From Concentration Camp to Campus: Japanese American Students and World War II

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In the aftermath of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor and the systematic exile and incarceration of thousands of Japanese Americans, the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council was born. Created to facilitate the movement of Japanese American college students from concentration camps to colleges away from the West Coast, this privately organized and funded agency helped more than four thousand incarcerated students pursue higher education at more than six hundred schools during WWII. 

Allan W. Austin’s From Concentration Camp to Campus examines the Council's work and the challenges it faced in an atmosphere of pervasive wartime racism. Austin also reveals the voices of students as they worked to construct their own meaning for wartime experiences under pressure of forced and total assimilation. Austin argues that the resettled students succeeded in reintegrating themselves into the wider American society without sacrificing their connections to community and their Japanese cultural heritage.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Austin is to be commended for his careful analysis of the Council’s and the American Friend Service Committee’s records . . . and his superb blending of institutional history with personal accounts by students, all of which cover aspects of the student resettlement not found in previous works.”—American Historical Review

"Through an effective blend of scholarly research and personal stories, and not only tracing what happened but why, what could have been a dry history becomes a fascinating study with great relevance."—Multicultural Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780252074493
  • Publisher: University of Illinois Press
  • Publication date: 5/28/2007
  • Series: Asian American Experience Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Allan Austin is an associate professor of history at College Misericordia in Dallas, Pennsylvania.

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Read an Excerpt


Japanese American Students and World War II

University of Illinois Press

Copyright © 2004 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-252-02933-X

Chapter One


In spring 1942, a sign tacked to a door in the Japanese Student Club house at the University of Washington presented a plaintive plea:


Yamaguchi's poignant notice revealed the despair that Nikkei students felt as exile loomed. The despair moved different people in different ways, however. Some Nikkei dropped out immediately after Pearl Harbor. Yamaguchi and others temporarily remained in school but viewed exile and incarceration as the terminal point of their higher education.

Other Nikkei students resisted such fatalism. Nobu Hibino, a senior at the University of California, Berkeley, recalled, "[s]hortly after [Pearl Harbor,] events happened so fast. I finished my exams and went back to register for the second semester. A lot of my classmates chose not to come back, but I only had five months to go and I was just determined to finish." Hibino had to withdraw, however, when the government placed restrictions on Japanese Americans that limited travel to no more than five miles from their homes. She moved with her family to Tanforan and then to Topaz before resettling to Boston University. Refusing to become victims of unjust and unnecessary government policies, Hibino and others decided to continue their college education. Some attempted to resettle immediately; others moved to camps but worked to resettle after helping their families adjust to their new surroundings. Those who wished to continue their education received help from academics, college administrators, civil libertarians, and religious activists.

Sporadic Attempts at Student Resettlement

Only after mid-February 1942 did it become clear in an atmosphere permeated by wartime racism that all Nikkei would be forcibly removed from the West Coast. Executive Order 9066, issued on February 19, gave the military the authority to create military areas and to remove people from them, but the Western Defense Command (WDC) was not yet ready to act. Still, calls by an American Legion post in Portland and the Native Sons of the Golden West in early February for the removal of all Japanese Americans from the West Coast did not bode well for the Nikkei. Furthermore, isolated congressional debates and the Tolan Committee Hearings on National Defense Migration held in late February and early March in San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Los Angeles suggested widespread support for a program of mass incarceration.

General John L. DeWitt, commander of the WDC, issued Public Proclamation No. 1, which designated military areas in Washington, Oregon, California, and Arizona, on March 2. Although the proclamation ordered no one moved, it was aimed at German and Italian aliens as well as "any person of Japanese Ancestry." An accompanying press release predicted that all Nikkei would eventually be excluded from Military Area No. 1. Although the army suggested that it was not contemplating Nikkei exclusion from Military Area No. 2, this area was also later evacuated.

President Roosevelt created the WRA with Executive Order 9102 on March 18 and gave it responsibility for the uprooted Nikkei, although the specifics of its program remained to be worked out. The reality of concentration camps for Nikkei, alien and citizen alike, was now undeniable. As government policy moved inexorably toward a program of exile and incarceration, attempts to place college students at schools outside the West Coast intensified.

Two questionnaires circulated in early spring 1942 by the National Intercollegiate Christian Council (NICC) and the University of California present an overview of the Nikkei students' situation. The YMCA and Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) at the University of California reported in early April 1942 that about one-fourth of the university's 435 Nikkei students had withdrawn from school before January 20, 1942, the start of the new semester. They had left either out of concern for the welfare of their families or because of a "general disillusionment and despair with the situation." The drop-out rate increased for similar reasons in the spring term after the first announcements of impending exile. Strained finances exacerbated by the freezing of "alien enemy" funds by the government forced additional students to withdraw.

