Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Japanese Americans Come to War-Time Grinnell...

Executive Orders are much in the news these days. The new administration in Washington has made surprisingly ample use of them, among other things barring immigrants from seven Muslim states. Executive orders do not enjoy an altogether illustrious past. Indeed, one of the most famous—Executive Order 9066—unfairly and arbitrarily ordered the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans, among whom were many American-born citizens. Hastily uprooted from their homes and businesses in the western states, Japanese immigrants and their descendants were sent to ten "War Relocation Camps." Grinnell was not one of those destinations, and in the 1940s had no resident Japanese or Japanese Americans. But, through the efforts of a Grinnell College alumnus and his uncle, Professor of Botany and Dean of the faculty, Henry Conard, four young nisei (second generation, America-born Japanese) arrived in Grinnell in May, 1942 to study at the college and make Grinnell their temporary home. Over the next few years another ten or so Japanese Americans came to Grinnell on the same program, thereby continuing their educations and escaping the grim internment to which so many others were condemned. The stories of Grinnell's nisei shine especially brightly now as Americans wrestle anew with a president's executive order that stereotypes racial and religious difference.
Scarlet & Black May 5, 1943, p. 1
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, pulled the United States into World War II, and sped up the militarization of the American economy. With the threat of yet another Japanese attack, this time perhaps directed at California or Washington, Japanese and Japanese Americans resident in the western states found themselves under suspicion. If Japan did attack mainland USA, people wondered, how would Japanese immigrants and their American-born descendants respond?

Although the likelihood of Japan launching another attack on the United States after Pearl Harbor was tiny, the Federal government—unable to do much military damage to Japan immediately after the immense losses at Pearl Harbor—gave the appearance of defending the country by ordering the forced resettlement of some 120,000 Japanese Americans resident in the West. On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt authorized the military to organize the abrupt collection of these people, most of whom were ultimately sent to one of ten internment camps. One of those camps (in Rohwer, Arkansas) took in the family of Grinnell's Dan Ogata, long-time pastor of Grinnell's First Presbyterian Church. Like many others in Grinnell, I first learned from Dan about the harsh conditions in the camps, whose closing was officially announced in December, 1944 (although the last camp did not close until 1946). After years of disgrace and the unfair expropriation of many of their possessions, victims of internment who were still alive in 1988 received an apology and some financial compensation from the Federal government.
Joseph Conard '35 (1911-1965) (1935 Cyclone)
A story less well-known concerns the young people among the affected communities who ended up escaping internment by enrolling at colleges and universities outside the zones outlined by the military. Thanks to the intervention of the American Friends Service Committee and one of its local officials in California, Joseph Conard (Grinnell College Class of '35), several Americans of Japanese descent—all born in the United States and therefore all American citizens—ended up at Grinnell College, where Conard's uncle, Professor Henry Conard, was able to engineer their admittance.
Barbara Takahashi (1926-1985) (1942 Roosevelt High School [Los Angeles] Yearbook)
In a letter of May 2, 1942 to his Uncle Henry, Joseph Conard reported that two young people had already secured government permits to travel to Grinnell: Barbara Takahashi and William Kiyasu. Young Conard waxed enthusiastic about Grinnell's generosity: "We cannot tell you how much we appreciate what you and Grinnell have done to help these students. We have had many good offers from [colleges in] the Middle West, but none equaling Grinnell's, with board, room and tuition for two students." As he pointed out, Grinnell's aid was crucial, because "the family of these people will not be in a position to earn additional money." Conard used the letter to advocate in behalf of a third student, Akiko Hosoi, and urged speed upon Grinnell so as to steal the march on evacuation of her family.
William Kiyasu (1923-2010) (1940 Lowell High School [San Francisco] Yearbook)
The College did respond promptly, with the result that Takahashi, Kiyasu, and Hosoi stepped off the Rocky Mountain Rocket at the Grinnell depot at 3:55 AM May 8. The college newspaper reported their arrival, and provided brief biographies of the newcomers: Takahashi had been a senior at Roosevelt High School in Los Angeles where she "led her class of 531"; Kiyasu was a sophomore at University of California, Berkeley where he was an honor student; Hosoi was also a student at Roosevelt High in Los Angeles, where she was ranked fifth in her class. The newspaper added that a fourth student, Hisaji Sakai, a high school senior in San Francisco, was due soon.
Akiko Hosoi (1923-1988) (1942 Roosevelt High School [Los Angeles] Yearbook)
How might Grinnell receive these young people? Joseph Conard had warned his uncle that Kiyasu, at least, had heard "frightening rumors of racial prejudice in the Midwest," and therefore he and the young arrivals might "show undue nervousness because of the great uncertainties they face." To their credit, Grinnell students seem to have welcomed the newcomers. Indeed, when in 1943 Iowa State Senator C.V. Findlay proposed a resolution–the so-called Findlay Memorial–that would have barred "the privileges of higher education to a group of young people, citizens by virtue of their birth in this country, whose loyalty and patriotism are rendered doubtful because of their racial extraction...," the college newspaper responded vigorously. An elegant editorial ("The Foe Within," Scarlet and Black, March 19, 1943, p. 2) used the presence on campus of the Japanese Americans to reject Findlay's proposal.
Beginning of editorial, Scarlet & Black, March 19, 1943, p. 2
"You see, Mr. Findlay," the editorial says, "we happen to know whereof you speak. We've been living for a year with what you call 'a serious problem.' We have Japanese-American students on Grinnell campus.... To us they have been, are, and shall continue to be, kids we go to school with." They have been, the writer continued, "an integral, valuable, enjoyable part of our student body...They live in our dorms, and we like them. They are part of our social life, and we don't want to lose them."

