seen nationwide in the month of May on the PBS stations listed in this PDF. You can also stream the one-hour film for free here. The four-minute segment on Okada starts at the 40:04 mark. Don’t delay, as the link expires on May 29, 2020. (The PBS link is now expired, but you can watch an earlier version of the same clip on Facebook Watch, the only difference being a music underscore that was not used in the final cut. Be sure to unmute the audio by clicking the speaker icon in the lower right).

Director Bill Kubota, who also directed the 2007 PBS/ITVS film Most Honorable Son on the life of war hero Ben Kuroki, was kind enough to take the time to answer a few of our questions from his KDN Films office in Detroit:

Bill, what led to you to include John Okada in your film?

BILL KUBOTA: All clues pointed to Okada having been in the MIS although he never said so in anything I read. I felt we had to include him as he would be perhaps the most prominent nisei to have served in the unit.

What impressions did you take away from your location shoot in Seattle?

KUBOTA: It was late September 2013, and we arrived in the middle of what seemed like a monsoon. Heavy gusty rain. I knew it rained in Seattle but everyone we saw said it never rains like that. We hung out in Nihonmachi. Being from Detroit where all the Japanese restaurants seem like high-end gentrified affairs, it was exciting to see Japanese places that were, well, not putting on airs.

After all your research, how do you see John Okada’s military service fitting in with the whole of the Nisei MIS experience?

KUBOTA: While we couldn’t get into too much depth regarding No-No Boy in The Registry, we were able to address the book’s significance through your interview. Through Okada’s experience we get this book and we can understand the horror of war that some of the other veterans we profiled could not or did not want to provide. While some of those vets we profiled were certified war heroes, others like Okada are representative of the MIS as a whole. He also typified so many who served by not revealing much about his service. Even his gravestone recognizes the unit he was temporarily attached to in Guam, not the MIS.

What’s the journey been like for you to finally get this film on the air?

KUBOTA: Filming The Registry was a race against time to get to the veterans before they were gone. There was one profile we wanted to get into the program but couldn’t get to fit the hour long program. We spent some time with Cedrick Shimo in Los Angeles. I see him as perhaps the first resister. He was kicked out of the MIS when he complained about not being able to see his mother in Manzanar before being deployed to the Pacifc because Manzanar was in the restricted zone! Fortunately Cedrick was able to see his story in a longer version of the film that showed last year at the University of Southern California. He died very recently at the age of 100.  I’ll try to post Cedrick’s segment on our Facebook page soon. [Ed: Here is the link.]

We started filming in 2011 with the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony honoring the 442nd RCT and MIS in Washington DC and actually finished the film three years ago with help from the Center for Asian American Media. 

Then there was talk of PBS taking the program two years ago but there were delays. I heard of some personnel changes at the network slowing the process but now the rollout looks pretty good. Not playing yet in Seattle as far as I can tell (although KBTC in Tacoma ran it earlier this month) but most of the other big cities including New York, Los Angeles, Washington DC, San Francisco are running it in good primetime slots. It can also be streamed from PBS this month.

I really think your interview helped connect the MIS experience to post-war life and Okada’s creation of No-No Boy. That’s something that should be of interest to those wanting to hear more about Asian American history beyond the World War II heroics.

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