“These Young Americans”

When Japanese Americans were willing to wash dishes and stock shelves, the University opened its doors. When they applied as students, the doors closed.
  1. Chapter 1 A Campus in Crisis

    Dr. Harley Haynes was in a dead panic.

    As director of University Hospital, Haynes was losing employees by the day. Others were striking for higher wages.

    With America’s entry into World War II in December 1941, staff were leaving U-M in droves to serve in uniform or to work in defense plants offering bigger paychecks.

    “We are very short of nurses, wardhelpers, orderlies, diet maids, kitchen help, porters, meat cutters, and grocery clerks,” Haynes told U-M President Alexander G. Ruthven nine months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

    Karl Litzenberg was feeling no better than Haynes. His job was to manage the University’s residence halls, and right now there were fewer and fewer hourly workers to clean dining halls and lounges, stock and organize food pantries, and prepare and serve thousands of meals.

    “The situation,” Litzenberg said, “is almost calamitous.”

    Faced with a mounting staff shortage that threatened to paralyze operations across campus, U-M leaders turned to an unusual source of labor: Japanese American people incarcerated in wartime camps.

    New workers came to Ann Arbor from places like Manzanar, Heart Mountain, Rohwer, and other so-called relocation centers located in remote areas of the West. The camps were hastily built after President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the imprisonment of more than 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast following the Pearl Harbor bombing.

    As U-M staff, American-born Japanese workers mopped the floors of West Quad, the Lawyers Club, and other dormitories. They washed dirty dishes at the Michigan Union; ferried food trays and emptied bedpans at the hospital; raked leaves outside the President’s House; prepped salads at East Quad; and carried out the daily, often overlooked, work needed to run the institution.

    Yet at the same time, the University barred the door to other Japanese Americans who sought to enroll as students. Admitting students of Japanese ancestry, campus leaders said, was neither “wise” nor “desirable” during wartime because they might be traitors, or worse.

    Whether as employees or prospective students, the young people were adamant about their nationality. “100% American,” wrote 22-year-old Junzo Takahashi after arriving at U-M from a camp in Arkansas.

    The situation is almost calamitous.
    – Karl Litzenberg, manager of U-M residence halls
  2. Chapter 2 “Policy … is to Discourage Students”

    Toshio Sakai was a victim of terrible timing.

    After a freshman year at the University of Southern California, Sakai wanted to transfer to U-M’s College of Pharmacy in mid-1941. He was quickly accepted and told classes in Ann Arbor would begin at the end of September.

    “Hoping to meet you in the near future,” Professor Clifford C. Glover wrote in welcoming Sakai.

    Sakai ended up delaying his transfer for a year. When he had his USC transcript sent to Michigan a second time, with hopes of enrolling in mid-1942, the reception was decidedly cold.

    “Had you come in the fall of 1941 as was apparently the plan when you wrote us, we should have been glad to continue your enrollment,” said Howard B. Lewis, head of the pharmacy program, “but the University does not see its way clear to extend this permission to enroll to include the next year.”

    U-M’s view of Sakai, and all students of Japanese ancestry, had been clouded by war, fear, and racism.

    At the same time FDR ordered the forced removal of West Coast residents considered a national threat, the University shut its doors to Japanese American students. There was no such ban on students with roots in Germany or Italy, the other Axis powers.

    As a major university doing military research and located near defense plants, mainly a bomber factory outside of Ypsilanti, U-M was deemed critical to the war effort by the War Department. That status gave the University leeway to reject Japanese American students and employees alike. But it was students, not hourly workers, who were kept away.

    The University viewed Japanese Americans as potentially disloyal and dangerous students, yet entrusted them enough to care for hospital patients and feed military troops training on campus. The twisted logic mirrored the national mindset. A Japanese American woman living in Los Angeles could be imprisoned, while her brother in Boston remained free; the government detained West Coast Japanese Americans while enlisting their sons in the military.

    A congressional commission later said the conflicting actions proved the “power of war fears and war hysteria to produce irrational but emotionally powerful reactions to people whose ethnicity links them to the enemy.”

    That included action by U-M’s deans, who after “very careful thought” banned Japanese American students because “we are in the defense area which is under constant and severe surveillance by government officials,” said Registrar Ira M. Smith.

    With the forced migration underway that spring, West Coast universities scrambled to find new institutions for students facing detainment. When the media hinted that U-M would accept Japanese American students from the University of Washington, President Ruthven was swift with a denial: “The policy of the University is to discourage students from seeking admission.”

