In March 1942, about a month after President Franklin Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066 a group of educators expressed their concern over the impending, mass removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast. The presidents of institutions with substantial numbers of nisei students, like Lee Paul Sieg of the University of Washington, Robert Gordon Sproul of the University of California, Berkeley, and Remsen Bird of Occidental College, met with faculty, students, and church groups to discuss ways to allow the approximately 2,500 nisei students affected by the military's exclusion orders to continue their education.
The first conference to discuss nisei student relocation was held on March 21, 1942, at the YMCA of the University of California, Berkeley. Members agreed to coordinate their student relocation efforts, establish a central office for a Student Relocation Committee with funds supplied by the YMCA and YWCA, and appoint Joseph Conard, a Berkeley graduate student at the time, to act as the committee's executive secretary. The group urged the military to exempt college students from the wholesale removal, and when that appeal failed, members worked to have nisei students transfer to campuses east of the exclusion zone.
In presenting the case for the committee, Berkeley's Sproul stressed the importance of the nisei students as future leaders of the Japanese American community, and noted that government sponsorship of their education, including scholarships, was an “insurance on the future welfare of the American Nation” (Okihiro, 31). Sproul's argument would ultimately prove persuasive with influential government officials and foundation and church heads who bankrolled much of the student relocation effort.
The discussion among educators spread from the West Coast to the Midwest and East Coast. The University of Minnesota's president wrote to 17 of his fellow presidents, asking their advice on hiring refugee Germans and “our willingness to accept as graduate students, Americans of Japanese extraction who may be forced to leave the restricted areas on the west coast. Have you considered the matter at all?” he queried (Okihiro, 31). The University of Illinois, its president replied, will not admit Japanese Americans because they brought problems and responsibilities such as the public's perception that Japanese Americans were being given special privileges. Several institutions, nonetheless, such as the University of Kansas, University of Colorado, and Grinnell College in Iowa expressed their willingness to admit nisei students.
W. C. Coffey, president of the University of Minnesota, on the suggestion of his counterpart at the University of Wisconsin, wrote to the War Relocation Authority's director, Milton Eisenhower, in the belief that student relocation should be a matter of national policy. A federal program, Coffey wrote, with Army approval would insulate institutions from public criticism for enrolling Japanese American students. Moreover, Coffey and others argued, a systematic, coordinated effort was needed. By the end of April 1942, Eisenhower was ready to appoint an advisory committee, and on May 5, 1942, he asked Clarence Pickett, executive secretary of the American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia, to consider a national program for the relocation of nisei students. The American Friends Service Committee was already involved in the program on the West Coast.
Student relocation was complicated, Eisenhower knew, and he wanted a partnership between the WRA and the private sector. Japanese American exclusion was based on the fiction of “military necessity” so their presence outside the camps had to conform to that dictate. Thus, prospective students had to be cleared as loyal to the United States and posing no security risk. Schools had to be away from major urban centers, military installations, vital industries, and transportation systems, and they could not be engaged in classified research. Finally, the population around the institution had to be receptive to Japanese Americans in their community. Those prerequisites involved the WRA, FBI, and placement field offices to handle the flow from concentration camp to campus.
Pickett invited representatives from the YMCA and YWCA, the American Friends Service Committee, governmental agencies, and the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) to meet in Chicago on May 29, 1942. There, the 46 members drew up qualifications for student applicants. Prospective students had to be certified as loyal citizens and serve as outstanding representatives of the Japanese people. Thus, academic and personality ratings were equally important in their selection because they needed to spread “better attitudes toward the Japanese race” (Okihiro, 38). The nisei students were to be goodwill ambassadors for an entire people.
The meeting also concluded that a work of equal importance was the public relations campaign to develop attitudes favorable toward Japanese Americans. In that, the members outlined, faculty, students, administrators, ministers, business leaders, and military veterans were key figures in the outreach program. Finally, the Chicago meeting established the National Student Relocation Council headed by Robbins Barstow, president of Hartford Seminary, to oversee the entire program. During the summer of 1942, the council began the work on the criteria for student selection and the administrative mechanism to implement the project.
By October 1, 1942, the council's West Coast office had received 2,321 applications from nisei who hoped to attend college that fall, and by December the military had cleared 344 institutions, which had 1,800 openings. Because clearance was slow, there were insufficient numbers of students qualified for those openings. In addition, two-thirds of those openings were for women, and two-thirds of the applicants were men. Volunteers, mainly whites, performed most of the work of recruiting and advising students, rating their applications, corresponding with
government agencies and colleges, and arranging for student travel and accommodations. The task was monumental, and the generosity and kindness extended by those volunteers to the nisei students were heartfelt and much appreciated.
The students faced enormous pressures. They were away from family and friends who languished in concentration camps. They had to perform well academically, and they had to behave as exemplary citizens not only of their country of birth but also of their cultural community. Kiyo Sato, a student at Hillsdale College in Michigan in March 1943, reflected upon her situation to her sponsors. “I realize the responsibility I have,” Sato wrote. “Most of the people here in Hillsdale have not seen a Japanese face before and also many of them have not heard of evacuation…. I don't know how I can ever thank you for this opportunity,” she acknowledged. “I hope to prove worthy of such a chance” (Okihiro, 72).
In March 1943, the council changed its name to the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council, and moved its headquarters from the West Coast to Philadelphia. By May 1946, the council had on file the names of 3,613 students at 680 institutions. The council closed its doors on June 30, 1946. The students in the council's files represented only about 6 percent of the total population of nisei. Even after their selection, comprising an elite group, those students faced limited options, constrained to those institutions that were willing to accept Japanese Americans and by their budgets. Those factors no doubt affected nisei life choices and careers after graduation.
Still, most were exceedingly grateful for the opportunity to leave the concentration camps and continue their education. One of those was Tadao Sunohara who studied at the University of Utah. In gratitude, Sunohara gave to his alma mater a five-foot-high bronze statue. The gift, unveiled in 1991, is a replica of the Peace Child of Hiroshima, depicting Sadako Sasaki, a 12-year-old girl who died of leukemia a decade after the atomic bomb exploded on her city. Shortly after being diagnosed with cancer, Sasaki began folding gold paper cranes because a friend told her if she completed 1,000 cranes, a symbol of hope, she would not die. Sasaki made 600 cranes before succumbing to leukemia. In tribute, her classmates folded the remaining 400, and the 1,000 paper cranes were buried with her. The statue shows the child lifting a paper crane toward the sky.
In presenting the statue to his wartime school, Sunohara said his gift was in part a repayment of a debt owed to the University of Utah for its understanding and compassion in admitting Japanese Americans. But it was also a gift of hope, like the uplifted hands of the Peace Child, that war would nevermore disfigure the lives of humankind.
Gary Y. Okihiro
Austin, Allan W. From Concentration Camp to Campus: Japanese American Students and World War II. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004.
Okihiro, Gary Y. Storied Lives: Japanese American Students and World War II. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999.