‘The Terror: Infamy’ and the Strategic Deployment of Japanese Language on the Show

From generational differences to wartime jobs, the show highlights the dual cultural and linguistic influences of immigrants in America.
Lee Shorten and Miki Ishikawa, "The Terror: Infamy"
Lee Shorten and Miki Ishikawa, "The Terror: Infamy"
Ed Araquel/AMC

[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers from “The Terror: Infamy” Episode 3, “Gaman.”]

The third episode of “The Terror: Infamy” opens with Chester Nakayama (Derek Mio) and the rest of the internment camp watching a John Wayne movie that a benshi provides with a live soundtrack, performing the dialogue timed perfectly to the film. AMC’s viewers are treated to English subtitles, bringing the translations full circle. It’s a fun and fascinating scene that actor-consultant George Takei confirms he experienced when he was in the camps as a child, but also one that highlights the importance of the dual cultural and linguistic influences of immigrants in America.

It’s to be expected that “The Terror: Infamy,” which depicts the experiences of Japanese Americans during World War II, uses the Japanese language on the show. Showrunner Alexander Woo acknowledges that he did not hold back on how extensively it’s used – upcoming episodes include long, Japanese-language-only scenes – but also took care how the language is used for these first-generation (Issei) and second-generation (Nisei) Japanese-Americans.

“There’s a generational story between the Nisei who was born in the United States and felt very American before they were betrayed by their own country and put in camps, and the Issei who are immigrants and still feel very Japanese and speak Japanese to one another and sometimes to their children,” said Woo.

“I wanted to be clear that, in a way, [Chester’s parents] Henry and Asako think in Japanese, so they speak in Japanese. Chester thinks in English. Therefore, Chester speaks English to [his cohorts] Amy and Walt,” he added. “There’s that divide between them, between the generations. Even though they are father and son or mother and son, there is this real difference in the way they are wired.”

The Nisei’s straddling of the two worlds – which the ghost Yuko (Kiki Sukezane) notes in the first episode – becomes essential during wartime, something that “The Terror: Infamy” depicts in the episode when Amy (Miki Ishikawa) and Chester land jobs that require mastery of both English and Japanese. Amy becomes the secretary of Major Bowen (C. Thomas Howell), and Chester becomes a Japanese-English translator for the U.S. military. He proves his critical thinking skills by not only translating a Japanese-language missive, but also cracking the code hidden in the structure of the tanka, a Japanese poem of 31 syllables.

It’s this cultural knowledge from his roots coupled with his excellent English speaking skills that allows Chester perform his filial duty to his family but also acts as a show of patriotism for the very country that has imprisoned them. “I have people depending on me,” Chester says in his interview, while Amy’s mother tells the major, “She would like to help her country during a time of war.”

Shingo Usami and Derek Mio, "The Terror: Infamy"
Shingo Usami and Derek Mio, “The Terror: Infamy”Ed Araquel/AMC

The show once again reflects the ongoing discussion of defining who is American, and it’s not based on how one looks or speaks, accented or not. And although the average non-Japanese-American won’t be able to tell the difference, “The Terror: Infamy” makes a point to even differentiate between the types of Japanese spoken.

“We have a team of translators; we have an on-set translator in Vancouver, we have a translator in Japan, and then our cast also serves as translators themselves because in some places we’re using regional dialects that are very specific,” said Woo. “It’s not Google translate. We want to get this right.”

Takei, who plays elder fisherman Yamato-san, said, “Alex is one for all the details – not just the details of the authenticity of the barracks and the sentry towers and the costumes, but the authenticity of the language that these immigrant people [in Terminal Island] that came from the southern coastal province called Wakayama. They were fishermen, so naturally they went into the fishing business. And they were all from Wakayama. And so the Japanese dialogue was written with Wakayama accent. He got people from Wakayama to help with the dialogue and record it so that I could listen to it.

“As an actor, I love accents because if you have story set in Savannah, Georgia, for example, that is a very distinct sound. Compare that to the Boston accent,” he added. “That tells you a lot about the character, the accent. That’s what we had here with ‘The Terror: Infamy,’ the accent. That is that much more authentic. So Yamato-san knows basic survival English and a Japanese-language-inflected accent.”

Mio – whose family parallels Chester’s family going back to his own Wakayama to Terminal Island roots – speaks Japanese but had to learn the Wakayama dialect as well as some of the lingo used that were outside of his everyday use.

“I definitely had to do a lot of work on that. We had dialect coaches and translators that were so helpful. And that’s what I was doing on the weekends or when I wasn’t filming. Shingo [Usami, who plays Henry] was very helpful. He would record some lines, and then I would run the lines … But also Emi [Kamito] was the dialect coach, and she would run them with me as well.”

The end result of all of this Japanese means that viewers of “The Terror: Infamy” must read a lot of subtitles, which Woo thinks might have a beneficial effect on the overall atmosphere and experience of watching the horror series. While reading closed captions helps with literacy, reading subtitles while hearing a foreign language and then layered on top of images is a whole other, more complex psychological experience altogether.

“It creates a haunting feeling – hearing a different language and then watching someone’s facial expressions. It’s a slightly different kind of way of interpreting a performance that I haven’t entirely sussed out yet but it creates a really satisfying feeling to a viewer that is not the same as you usually feel when you see and hear an actor’s lines. It’s built into your own brain. There’s something a little bit different.”

The Terror: Infamy” airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on AMC.

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