Hank Gosho, Sensei
Hank Gosho at Tsukuba Expo ’85 (low resolution from heavy cropping of original photo)
A couple of months ago, I wrote a blog post about Don Jones, a colorful character who, among much else, had offered to teach me Japanese in 10 hours. Today, I’d like to tell you a little about another friend and former colleague, Hank Gosho (1921–1992). Hank was the sensei — master teacher, or, better, guru — I was lucky enough to have when I spent most of 1985 on the staff of the U.S. pavilion at Tsukuba Expo ’85 in Japan.
Hank was the second-ranking member of the pavilion’s senior staff (I don’t recall his exact title) and, as “director of events,” I reported directly to him. In fact, when I first arrived in Japan about a month before the expo’s opening, housing for pavilion staffers was not yet quite completed, so Hank and I shared an apartment for several weeks. (His wife, Jeanne, arrived in Tsukuba a few weeks later.) And after our typical 10–11-hour workdays — no weekends — preparing for the opening, Hank and I usually had dinner together at a neighborhood sushi bar. Actually, I owe to Hank practically everything I know about sushi and Japanese cuisine.
Hank taught me how to impress a sushi chef or waiter. I might have managed oishi deshta (“It was delicious”) on my own, but Hank wanted me to know a more respectful, perhaps slightly old-fashioned, way to show appreciation, gochiso sama deshta, which never failed to elicit smiles (and comments I couldn’t understand).
I remember one evening when eating at a nearby steakhouse, Hank wanted me to discover that in such a Western-style establishment, a serving of rice might not be called gohan (the everyday word for the cooked white grain). So he pointed to the rice on his plate and asked the waitress (in Japanese) to tell me what it was. “RAI-suh,” she immediately responded — “rice” with a Japanese accent.
Although we’d eat together and talk well into the evening, Hank and I never drank together. A bayonet wound to the stomach that he suffered in Burma during World War II — more on his wartime service below — had made him physically unable to tolerate alcohol.
A nisei (second-generation Japanese-American) from Seattle, Hank had led an extraordinary life, most of it as a Foreign Service officer with the U.S. Information Agency and before that in the Army. At age 64 he’d agreed to come out of a well-earned retirement when USIA asked him to help out in Tsukuba because he had more relevant experience than anyone they could think of.
School in Japan … Return to U.S.
In the 1930s, against a backdrop of widespread hostility to Japanese and Chinese up and down the West Coast, Hank’s parents had sent him and his two brothers to Japan to finish their education. Hank was about 8 (if I remember his story correctly) when he went to live with an uncle in Japan, and it required a great deal of adjustment.
Being Japanese in the U.S. had hardly been a picnic, especially in those days, but in Japan Hank was seen as an American, and he not only had to learn Japanese and play catch-up in almost every subject in school, he also had to hold his own against bullying. Hank learned kendo, the martial art that employs bamboo “swords,” a helmet and protective padding. His study of Japanese in the prewar era gave him a more extensive knowledge of kanji (the Chinese-style characters used for most Japanese words) than that of many Japanese educated after World War II, when written Japanese was simplified. I’d often see Japanese members of the U.S. pavilion staff ask Hank about the finer points of written Japanese.
As the likelihood of war between the U.S. and Japan grew in 1941, Hank’s parents tried to arrange for at least one of their sons to return to the U.S. This was not so easy, as they had all gone through the equivalent of “junior ROTC” training as part of their schooling in prewar Japan’s highly militarized society, and were subject to conscription. Eventually, Hank’s parents managed to pull the strings that enabled Hank to return home, despite the fact that he was by then a commissioned warrant officer in the Japanese army.1 As it turned out, he traveled on the last passenger ship to sail from Japan to the U.S. before war broke out. This was in September 1941, just a couple of months before Pearl Harbor (December 7).
Following Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government, doubting the loyalty of the Japanese living in the U.S., even though about two-thirds of them were American citizens, unconstitutionally rounded them all up (except for most of those living in Hawaii, where they were simply too numerous) and sent them to internment camps in a variety of isolated, desolate places. Despite the humiliation and hardships they endured, they proved their loyalty.2
Hank was one of those who, from a camp in Idaho, volunteered for the Army. His excellent language background made him eligible to volunteer for the Military Intelligence Service (MIS), whose linguists served — in the fight against Japan — in the war’s Pacific theater. Hank and his unit trained somewhere in the South,3 and he then joined Merrill’s Marauders, an all-volunteer, long-range “penetration unit” that fought behind Japanese lines in Burma. There, he told me, his ROTC-like training in Japan gave him exceptionally helpful knowledge. Not only could he understand the enemy’s shouted and radioed orders and tell his own officers what they were up to, he could also “read” the ground.
For example, Hank told me, in his military training in Japan, he’d learned such fine points of army organization as the number and dimensions of the latrine pits dug for units of certain sizes. So when Hank’s unit came across an enemy camp site, he’d know how many men they were facing. On the battlefield, this was priceless information.
