The Special Prisoner

Tashimoto "the Hyena" v. Kawakita "the Meatball"

By William Wetherall

First posted 10 July 2009
Last updated 22 May 2010

See also Mark Schreiber's review of The Special Prisoner.


Jim Lehrer
The Special Prisoner
(A Novel)
Norwalk (CT): Easton Press, 2000
227 pages, full leather hardcover (1425 limited edition)
New York: Random House, 2000
227 pages, hardcover
New York: Public Affairs, 2001
Oxford: Public Affairs, 2002
217 pages, paperback

As a prisoner-of-war and prisoner-of-conscious sort of tale, this one is not bad. Which means that some parts are not as bad as others. Lehrer does a lot of things that writers are supposed to do -- plant things early in the story that come back later in a different guise. In the end, though, it fictionally stretches the boundaries of historical truth.

Hardcover synopsis (front jacket flap)

John Quincy Watson was a skilled young pilot flying B-29s over Japan when he was shot down and taken prisoner in 1945. Fifty years later, now a prominent religious figure nearing retirement, Bishop Watson believes he has long since overcome the excruciating memories of his months as a POW. But a chance sighting of the equally elderly Japanese officer who repeatedly tortured him instantly transports the Bishop back to that unendurable time, and he finds himself overwhelmed by a uncontrollable desire for vengeance.

Paperback edition synopsis (back cover)

John Quincy Watson was a young bomber flying the new B-29 Superfortress in a mission over Japan when he was shot down and taken prisoner. Designated a "special prisoner," as were all Allied airmen, he, along with his comrades, suffered an almost indescribably brutal POW experience under a vicious camp comander that Watson, with his friends, dubbed "the Hyena." When a chance encounter long after the war brings Watson, now a retired Bishon Watson, into contact with the man he believes to be the Hyena, the Bishop must struggle with anger and a desire for vengeance he thought he had long put aside. The Special Prisoner is a taut and dramatic novel about the timeless issues of guilt, revenge, faith, forgiveness, and justice.

The protagonist, Bishop John Quincy Watson, is a retired Methodist minister who had, half a century ago, become a prisoner of war in Japan when the B-29 he was piloting was shot down after disgorging its bombs over Tokyo. At Dallas-Fort Worth airport, about to board a plane for Washington National Airport, he spots a man he is certain had been the guard he and other prisoners had called "the Hyena" -- whose name he recalled as "Tashimoto" -- a man he can't believe is still alive because he had helped other prisoners kill him.

Watson, scheduled to address an ecumenical prayer breakfast at a church in a Virgina suburb, follows the man to a plane bound for San Diego, and confirms that the name on the man's ticket was T-a-s-hi-m-o-t-o. He is unable to board Tashimoto's plane but gets the next flight for San Diego. In the meantime, the intimate third-person narrator begins to reveal Watson's moral conflict (page 5).

The Hyena was alive! The little Jap was here in America, on a plane for San Diego!

Bishop Watson felt shame for thinking of the Hyena as a Jap. But it was an unavoidable reflex. For the bishop, this man could never be anything but a Jap.

Lehrer's "Tashimoto" is a fabricated Japanese name. His plot, too, is larger-than-life, contrived to explore real and hypothetical moral issues in the form of a novel that he probably thought would make a great movie. As of this writing, though, neither Hollywood nor HBO have stepped into the breach. Patriotic theatre and television movie moguls would have to sanitize too much history to turn Lehrer's drama into another romantic celebration of America's mythical "Greatest Generation".

I won't spoil Lehrer's narrative -- at once overcooked, provocative, and compelling -- except to caution that true stories about real people in actual life are far more interesting. Parts of Lehrer's fictional tale may have been inspired by the "treason" case of Tomoya Kawakata (see below).

Lehrer, a very productive journalist and novelist, is perhaps best known as the anchor of PBS's News Hour. Born in 1934, he graduated from the school of journalism at the University of Missouri, then enlisted in the Marine Corps for three years of coldwar service in the 1950s.

Tomoya Kawakita case

Lehrer's story appears to have been inspired by the case of Tomoya Kawakita. A former POW's discovery of Kawakita in Los Angeles is dramatically described by a number of non-fiction writers. Here are two such dramatizations -- one by Frank F. Chuman writing in 1976, the other by Naoko Shibusawa in 2006.

Chuman 1976 version

Chuman, born in California, attended the University of Southern California Law School from 1940-1942. From March 1942 to September 1943, he administrated the hospital at Manzanar Relocation Center in California before receiving a JD in 1945. He served as the national president of the Japanese American Citizens League from 1960 to 1962, and in 1976 when The Bamboo People was published, he was practicing in Los Angeles, specializing in immigration law.