Turning the whole project against Findlay, the editorial observed that "In Grinnell we have not been smitten by any differences. We've forgotten about them. They [the Japanese American students] have not made us conscious of race...[It is you who] have brought race consciousness into the field of necessary attention. We have been reminded. We don't like it. We think such reminding renders you a man who endangers this nation, this people, this ideal we are seeking, and which we call America."

The same issue of the college newspaper reported on resolutions approved by both students and faculty. "We believe," the student resolution began, "that Japanese-Americans of good reputation should have the same privileges afforded other American youth. Any attempt to return Japanese-American students to relocation centers constitutes a threat to the democratic principles for which we are fighting." As the newspaper editorial had, the resolution also leaned on the college's experience with the Japanese American students who "have contributed equally to the welfare of our college life." The faculty resolution took a similar line: "We protest against the assumption that citizens are disloyal because of their 'racial extraction' as contrary to the fundamental principles of our nation in which people of all races constitute the citizenship."

Evidently, therefore, Takahashi, Kiyasu, and Hosoi found a generally welcoming atmosphere on campus. Indeed, Hisaji Sakai later remembered that, when he arrived at the Grinnell train depot May 10, 1942 at 3 AM, the entire freshman class was there to welcome him!
Hisaji Sakai (1925- ) (1942 Lowell High School [San Francisco] Yearbook)
Some years later, responding to inquiries from Grinnell student George Carroll (who completed an ACM summer research project on Grinnell's nisei students), Sakai remembered that Iowa was "refreshingly free of the virulent anti-Japanese sentiment that pervade[d] California.'" At the same time, midwestern unfamiliarity with Japanese could prove awkward. At a meeting with College President Stevens soon after arriving in Grinnell, Sakai learned that, because Stevens could not pronounce his first name, Stevens gave Sakai a new, easier-to-pronounce name: "Al." Consequently, for the rest of his time at Grinnell, Sakai was known as Al. Since both Takahashi and Kiyasu already had westernized given names, Stevens's christening might not seem so strange. And it bears emphasizing that several other nisei at the college—for example, Akiko Hosoi and Taduko Inadomi '47—regularly used and were known by their Japanese given names.

But if the college campus was generally welcoming and shunned racial prejudice, what about townsfolk? With increasing numbers of their young men and women in uniform, with the news regularly filled with reports of battles, of the dead and wounded, and with little experience with ethnic or racial difference, how did ordinary men and women in town treat the Japanese Americans they saw on the streets or on campus?

In a 2001 telephone interview with George Carroll, Kiyasu recalled that the town was far less welcoming. In his recollection, farmers held "a more menacing view of the Japanese," and, since the farmers were often in Grinnell on the weekends, Kiyasu and others learned to stay out of town then. Another respondent to Carroll's inquiries—Alden Matthews who lived in Gates Hall with Kiyasu—recalled that Kiyasu had once been refused a haircut from a barber in town. Takahashi told Guy Montag in the 1980s that she'd had "some rocks thrown at her," although whether she was being literal or metaphoric is unclear; elsewhere she reported having little experience with prejudice.

Overall the nisei recollections collected by Carroll and earlier by Montag contain little evidence of townsfolk hostility. And Grinnell's newspaper provides no reason to dispute these remembrances. When the first group of nisei arrived in town, the Herald-Register reprinted the college newspaper article, complete with basic biographical information of the first arrivals. So far as news reports can confirm, no one registered any objection to the arrival of these young people.

