News your connection to The Boston Globe

Otis Cary; his sly interrogations of Japanese POWs helped bridge cultures

LOS ANGELES -- When Otis Cary interrogated Japanese prisoners during World War II, he softened them with gifts of magazines, cigarettes, and chocolates. He broke through their reserve with humor. And he spoke to them in flawless Japanese -- shocking from a blond American.

Mr. Cary spoke like a native because he was one, the son and grandson of New England missionaries in Japan. With missionary-like ardor, he proselytized for the Allied cause, persuading many of the prisoners to cooperate in efforts to end the war and help rebuild Japan as a democracy.

''Prolonged contact with Americans in the prison camps clearly had an impact on many prisoners, and for none more than those influenced by Otis Cary," wrote Ulrich Straus, a former diplomat whose study of Japanese prisoners of war, ''The Anguish of Surrender," was published in 2003.

Mr. Cary, 84, who died of pneumonia April 14 in Oakland, played a unique role in US-Japan relations during and after World War II. He was one of the 1,100 Japanese linguists trained by the Navy to serve as interrogators, translators, and interpreters after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. For more than four decades after the war, he bridged cultures as a professor of American studies at Doshisha University in Kyoto.

He was, in many respects, more Japanese than American.

''When [Americans] asked him where he came from, he said it pained him to say he was from Massachusetts," said Donald Keene, a Columbia University specialist on Japanese literature and longtime friend, who served with Mr. Cary during the war.

''To tell a fellow officer 'I came from Japan' was to start a quarrel" in the period after Pearl Harbor, Keene said. But Mr. Cary, he noted, ''saw Japan as his real home."

Mr. Cary was born in Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan. He moved to the United States after elementary school and attended high school at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts. From there he went on to Amherst College, which had a long history of ties with Japan through an exchange program with Doshisha.

When America entered World War II, he enlisted in the Navy. Assigned to a POW camp at Pearl Harbor in early 1943, he became the executive officer of the interrogation section. His first interrogation subject gave up information vital to the Allied offensive in the Aleutians after the prisoner learned that Mr. Cary was from his hometown of Otaru.

As the first officer to greet the POWs when they arrived at the Hawaii camp, Mr. Cary devised a ritual to set them at ease.

As recounted by Straus, Mr. Cary lined up the prisoners and called their rank, beginning with the lowest rank first. Privates first class were asked to take one step forward, the next highest rank two steps forward, and so on. Mr. Cary generally ran out of prisoners by the time he reached lieutenant or captain but continued the exercise until he reached the highest ranks.

''What, no generals or admirals?" he would ask, feigning shock when no one stepped forward. ''With that," wrote Straus, who interviewed former POWs, ''Cary won his audience. The men burst out in prolonged laughter at the absurdity of thinking that persons of such august rank would ever become prisoners."

Mr. Cary spoke to the POWs in colloquial Japanese, even though he was capable of navigating the language's many levels of politesse. He did this, Straus explained, to break down the Japanese military's stiflingly strict rank system and allow natural leaders to emerge.

He refused to rough up prisoners and he treated them as his equal. He always had larger objectives in mind.

''Otis believed in treating prisoners very well," the late Frank Gibney, another former Navy interrogator who became a prominent journalist and author of books about Japan, wrote a few years ago in an unpublished autobiography. ''He saw the Japanese as a lay missionary sees them, good grist to be talked to and milled, made friends with and, one hopes, ultimately brought to understand the virtues of American democracy, if not Christianity."

Mr. Cary's deep understanding of the Japanese enabled him to help the POWs overcome their shame at having been captured and their fears of returning home in disgrace. He encouraged them to see themselves as patriots, who had given their all to their country and who now had a duty to support its reconstruction.

He counted among his ''converts" POWs who went on to become leaders in the new Japan, including the publisher of a major newspaper and a prominent physician. He also drummed ideas of democracy into members of the imperial family, whom he met on several occasions after Japan's surrender in August 1945.

In 1947, while Japan was still under the Allied occupation, he joined the faculty of Doshisha University as a representative of Amherst College. In 1991 he helped launch Doshisha's graduate school of American studies, the first of its kind in Asia.

''Otis Cary played a key role -- I believe an underrecognized one -- in helping to ease US-Japan relations, both socially and at the academic level," said Pedro Loureiro, curator of the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College.

Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives