ell, here's the story, for those of you who haven't lived in Hawai'i. A Buddha-head is "local" slang for a Japanese-American born and raised in Hawai'i. That's me. In these politically-correct times, this kind of moniker is not used very much among the younger set, but among my parents' generation, they used to throw those terms around all over the place. A Japanese from Japan would have been called a bobora, which in Hawai'i Japanese slang means a pumpkin, or like in American slang a pun'kin head; a hick from the old country. A Japanese American from the continental United States would be called a katonk.
in World War II, the US Army decided to throw together all the Nisei (second-generation
Americans of Japanese Ancestry or AJA) who were already in the military
into one fighting unit. This unit was the 100th Batallion. The 100th fought
in Europe, primarily up the Italian boot. They engaged in some of the
toughest fighting of the war, especially at Monte Cassino. The 100th and
other Nisei units such as the 1399th engineers accounted themselves so
well that a decision was made to call up volunteers for a bigger unit
of AJAs, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
The mainland and Hawai'i AJA of the 442nd were stuck together in basic training, and that's where troubles began. To the military, they were all Japanese Americans. But a wide cultural gulf separated the two. Hawai'i AJAs were brash, self-confident, and willing to punch out anybody who looked at them cross-eyed. They spoke pidgin English, a strange admixture of various languages created in the sugar and pineapple fields where their immigrant parents worked. They ate a mixed plate of ethnic foods, danced hula, shot craps, and carried with them the Taisho-era traditional values of their Japanese parents.
The mainland AJAs were more self-effacing; because they were a minority on the mainland, they learned how to adopt to the dominant culture and were, in many ways, more "sophisticated." Misunderstandings between the two groups led to open fights.
of that came the slang terms Buddha-heads and katonks. It was said if
you hit a Hawai'i AJA with your fist, their head would feel rock-solid,
as thick and hardheaded as a stone statue of the Buddha. If you hit a
katonk, his head would be hollow and it would make a "katonk"
The fights escalated until the 442nd visited an internment camp, one veteran told me. The Hawai'i boys had heard about them, but most of them had never known how rough the katonks had it, with all their families locked up because of their race. With bonds forged in battle, the Buddha-heads and katonks became, as the veteran told me, like "brothers."
The 442nd shipped to Italy, where they were combined with the 100th. Together, they compiled an incredible combat record. The unit amassed more awards than any American combat unit of its size and duration. The 442nd rescued the Texas "Lost Battalion," Over 800 AJA were killed or wounded to save 221 Texans. And last, but not least, the 522nd, the Field Artillery unit of the 442nd, was among several US Army units that liberated the infamous Dachau concentration camp complex.
an aside, many Nisei men were also among the translators for the MIS (Military
Intelligence Service) in the Pacific War. General Charles Willoughby,
G-2 chief in the Pacific, credited the MIS with shortening the war in
the Pacific by some two to three years, saving countless American and
Japanese lives in the process.(Several
books recount the amazing story of these men, the most recent being Japanese
Eyes American Heart, distributed by the University of Hawai'i Press).