    John Hikaru Shinkai, a college junior teaching math and science to high school students while imprisoned in Utah, hoped to transfer. Mitz Murakami, a University of Denver student who had never stepped foot in an internment camp, wanted to be a U-M student. So did Shizuko Toyota, a University of California-San Francisco sophomore living in Utah; she applied to U-M at the same time her father, Shizutaro, was under arrest for suspicion of loyalty to an enemy nation.

    They were all turned away. The University gave the same answer, over and over, to Japanese American students wanting to enroll.

    “While we may have every confidence in the integrity and loyalty of individuals of Japanese ancestry, it has not been felt desirable to accept any considerable number of such students at present …”

    Howard B. Lewis. (Image: Journal of Biological Chemistry)

    Lewis tried to explain to a University of Washington dean.

    “I realize that this decision is possibly not a just one, since there must be Japanese students at your Western universities who are entirely loyal,” Lewis said, “but the University would find itself in a very difficult position if some student admitted since December 7 should commit some serious act of sabotage or disloyalty.”

    In 1941, there were 15 Japanese American students at U-M; by 1943, there were three.

    The University of Wisconsin accepted Toshio Sakai. He paused his studies in 1944 to join the Army and re-enrolled after the war, earning his bachelor’s degree in 1948. He spent his career as a pharmacist in Madison, including supervising pharmacy interns from his alma mater.

    • Toshio Sakai in 1949, when he applied for his pharmacist's license after graduate school in Wisconsin.
      Toshio Sakai in 1949, when he applied for his pharmacist's license after graduate school in Wisconsin.
    • Shizuko Toyota in 1939 at White Pine High School in Ely, Nev.
      Shizuko Toyota in 1939 at White Pine High School in Ely, Nev.
      Image: U.S. School Yearbooks, 1900-2016, Ancestry
  3. Chapter 3 “They Had Nothing to Do”

    The first Japanese American workers arrived on campus in late March 1943 – 27 young men from the Rohwer and Jerome concentration camps in southeastern Arkansas. Where the War Relocation Authority had established most camps in dusty, desolate locations in Utah, Idaho, Arizona, and other western states, Rohwer and Jerome were muddy, swampy places in the Arkansas Delta.

    Among those arriving by train in Ann Arbor was Jiro Gerald “Jerry” Kakehashi, a University of Southern California senior. The government had uprooted him, his parents, and two sisters from their suburban Los Angeles home in September 1942. The military first held them at the former Santa Anita Racetrack, with horse stalls converted into living quarters. Kakehashi, 22, busied himself helping families set up their new homes.

    From Santa Anita, the Kakehashis moved to the Rohwer camp. Jerry Kakehashi wrote letters to his older brother, George, who was serving in the Army, saying the family felt helpless but tried to make the best of the situation. When George received a furlough to visit Rohwer, he was happy to see his family but rattled by guard towers surrounding the camp. “To me it was terrible,” he said. “They had nothing to do.”

    Those conditions made jobs elsewhere very appealing.

    Jerry Kakehashi and all others recruited to work at U-M were known as “Nisei” (pronounced NEE-say) – American-born children of immigrants born in Japan. Those detained in the camps could request an indefinite leave if they had a place to go and a job to support themselves. Camp directors granted clearance based on a person’s perceived loyalty.

    For U-M, employing captive Japanese Americans was not so much an act of compassion as it was an economic solution to a dire labor shortage. And for the Nisei – particularly teenaged boys and young men – leaving their incarcerated families for work in an unknown city and state was a brighter prospect than life in isolated camps, with tarpaper-covered barracks, rudimentary facilities, and barbed wire fences.

    (Nisei workers were not U-M’s first Japanese American wartime employees. In late 1942, the War Department established the Army Japanese Language School on campus, with three dozen men and women of Japanese descent teaching hundreds of servicemen. Some instructors came from prison camps, and others from different parts of the country. The teachers – many of whom had college degrees – were considered University faculty, with higher pay and more privileges than Nisei hourly workers. The WRA called them “the backbone of evacuee morale” on campus.)

    The man in charge of hiring the initial group of workers was Francis C. Shiel, who became acting director of residence halls in early 1943 when Karl Litzenberg – who had lamented the shortage of employees soon after Pearl Harbor – resigned to join the Navy.

    Francis C. Shiel. (Image: Bentley Historical Library)

    Shiel had served for three years as the business manager of the dorm system and understood staffing needs.

