'From Concentration Camp to Campus'

The internment of Japanese Americans in World War II remains a shameful episode in American history. In From Concentration Camp to Campus: Japanese American Students and World War II (University of Illinois Press), Allan W. Austin focuses on a positive event during the internments. More than 4,000 college students were allowed to leave the camps to enroll in colleges -- provided that the colleges would accept them and were not on the West Coast.

February 17, 2005

The internment of Japanese Americans in World War II remains a shameful episode in American history. In From Concentration Camp to Campus: Japanese American Students and World War II (University of Illinois Press), Allan W. Austin focuses on a positive event during the internments. More than 4,000 college students were allowed to leave the camps to enroll in colleges -- provided that the colleges would accept them and were not on the West Coast. At a good number of the 600 colleges that took students, they were among the first non-white students to enroll. Austin, an assistant professor of history at College Misericordia, answered questions about the book and the significance of these events today.

Q: How did you become interested in this topic?

A: I first became interested in Japanese American student resettlement during World War II while taking a graduate course in U.S. immigration history with Roger Daniels at the University of Cincinnati. For the course, I chose to examine Robert W. O'Brien's The College Nisei as part of an essay about the historiography of Japanese America. O'Brien's 1949 study, written by a sociologist who helped resettle the students, struck me as interesting in two ways.  First, the story of student resettlement was intriguing on its own merits. The drama in moving Japanese Americans from "concentration camp to campus" in the wartime atmosphere of racism seemed like an interesting topic worthy of further study. Second, O'Brien's approach, typical of social scientists in that era, raised important questions about the goals of the white liberals who attempted, with the very best of intentions, to help the students. In particular, O'Brien's sociological study raised questions for me about how Americans in the 1940's thought about race, assimilation, and national identity.

Q: How was the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council created?

A: The creation of the council was complicated. Although the government decided to incarcerate all West Coast Japanese Americans, citizens and aliens alike, after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, pressure soon developed to return Japanese Americans to mainstream American life (outside of the West Coast). This pressure came from various sources, including Milton S. Eisenhower, the first director of the War Relocation Authority (WRA), who had misgivings about incarceration from the start. Others in the government feared that the concentration camps would become permanent institutions like Native American reservations. These concerns inside the government were reinforced by university presidents, including Robert Gordon Sproul (University of California at Berkeley) and Lee Paul Sieg (at the University of Washington), as well as other interested citizens, including a number of Quakers, who wanted to help Japanese American college students continue their education.

These pressures, in combination with the desire of many students to continue their education, eventually resulted in government action.  In May, 1942, Eisenhower began to act to facilitate student resettlement.  However, likely fearing public and Congressional criticism (which was often intense), he chose to have the American Friends Service Committee, the Quaker service organization, take the lead in creating a private organization to organize and finance the project. Working through a private organization, while cumbersome at times, insulated the government from criticism. The Quakers consciously created an interdenominational organization, knowing that the council would have to rely on both moral and financial support from churches and church-sponsored colleges to succeed.

Q: How did colleges respond to the council's request that they admit these students?

A: Colleges responded in mixed ways to the council's appeal for admissions and financial support. Early on, private colleges, many affiliated with churches and committed to missions that promoted social activism, proved to be much more receptive.  Although many, if not most, Japanese American students would have preferred to attend larger state universities, many would not initially admit Japanese Americans. Over time, more and more colleges and universities opened their doors to the resettled students. By the end of the war, as a result, a few schools that wanted to cooperate and even offered partial scholarships to students were having trouble finding applicants.

Uncooperative colleges offered a variety of excuses.  Some feared the local communities would react negatively, and isolated rumors of violence suggested that such concerns were not necessarily far-fetched. Larger state universities often worried about military research being conducted on campus, and the government only very slowly worked out a clearance process with the council for such schools. Other schools refused to cooperate because of racism on boards and among administrators. State legislators also were at times opposed to Japanese Americans attending college.

Q: What was the experience like for the students?

A: The resettled Japanese American students had mixed experiences. The transition from large universities with significant Japanese American populations to smaller colleges with only a few or perhaps no Japanese Americans was often difficult. While many colleges arranged reception committees and worked to help ease the transition, moving to such a different environment was obviously wrenching. The expectations of receiving communities were often based in racist misconceptions of Japanese Americans and made the moves more difficult yet. Even supporters of student resettlement sometimes held assumptions that stereotyped the newcomers.

Still, the students today hold mostly positive memories of their wartime experiences.  Many note that their travels opened new experiences for themselves. While they may remember incidents of racism, most recall warm welcomes and honest efforts to help them carry on with their education and lives. Some students were so affected by their positive experiences that they created the Nisei Student Relocation Commemorative Fund in 1981. Over the past 25 years, the fund has provided some $450,000 in scholarship funds to Southeast Asian refugee students.

Q: How do you think these students set the stage for the issues facing Asian American students who would later enroll in greater numbers?

A: While Asian Americans are taken as a given at universities throughout the United States today, this was not always the case. The resettled Japanese American students turned out to be precursors of the "overrepresentation" of Asian American college students throughout the United States in recent decades and harbingers of the increasing multiculturalism that characterized American college campuses by the last quarter of the 20th century. While the Japanese American students thus "pioneered" in important and positive ways, perhaps one negative result of the council's program was its conscious effort to promote the success stories of the "best and the brightest" students. As a result, the "ambassador of goodwill" persona that resettled students adopted and the council promoted unwittingly helped to lay the foundation for the "model minority" stereotype that developed in the 1960's.

Q: Do you see parallels between the history you wrote about (which involved American citizens) and the treatment of foreign students today?

A: 9/11 has given the history of Japanese American exile and incarceration during World War II renewed significance to the public at large, and historians of Japanese America have important contributions to make as Americans debate changes in immigration policy and national security measures. In terms of students, a small part of this larger picture, important parallels do exist. Most obviously, the scrutiny faced by foreign students and even citizen students whose parents are from the Middle East is clearly based on arbitrary "racial" categories.  While vigilance in pursuit of national security is obviously merited, the history of Japanese American student resettlement suggests the need to remain sensitive to the very fine line between maintaining national security and trampling basic American rights as the result of a broad and undiscriminating desire to scapegoat innocent people.


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