A Journal of Women Studies,

Frontiers, Inc.

Japanese American Women and the Student Relocation Movement, 1942-1945 Author(s): Leslie A. Ito Source: Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, Vol. 21, No. 3, Identity and the Academy (2000), pp. 1-24 Published by: University of Nebraska Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3347107 Accessed: 20-10-2016 19:10 UTC

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Leslie A. Ito

Japanese American Women and the Student Relocation Movement, 1942-1945

Michi Nishiura Weglyn’ was fifteen when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 in February of 1942. Nishiura’s high school educa- tion was interrupted and her family’s life of farming in rural Brentwood, Califor-

nia, was terminated when the United States government sent the Nishiura family and 120,000 other innocent Japanese Americans to concentration camps and stripped them of their civil liberties. The Nishiuras were incarcerated at Gila Relocation Camp, one of the ten concentration camps in the U.S. interior.2 While in camp for nearly four years, Nishiura’s father did stoop labor on a local farm,

earning sixteen dollars a month, and her mother worked in the camp mess hall.3 For Nishiura and other Nisei (second-generation Japanese American) students, makeshift high schools were established in the camps that provided minimal public schooling. However, once Nishiura graduated from high school, her fu- ture and the option of continuing her education became uncertain. Fortunately,

a group of concerned educators, along with religious organizations such as the Quaker-based American Friends Service Committee, had formed the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council (NJASRC). In 1944, she was able to acquire government security clearance to leave the center and was admit- ted to Mount Holyoke College on a full scholarship.

Nishiura’s story caught my attention while I was attending Mount Holyoke College. At first, I was merely intrigued by the idea of Michi Nishiura Weglyn, author of Years oflnfamy and one of the most important contributors to Japanese

American history, having attended my college. I learned later that three Japanese Americans attended the small women’s college in western Massachusetts in the 1940s. As I began research on the history of Japanese American students like Nishiura, I discovered that an entire group of Nisei students left the camps to attend college in the Midwest and East Coast and that their stories were much

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Leslie A. Ito

deeper and more complex than the merely geographic and cultural contrasts and conflicts that they encountered. Further research also revealed that of the Nisei

students attending college, roughly 39 percent were women.4 These statistics astounded me and helped me realize that the Nisei students’ history could not be

examined solely within the confines of race or gender, but must be analyzed within the contexts of both. In this paper I will discuss how societal and parental

pressures urged the Nisei women students not only to earn a higher degree but also to become representatives of the Japanese American community behind the

barbed wire fences. I will also show how gender and race further defined the Nisei women’s multiple roles.

I begin by exploring the complex lives of these Nisei women students on the

basis of gender and sexism, race and racism, and citizenship and loyalty. During the war Japanese Americans faced scrutiny that went beyond racism as the United

States government challenged their national loyalty despite their U.S. citizen- ship. I will also examine how the women students struggled to address the di- chotomy between social agency and constraints within an institutional structure.

Outside Assistance

In response to the educational crisis that the Nisei college students faced within

the concentration camps, influential educators, religious leaders, and a small number of Japanese American community members formed the NJASRC, the nongovernmental committee that was the driving force behind the movement from camps to colleges. Between the spring of 1942 and 1945, a total of 5,522 Nisei were enrolled in over 529 colleges and universities in the Midwest and East Coast, most receiving some type of assistance from the NJASRC.5 As the War Relocation Authority (WRA) prepared to release Japanese Americans from the concentration camps, and particularly after the federal government revoked the mass exclusion orders in December of 1944, the WRA also set the agenda and defined the role that these students would play as representatives of the Japanese American community in anticipation of Japanese American resettlement.

The NJASRC strove to create a controlled environment that fostered stu-

dents’ success and insured that they would portray a positive image to the rest of

America. The NJASRC identified colleges and universities that would allow Japanese

American students to attend, practiced “building morale” and “sustaining faith”

in Nisei high school students in order to encourage them to continue their edu- cation, and helped them fill out applications. The NJASRC and the government’s ultimate agenda was to build the faith and morale of students so that their families


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Leslie A. Ito

would also regain optimism and eventually follow their children to the Midwest and East Coast-away from the West Coast where they had originally lived.’

Although the NJASRC had an agenda for these students that reached be- yond their academic success and focused more on rebuilding trust and optimism, most students were thankful to the organization for assisting them. Kay Oshiyama,

who attended college in Ohio, regarded the NJASRC as a “blessing” and wrote, “It was the Council’s diligence and patience in its effort to help us that brought back the fire and enthusiasm to continue where I left off.”7 Letters like Oshiyama’s

inundate the official files of the NJASRC and such appreciation is echoed in many of the Nisei students’ oral histories. It is true that without the NJASRC’s

help and the bravery of the pioneer students who ventured off to colleges in the