Hidenari Terasaki was born in Tokyo in 1900. He graduated from Ichiko preparatory school and earned a degree in law from Tokyo Imperial University. A month after graduation he joined the Foreign Ministry and traveled to the United States for post-graduate work at Brown University, where he studied English literature. He was fluent in Chinese, German, French, Spanish and English.
In September 1929, Terasaki was assigned to the Japanese embassy in Washington as an attaché. He met Gwendolyn Harold, a beautiful, engaging twenty-three year old native of East Tennessee, at an embassy reception in 1930. An ardent courtship followed. After overcoming initial resistance from Gwen’s family and the Japanese Foreign Ministry, the couple married in November 1931.
The foreign ministry posted Terasaki to Shanghai in 1932, where their daughter and only child, Mariko, was born in August. In 1936 Terasaki was appointed Charge de Affaires in Havana, Cuba, where his official mission was to open Cuban markets to direct Japanese imports. That mission failed; imports continued to pass through the United States, where
they were subject to US tariffs. Even before they left China, Terasaki recognized that the mission was doomed to failure, but he took full advantage of the opportunity to establish friendships and indulge his favorite vices, golf and gambling. He was an extremely skillful poker player.
Terasaki and his family returned to Shanghai in 1938. By that time, the Japanese were in complete control of the city except for the International Settlement and the French Concession. Terasaki strongly opposed the military’s expanding influence and consequent marginalization of foreign ministry officials, and didn’t shy away from physical confrontation with military officers. The abuse of civilians, a staple of military occupations past and present, sickened him. He felt the brutality of the military was “destroying the Japanese people.”
As Japanese consul in Shanghai, Terasaki was one of two Japanese appointees to the Shanghai Municipal Council. He was assigned to the committee for the relief of Jews seeking refuge in Shanghai, which maintained the only harbor still open to Jewish immigration. We have tried over the years to flesh out his activities during this period, and would be eager to obtain documents that might help us better understand his role in providing services to Jewish refugees in Shanghai and ensuring that the harbor remained open to immigration.
In early 1941, Terasaki was appointed head of Japanese intelligence in the Western Hemisphere and transferred to the embassy in Washington, DC. He pursued many avenues to avert war between Japan and the United States, culminating in an effort to arrange for a cable to be sent directly by President Roosevelt to the Emperor appealing for peace. He admired the constitution of the United States, particularly the Bill of Rights, and understood that armed conflict between the two countries would prove catastrophic for Japan.
The outbreak of war between the two countries was a terrible personal defeat for Terasaki. He showed signs of a minor stroke shortly after Pearl Harbor, and his health deteriorated sharply during the war years.
He urged his wife Gwen to remain in the United States with Mariko. He warned her that returning with him would pose many dangers. “Japan will be destroyed – utterly destroyed,” he said. She answered that her decision had been made when she married him, and insisted upon returning with him to endure the coming catastrophe at his side. The enormous stress was compounded by the fact that if his role in the Roosevelt cable became known to the Japanese secret police, the entire family would be in physical jeopardy.
As Japan’s defenses crumbled, the family moved a number of times to escape the American bombers, eventually taking refuge in a small mountainside cabin near the village
of Tateshina. By the Spring of 1945, Japan was completely defenseless. American B-29s flew overhead in formation and released incendiary munitions over Japanese cities, killing or injuring millions of civilians. In August 1945 word reached them that a new and terrifying weapon had obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
After the war, Terasaki was appointed adviser to Emperor Hirohito and acted as interpreter in meetings between General Douglas McArthur and the Emperor. His command of language and sophisticated understanding of both cultures played a crucial role in communications between GHQ and the Imperial Court. McArthur’s close aide and confidant, General Bonner Fellers, described Terasaki as “one of the most valuable men in Japan and certainly the most valuable on the staff of the Emperor.”
Already in fragile health, the pressures of his position contributed to a steep decline in Terasaki’s physical condition. He suffered a series of minor heart attacks and strokes, but continued working. In 1949, Gwen took Mariko to the United States, where she had been accepted as a student at East Tennessee State University. Terasaki was anxious for his daughter to escape the privations of life in Japan and resume her education. He never saw them again. He died of a heart attack at the age of 50, two weeks before the signing of the San Francisco Peace Treaty.