John F. Aiso
John Fujio Aiso (Japanese: 相磯 藤雄, December 14, 1909 – December 1987) was an American nisei military leader, lawyer and judge. Aiso was the head instructor of the Military Intelligence Service Language School and the highest-ranking Japanese American in the U.S. Army during World War II. He was also the first Japanese American appointed as a judge in the contiguous United States.
Born in the Los Angeles suburb of Burbank, Aiso was an excellent student, despite encounters with anti-Japanese prejudice. He later described one of his first memories as being called a "Jap" by an elderly woman on a streetcar, explaining the amount of effort he put into his schoolwork was largely to counteract such comments. He was elected student body president of his junior high school in 1922, but the victory proved to be short lived: parents protested a Japanese American holding the position, and student government was suspended until Aiso left the school. He went on to attend Hollywood High School, where he drew national attention when he won the school's oratorical competition on the U.S. Constitution in 1926. However, he was once again forced to step down, when he was told he could not compete at the national championship and would instead have to coach his runner up.
Education and career
After graduating at the top of his Hollywood High School class in 1926, Aiso spent a year in Japan, studying Japanese at Seijo University in Tokyo. He returned to the United States after receiving a scholarship to attend Brown University, where he captained the debate team and majored in economics, graduating cum laude and serving as class valedictorian in 1931. He continued his studies at Harvard Law School, completing his degree in 1934.
Between 1935 and 1952, he worked in private practice in Los Angeles and New York. In 1936, he spent another year in Tokyo, working with Japanese banks on behalf of his U.S. law firm, and while there he studied Japanese law at Chuo University. From 1937 to 1940, he worked for the British American Tobacco Company in Japanese-occupied Manchuria.
After his return to the United States, Aiso was drafted into the army, reporting for active duty in April 1941. Originally stationed at Fort MacArthur, within months he was released from active duty and transferred the hastily formed (and, at first, secret) Military Intelligence Service Language School (MISLS). Although he had been assigned to the school as a student, Aiso's fluency in Japanese quickly led to a promotion, first to assistant instructor and finally to head instructor. In this position, he became the highest-ranking Japanese American in the United States Army during the Second World War, reaching the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Under his inspiring leadership as director of academic training, the MISLS rapidly expanded. He recruited and trained a staff of over 150, developed course materials, and set the highest academic standards. The more than 6,000 graduates contributed immeasurably to the American victory over Imperial Japan and to winning the peace that followed. (General Charles Willoughby credited Aiso's MIS graduates with shortening the war by two years and saving close to a million lives.)
After the Allied victory in August 1945, Aiso refocused the MISLS curriculum to prepare students for roles in the occupation of Japan. In January 1946, he was given a direct commission as Major and was awarded the Legion of Merit in 1947, at which point he left active service and returned to Los Angeles to practice law. He would later be promoted to a colonel in the Army Reserve, before retiring in 1965.
In 1950, he received an honorary master's degree from Brown University. In 1952, he served as a Commissioner for one year. Aiso was then appointed to the Los Angeles Municipal Court in 1953, where he served until he was elevated to the Los Angeles Superior Court in 1957. He was the first Japanese American to enter the California State Judiciary. Aiso became an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District on November 4, 1968 and served for four years.
Awards and accolades
President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded him the Legion of Merit in 1965 for his service during World War II. In 1984, the Emperor of Japan awarded him the 3rd Class Order of the Rising Sun for his contributions to understanding and friendship between the United States and Japan. He was inducted into the Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame in 1991. The Aiso Library at the Defense Language Institute (DLI) Foreign Language Center is named in his honor for his contributions as the chief instructor of what became the Military Intelligence Service Language School, the predecessor of DLI. In the Little Tokyo community of Los Angeles, a one block segment of San Pedro Street between Temple Boulevard and 1st Street has been renamed Judge John F. Aiso Street in his honor.
John Aiso died December 29, 1987, from a head injury sustained in an attempted mugging. Aiso, 78, was filling his car at a Hollywood gas station when he was attacked and knocked to the pavement; he died two weeks later in a Burbank hospital.
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