Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study

The Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study (JERS) was a research project headed by Dorothy Thomas, a professor of rural sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. JERS was one of the three studies by social scientists on the forced removal and confinement of Japanese Americans during World War II. The first was a project of the War Relocation Authority (WRA) of community analysts, mainly anthropologists and sociologists, who provided data and information to the WRA for a more efficient administering of the camps. The second study was the Bureau of Sociological Research led by Alexander Leighton, involving a group of social scientists under the sponsorship of the Office of Indian Affairs at the Poston concentration camp in Arizona. JERS, according to Thomas, was a study of enforced mass migration in which the usual factors of push–pull that impelled and attracted immigrants were inoperable. Thomas, a social demographer, was interested in the phenomenon of migration and its effects.

Public policy would be a practical outcome of JERS, Thomas predicted, for postwar Europe and its problems of displaced populations and demographic imbalances. JERS anthropologists, Thomas explained, would study cultural conflict between Japanese and American norms and the process of assimilation among issei, nisei, and kibei—social psychologists would examine the effects of social disorganization and collective adjustment, economists the impact of the mass removal on California agriculture, and political scientists the roles of government, pressure groups, and the press, and the constitutional issues involved.

Supported by foundations and the University of California, JERS received the endorsement of WRA director Milton Eisenhower and a promise of full cooperation with JERS researchers. Thomas recruited University of California students, both nisei and white, to staff JERS. Many of them went on to serve distinguished careers, and all of them contributed in varying degrees to the research project. Japanese Americans Tamotsu Shibutani and S. Frank Miyamoto, in particular, became influential scholars, and James Sakoda, Charles Kikuchi, Tamie Tsuchiyama, and

Haruo Najima made substantial contributions to the study of the concentration camps. Whites such as Morton Grodzins and Rosalie Hankey, who joined JERS in 1943, wrote landmark books on the camps, and Virginia Galbraith, Robert Billigmeier, and Robert Spencer provided additional research on this study. Thomas dispatched the student researchers to the various camps to work as participant observers. Additionally, JERS researchers studied the resettlement of Japanese Americans outside the camps, particularly in Chicago where a JERS office opened in the spring of 1943.

The politics and ethics of research loomed large over the JERS project because its researchers attempted to delve into the private lives of Japanese Americans while depending upon their keepers, the WRA, to permit that interaction. WRA directors and researchers, in the hope of running more efficient, trouble-free camps, pressed JERS researchers for information. Thomas agreed to provide only summaries of significant findings and to direct JERS field researchers to cooperate with the WRA periodically and informally. With that agreement, JERS researchers ran the risk of being accused of serving as WRA informants or inu (dogs) in Japanese and of being beaten by the internees. Also, the reliability of JERS data was suspect when Japanese Americans, the subjects, assumed a breach in confidentiality.

In the end, the JERS project published three books: Dorothy S. Thomas and Richard S. Nishimoto, The Spoilage (1946); Dorothy S. Thomas, The Salvage (1952); and Jacobus tenBroek et al., Prejudice, War and the Constitution (1954). JERS also launched careers and other, related books like Morton Grodzins, Americans Betrayed (1949) and Rosalie H. Wax, Doing Fieldwork (1971). More importantly, the JERS collection of materials on the concentration camps remains a highly significant and equally problematic body of information on the Japanese American wartime experience, and JERS publications shaped and continue to influence historical interpretations of the camps. Some of those major themes include the causes for the mass removal and detention, Japanese American behaviors inside the camps, and the importance of the concentration camps for U.S. democracy.

Gary Y. Okihiro