Captured at Pearl Harbor: First Japanese prisoner remembers

By BRIAN NICHOLSON  |  Dec. 7, 1981
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SAO PAULO, Brazil -- Forty years ago Dec. 7 Kazuo Sakamaki rode a midget submarine into Pearl Harbor at the vanguard of Japan's attack.

The two-man vessel broke down, and Sakamaki was washed up on Honolulu beach to enter history as the first Japanese prisoner taken by United States forces in World War II.

Now, four decades later, he heads a Japanese multinational company in Brazil and talks a little reluctantly of his exploit.

'I was just trying to do my submariner's duty as honestly as I could, just a small part in a big machine,' he said. 'I was assigned to that duty by headquarters.

'It was all 40 years ago, and I am glad to have had peace in those 40 years.'

Asked how it felt to be at the spearhead of so great and historic an attack, Sakamaki said he remembers feeling no special emotion other than the normal desire of any soldier to win the battle at hand.

Was he frightened?

Sakamaki just laughed: 'I was only doing my duty.'

As the first and only Japanese prisoner taken during the lightning attack, Sakamaki said he initially received rough handling from his captors but bears no resentment.

'Some men would say I was badly treated, but under the circunstances I would not agree,' he said.

Later he was shipped from Hawaii to a series of POW camps in San Francisco, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Louisiana, Texas and Washington State.

He was repatriated to Japan in January 1946.

Never again did he see his fellow submariner who rode with him under the waves into Pearl Harbor.

'We were separated, and I guess he must have drowned.'

Now a spry 63-year-old, Sakamaki has spent his last 10 years in Brazil heading Toyota's jeep manufacturing operations.

Despite a decade in a country he loves, Sakamaki's Portuguese is virtually non-existent, and he gets by using interpreters and the smattering of English that remains from his POW days.

'This is a very good country,' he said. 'The Brazilian people have a good way of looking at things. They are not radical, and they have little racial prejudice. And it is a rich country with a great future.'

He sees Japan's defeat in the war as having been a incentive to survivors in his generation, impelling them to make extra personal efforts that perhaps the winners did not feel were necessary.

'After the war things were very difficult,' he said. 'We did not even have enough food. It was a matter of life and death, almost. But an individual or a people who suffer have to push themselves to improve their lot.'

Twenty years ago Sakamaki went back to Pearl Harbor, this time riding above the waves in a comfortable cruise ship en route for the United States.

'I felt a little nostalgia, oh, yes,' he laughed.

'In wartime I tried to get in there in a battle, but in peacetime I could enjoy Pearl Harbor. It was nice to go in peacetime.'

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