Frank F. Chuman
The Bamboo People: The Law and Japanese-Americans
Del Mar, California, 1976
xi, 386 pages, hardcover

(Cited from page 289)

On a balmy September day in 1947 [sic > October 1946], a giant department store in the eastern section of Los Angeles was bustling with customers. Sergeant William L. Bruce of Garden Grove, California brushed by a husky short [sic > short wirey] man of Japanese [sic > apparently Oriental] ancestry. Something clicked in Bruce's mind. His memory flashed back to the days, only two short years before, when he was a prisoner of war at the Oeyama [nickel] mine [in Japan]. Bruce recognized the man as the English [language] interpreter who had mistreated his fellow [Bruce's] soldiers. He followed him out of the store and jotted down the license number of his car. He then reported the man and the various acts committed by him to the FBI.

Shibusawa 2006 version

Switch, now, to another scenario, as narrated by Naoko Shibusawa in America's Geisha Ally, published in 2006, but based on a PhD disseration titled "America's Geisha Ally: Race, Gender, and Maturity in Re-Imagining the Japanese Enemy, 1945-1964", which she had submitted to Northwestern University in 1998. At the time of this writing (2010), Shibusawa, who majored in 20th-century American history and minored in Modern Japan, was an Assistant Professor in the History Department at Brown University and the director of the university's Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America.


Naoko Shibusawa
America's Geisha Ally: Reimagining the Japanese Enemy
Cambridge (MT): Harvard University Press, 2006
397 pages, hardcover

(Cited from Chapter Four, "A Transpacific Treason Trial" (pages 141-175), pages 141-142, and note 1, page 333; bracketed [sic] in notes is Shibusawa's)

In October 1946, a young war veteran and his wife went to the Sears, Roebuck department store in downtown Los Angeles. A survivor of the 1942 Bataan Death March, William L. Bruce had endured over three years as a prisoner of war and spent the last year of the war at a prison camp at Oeyama on Honshu, Japan's main island. Now resuming his life, Bruce was shopping for a lawn mower at Sears. He turned and accidentally brushed somone. Bruce started to say "Pardon me," but he was struck dumb upon seeing the other person -- a familiar-looking bespectacled Asian man. The man seemed not to recognize him, and it took Bruce a few moments to put a name to the Asian face because, as he later explained, he had never seen the man "before in sports clothes." Then Bruce recognized the man: he was "Kaw-kida," one of the "strong-arm" men from the hated Japanese POW camp at Oeyama. The realization infuriated him. What was this Jap doing, walking around free in the United States?

Noticing the sudden change in his demeanor, Bruce's wife became worried. "My God, what's the matter with you?" she aksed, trailing behind her husband, who began pursing the Asian man. "I've got a fellow I'm going to kill," he answered. Now truly alarmed, she cried, "You've gone crazy -- get ahold of yourself!" Perhaps her words made him take heed. Being careful that "Kaw-kida" did not see him, Bruce followed him outside to a light green Mercury, wrote down the number of his car license plate, and reported him to the FBI. Eight months later, on June 5, 1947, the FBI arrested Tomoya Kawakita, a 26-year-old American of Japanese ancestry. A grand jury in Los Angeles indicted Kawakita on thirteen counts of treason, each count representing a separate act of abuse to POWs. [Note 1]

[Note 1] "L.A. Jap Arrest as Horror Camp Leader," LA Times, 6 June 1947, 1; "Man Who Recognized Kawakita Takes the Stand," LA Times, 22 July 1948, 8; "Government Witnesses Testify on Acts of Brutality Charged to Prison Camp Interpreter," Pacific Citizen, 3 July 1948, 2; "Government Witnesses Tell of Alleged Brutalities in Trial of Tomoya Kawokita [sic]," Pacific Citizen, 10 July 1948, 2.

The man, Tomoya Kawakita, born and raised in Calexico, California, had gone to Japan in 1939 to visit his grandfather, stayed to study, was stranded when the Pacific War broke out, worked as an interpreter at the Oeyama mine from 1943-1945, then as an interpreter for the Occupation forces until his return to California in 1946.

There are many popular and academic accounts of Kawakita's trial, conviction, and sentencing in a California federal district court for treason from 1947 to 1948, his failed appeals to a circuit court in 1951 and the Supreme Court in 1952 to overturn lower court rulings, Eisenhower's reduction of his death sentence to life imprisonment in 1953, and his release by Kennedy in 1963 on the condition he be deported to Japan -- having lost his US citizenship because of the treason conviction.

Some US newspapers and magazines reported that Bruce and other POWs had dubbed Kawakita "The Meatball". In the course of the trial, however, it was revealed that mass media, not POWs, had given him this nickname (Shimojima 1993:109). The term "meatball" was GI slang for a Japanese soldier, referring to the red sun on the Japanese flag, likening it to a bloody meatball, from the atrocious acts and mass suicides of Japanese soldiers (Shimojima 1993:9).

See all three court decisions, related sources including Shimojima 1993, and my commentary on nationality issues in The Kawakita treason case on the Yosha Research website.