Hank (left) in uniform after return to U.S., 1945
In Burma, Hank picked up not only his bayonet scar, but also a nickname — Horizontal Hank. Reflecting the countless times he’d been pinned down by enemy fire, it is now immortalized in his [U.S. Army] Ranger Hall of Fame bio.4 He also acquired a lifelong cigar habit. His unit was supplied with rations, water and ammunition by air drop, but Burma, he told me, was pretty much at the end of a long supply line that ran through India. As a result, his unit didn’t get cigarettes. Instead, they were given what was available. He was still smoking cigars regularly when I got to know him in 1985, four decades after the war ended.
Hank then became the first Japanese-American to join the U.S. Foreign Service, a remarkable event in that era of continuing discrimination. He spent most of his career with what became the U.S. Information Agency either in Japan or in Japan-related assignments in Washington, D.C. To a Foreign Service officer like me, who joined USIA in 1971 and was expected to move from country to country every few years, this seemed like an unusual career. But Hank’s exceptional expertise ideally suited him for Japan, and he made an entire career of it.
Hank made a great many friends too, and I feel lucky to count myself one of them.
Hank with wife Jeanne and daughter, 1945
1. Hank’s brothers remained in Japan throughout the war. One served in the army and one in the navy. Both survived.
2. Families had to sell businesses, farms, homes and other possessions at short notice — at “fire sale” prices — in preparation for their years-long incarceration (1942–45) behind the barbed wire and watchtowers of these internment camps, which housed some 117,000 people. It was a shameful episode in our nation’s history.
Despite the internment, about 30,000 men of military age (many from Hawaii, which was largely exempt from internment) volunteered for the Army and, mostly in the 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regiment (motto: “Go for Broke”), served with great distinction in Italy, France and Germany. In fact, the 442nd is the most-decorated unit in U.S. military history. Some, like Hank, volunteered for the Military Intelligence Service and helped defeat Japan.
3. Hank told me a great story about his MIS trainee unit’s arrival at this installation. They were met on the train station platform by a sergeant holding the unit’s roster on a clipboard. Hank, who’d already earned one stripe on his sleeve, was the ranking member of his group. The sergeant handed him the roster and told him to call the roll. Hank said he was puzzled — this would normally be the sergeant’s responsibility. So Hank asked if he’d heard right. “Yes, soldier,” replied the sergeant. “I’m not going to call off these names. Just look at ’em — Take a shitta! You’re a shitta!” (Takeshita, Ureshita)
I can’t resist sharing another great Hank story. This happened when we were serving together in Tsukuba. Hank had had to drive to Tokyo for some reason, and he didn’t realize that his car’s gasoline gauge was malfunctioning. He thought he had plenty of gas for the roughly hourlong drive. But he didn’t, and his car rolled to a stop on an elevated freeway. Hank knew that running out of gas is inexcusable in Japan — it gets you a big fine. Moreover, traffic was backing up behind him, and in addition to his chagrin about causing the problem, he heard a report on his car radio from a traffic helicopter — the reporter said something like “there’s an idiot stalled down there on the freeway. It looks like he’s run out of gas and traffic is now backed up for four kilometers.”
4. Hank was inducted into the Ranger Hall of Fame posthumously in 1997.
I greatly appreciate this detailed contribution. I’m now 75; my late father introduced me to “Horizontal” when I was perhaps seven years old. That would have been in Seat Pleasant (better known as Capitol Heights), Maryland, when chronologies place him working in the Foreign Service. Dad was taking me on a summer evening walk and I even remember the intersection, 64th Place and G Street. We encountered Gosho and Dad introduced me to him as his friend, Hank Gosho. Maybe he was then in the Foreign Service on a headquarters assignment. Dad was then a translator in the State Department; he’d transferred there after getting to Washington from the Jerome and Rohwer concentration camps in Arkansas on a job as a translator in the library of the Office of Strategic Services. (He quit and transferred out when it became the CIA.)
As a child of that age, I had no clue who he was and it would be decades before I came to wish that my future avocation – I graduated in 1970 as a college major in Asian American history – had been implanted in my brain retroactively.
I spent my career in civil rights enforcement and my spare time in activism and back-filling my knowledge of general/Nikkei/Asian civil rights struggles. An uncle briefly in Jerome concentration camp rushed thru college so he could join the MIS and did so just in time to participate in the Battle for Manila (and then the Occupation), so he was just barely a colleague of Hank Gosho. Two older uncles and my father-in-law fought in the ETO. A Nikkei I just met at a reunion conference in Arkansas on the two concentration camps there (May 2023) reminded me of Horizontal and thinks he has some documents about my relatives.
Thank you, Norm. We’re almost of the same vintage — I’m closing in on 79 in a few months. Greatly appreciate the recollection of your childhood introduction to Hank and the great background on the struggle of Japanese-Americans for dignity and civil rights that you’ve added to the piece I wrote.