Nevertheless, readers of the newspaper might have registered surprise, given the general tone of reportage in these years.
Grinnell Herald-Register, May 7, 1942, p. 1
For example, the same issue that announced the arrival of Takahashi, Kiyasu, and Hosoi also contained a photographic reproduction of a letter "To the People of Iowa" from Iowa Governor George Wilson (who himself had once attended Grinnell). Taking note of Mother's Day, Wilson wrote that "The Iowa mothers are giving the treasured gems of their households for a service to humanity...The sending of their sons to meet the challenge to our life and our homes imposes a debt we can never repay...." Wilson urged Iowans to "Remember Mother's Day, and especially remember the service mothers, and comfort them as they follow their sons into the far lands that we and our children may know the blessings of liberty always." Of course, several of those "far lands" to which Grinnell youth were sent were defended by Japanese.
Grinnell Herald-Register, May 21, 1942, p. 1
Week in and week out, the town's newspaper fairly burst with war-related news, inevitably keeping the war foremost in readers' minds. In addition to periodic calls for recycling tin cans or for collecting paper for the war effort, and the invitations to subscribe to war bonds, the Grinnell paper also reported—in bold headlines—special events, like "War Activity Day," scheduled for June 10, 1942. A regular column of the newspaper was titled "With the Boys in Service," a place to report on letters received from soldiers, on wartime promotions or movements to new bases, and on injuries sustained or fatalities recorded. Even New Years wishes received a wartime dressing. In the final issue of 1942, published right before a new group of nisei students arrived in Grinnell, the Herald-Register greeted the New Year with the traditional image of a child—but this time wearing an army cap and saluting the "boys in service."
Grinnell Herald-Register, December 28-31, 1942
In these circumstances, townsfolk might easily have allowed the frenzy and anxiety of war news to overcome their better natures, and encourage them to vent their frustrations upon the American Japanese who were studying at the college. And apparently they sometimes did. Grant Gale, who taught physics at the College in these years and who had a nisei live with his family for a time, told interviewers in the 1990s that "There was an element in town that felt that...'the Japs' didn't belong" in Grinnell.  Gale recalled a neighbor who used to give their nisei student a hard time. But then still another neighbor rebuked the man: "'You lay off that Japanese kid...He's a citizen of this country,'" the neighbor said. So townsfolk had to wrestle with and reconcile their emotions and their consciences.

No doubt Takahashi, Kiyasu, Hosoi and the others for the most part kept to the campus, and therefore gave townsfolk little chance to express any hostilities they might have nursed. And the campus by all accounts proved to be vigorously welcoming. Carroll, however, in concluding his research paper on Grinnell's nisei, asserted that the American Japanese students "were treated differently, and perhaps defended virulently, due in large part to their race." The College community, he continued, "did not react to their racialized treatment by treating them without regard to their race."
Taduko Inadomi (1947 Cyclone)
Given the war-time environment, it seems unrealistic to imagine that Grinnell could somehow have ignored race, if that's what Carroll meant. As the 1943 Scarlet and Black editorial observed, the actions of government—not least the War Relocation Project—brought race to the foreground. But Grinnell managed to look beyond that discourse, and worked hard to provide a peaceful environment in which these talented nisei could prosper. This is how Grinnell's Japanese American visitors themselves remember their time here, as Taduko Inadomi ('47) wrote so movingly to George Carroll:
I shall always remember with gratitude Grinnell, its administration, faculty, and students for the help and encouragement they gave me. Grinnell nurtured me, not only academically, but socially and spiritually, at a very difficult time in my life. It had the vision and foresight to see beyond the hysteria and fears of the moment to help its students prepare for the post-war world.
As Americans confront a new round of fear and hysteria, remembering how in the depths of World War II Grinnell warmly welcomed this handful of young Japanese Americans may help encourage us to do likewise. 

As often happens, my inspiration for pursuing this subject came from a friend's suggestion—in this case from Jen Jacobsen, who reminded me of the nisei and their mention in Al Jones's Pioneering. Thanks, Jen!

There is much to say about these students, many of whom compiled outstanding records at the college, but there is not space here for all that detail. I should say, however, that in addition to the handful I mention by name in the post, the College hosted at least another seven or eight Japanese American students. Surviving records are sometimes confusing, so the list is probably not complete. Six of the group graduated from Grinnell (indicated in bold); the others left early, usually for financial reasons.
Janie (Yuni) Kobukata (1948 Cyclone)

Kenneth Kobukata (1949 Cyclone)

John Hatakeda
Akiko Hosoi
Taduko Inadomi '47
William Kiyasu '44
Janie (Yuni) Kobokata '48
Kenneth Kobokata '49
Katsuro Murakami
Hisaji Sakai
Barbara Takahashi '46
Gertrude Takayama
John T. Ushijima
Toshio Uyeda
Coolidge Wakai '49
Coolidge Wakai (1949 Cyclone)

Peter Oshima '47 actually entered Grinnell in 1937, before the war, and returned later to finish his work. Similarly, Barton Nagata '42 also enrolled at Grinnell before the war (1938). Neither was part of the effort to place students caught up in the War Relocation Act.


  1. Thank you, Dan. It is heartening to know that Grinnell College made an effort to help Japanese Americans avoid internment, thereby making a statement of resistance to that unjust act.

  2. Thank you Dan for another informative and thought provoking article about the history of our community and college. Dan Ogata was able to share with many people, including my students, the difficulty of those years for his family and for himself.