The YMCA and YWCA representatives believed that morale represented a pressing problem: Nisei students increasingly seemed to give up hope for their future and to feel unwanted in the United States. "Each case," they reported, "seems to be one of unusual hardship." Despite the disenchantment and dejection they described, the white students still believed that most Japanese American students wanted to continue their education if their families were well provided for in the camps.

A separate questionnaire circulated among Nikkei students in the San Francisco Bay Area by the University of California reinforced these impressionistic conclusions and revealed what would become enduring problems. Almost 83 percent of the first 257 students answered that they wanted to continue their college education, but most reported a need for financial assistance to do so. The students, most of whom attended large public institutions on the West Coast (see table 1), also expressed a desire to transfer to large institutions.

College students constituted a relatively small proportion of the 120,313 evacuated Japanese Americans. Robert W. O'Brien, an active participant in and an early chronicler of student resettlement, believed that there were 3,252 Nikkei students enrolled in institutions of higher learning in California, Washington, and Oregon in 1941. An additional 278 Japanese American students were attending institutions of higher learning outside of the West Coast. O'Brien estimated that men comprised two-thirds of the West Coast Nikkei students. Although these students were a relatively small proportion of the total population, they played an important role as a major segment of early Nikkei resettlers.

Sporadic and uncoordinated efforts at student resettlement began on the Pacific Coast in spring 1942 as a variety of interested organizations and individuals stepped forward to help students. The NICC, for example, urged student YMCA and YWCA groups to bring the issue of evacuated college students before their college presidents and to offer their services in helping the administrations meet this crisis. The YMCA and YWCA at Berkeley became quite active in trying to help Nikkei students. In addition to reporting to the NICC, they also invited a number of speakers to a race relations luncheon group to provide information on exile and incarceration and brought pertinent data to the attention of the college newspaper. In extending their efforts off campus, they sent letters to public officials and spoke to church groups.

These activities were enhanced by an active and sympathetic university administration. The University of California provost Monroe E. Deutsch was an outspoken advocate for Nikkei students. His boss, President Robert Gordon Sproul, also became an exponent for the students. The conservative Sproul had headed the university since 1930. Although he described exile and incarceration as a "necessary evil" and refrained from direct criticism of government actions, Sproul acted effectively to help Nikkei students. In addition to contacting Midwestern university presidents to explore their willingness to accept Nikkei students, he worked in other ways to help students cope with exile and incarceration. Sproul met with faculty members, students, and church representatives to discuss ways to help the students. The university also granted leaves of absence to Nikkei who requested them and refunded all fees to Nisei students who withdrew before March 21. Loans were made available to Japanese American students facing financial difficulties. The university deans counseled Nikkei students and wrote letters of recommendation to facilitate transfers. Sproul and Deutsch later made a further contribution by successfully lobbying the government to establish a program for student resettlement.

Similar efforts to help Nisei students developed on other West Coast campuses. Under the leadership of President Lee Paul Seig, the University of Washington held a graduation ceremony at the Puyallup Assembly Center. Seig and other interested university personnel used the school's prestige and administrators to aid as many of the institution's 458 Nikkei students as possible. Seig expressed public support for Nikkei and emphasized the loyalty of "the great majority." As exile and incarceration became a reality, Seig wrote to college presidents across the United States, praising the Nisei and urging colleges to accept them as students.

Robert O'Brien, the faculty adviser to the Japanese Student Club, called a meeting on December 12 to discuss the problems, both real and potential, caused by the war. In his testimony before the Tolan Committee on March 2, he defended the Nisei as patriotic and suggested providing federal funds to college students in the case that mass evacuation occurred. O'Brien had previously established a local student relocation group to aid students wishing to resettle.


Excerpted from FROM CONCENTRATION CAMP TO CAMPUS by ALLAN W. AUSTIN Copyright © 2004 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction : "ambassadors of goodwill" 1
1 Creating the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council 9
2 Living in hope and working on faith, summer 1942 37
3 In "free America," fall 1942-summer 1943 62
4 Change and new challenges in a world at war, fall 1943-summer 1944 97
5 Closing down and saying Sayonara, 1944-46 129
Conclusion : memory and the meaning of student resettlement 161
App. 1 Attendees at May 29, 1942, meeting in Chicago 173
App. 2 Attendees at September 29, 1943, meeting in New York City 175
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