    Wartime housing on campus had become a game of shuffling bodies. U-M had agreed to train thousands of Army and Navy officers, who were put first in line for campus housing. So out went the freshmen and in came the officer candidates – a thousand soldiers in East Quad, 1,300 sailors in West Quad, military doctors and dentists in Victor Vaughan House near the hospital, Army engineers in Fletcher Hall.

    Undergraduates had to find space in underused fraternity, sorority and boarding houses. And all civilian students, regardless of class, were on campus year-round because of an accelerated academic year of three semesters rather than two.

    From residence halls to dining rooms and cafeterias in the Michigan Union and Michigan League, thousands of people required hot meals, clean dishes, and sanitary facilities.

    Not all campus leaders knew about Shiel’s initial hiring spree in Arkansas. While Kakehashi and others were already in their first weeks of work, one U-M vice president warned the Board of Regents against employing Japanese American people.

    “The Japanese, even though born in this country, are of a different race,” said Shirley W. Smith, secretary of the University.

    Shirley W. Smith. (Image: Bentley Historical Library)

    “We are at war with the country from which their more or less immediate ancestors came; Americans don’t seem to think the way they do; and the situations that might grow up after the war with little groups of Japanese established around the country might prove a problem.”

    Smith’s objections went nowhere. In late April 1943, regents said it was OK to hire both conscientious objectors and Japanese American detainees, and encouraged administrators to use “their best judgment as to what course to follow.”

    Jerry Kakehashi first became a storeroom clerk, stocking shelves and monitoring food supplies at West Quad. He knew the work well, having spent hours helping at his father’s grocery in Gardena, Calif.

    His second job was more critical. Shiel asked the 22-year-old to join him on trips to prison camps to help enlist more workers. Recruiting in Arkansas had run dry, so Shiel now focused on camps in Utah and Idaho.

    “These people are sure hard to sell a job to,” Shiel wrote from Topaz, in central Utah, in late May 1943. “We interviewed about 50 on Saturday and as of yet have not had any results.”

    He added: “Everyone has accepted Jerry all along the way except for the military police, who we have to face twice in coming and going out of the camp. They are sour pusses or worse.”

    Shiel and Kakehashi met at Topaz with block managers, Japanese American detainees who managed the camp’s military-style barracks, in hopes of persuading new employees.

    “Mr. Shiel stated that they have plenty of jobs and a variety of jobs for single men, single women, and couples with housing provided and meals furnished in most jobs,” a secretary recorded in the meeting’s minutes. “Mr. Kakehashi believed in relocation of the evacuees and stated that the public sentiment around Ann Arbor is excellent.”

    Kakehashi’s upbeat assessment applied to the first few dozen workers like himself. As more detainees arrived in Ann Arbor, the mood would change.

    • Jiro
      Jiro "Jerry" Kakehashi as a Gardena, Calif., high school senior in 1939.
      Image: U.S. School Yearbooks, 1900-2016, Ancestry
    • Military police were stationed at all detention centers, including Rohwer in Arkansas.
      Military police were stationed at all detention centers, including Rohwer in Arkansas.
  4. Chapter 4 “A Difficult Social Problem”

    Any detained Japanese American person who hoped to work at the University needed to complete seven copies of a government personnel security questionnaire and then be approved by the Provost Marshal General, an office of the U.S. Army overseeing the employment and college enrollments of American-born Japanese. It was made clear that no potential employee could have access to classified military research or trials.

    There was a constant call from campus to the WRA for workers.

    “… we have need at our Laundry for up to forty women.” 

    “In the Building and Grounds Department, aside from men to cut grass and do other grounds work, as well as men for janitor service, we are badly in need of a man to take care of the grounds of the President’s House and do certain household tasks ….” 

    “The University Hospital is in need of a number of girls for nurses’ aides and men for orderlies.”

    “We could use approximately thirty kitchen workers for the University of Michigan Residence Halls.”

    The need for labor went beyond the campus boundaries. Factories, hospitals, hotels, foundries, and more turned to the WRA for employees. Officials from Michigan State College (today Michigan State University) traveled to Rohwer to recruit Nisei for seasonal work on Michigan farms, helping to milk cows, harvest onions and sugar beets, and pick cherries and peaches. More than 2,100 incarcerated Japanese Americans would eventually relocate to the state temporarily, with the most moving to Detroit or Ann Arbor.

    “The University of Michigan … made Ann Arbor one of the little Tokyos of the Midwest,” said Everett L. Dakan, who led the WRA relocation office in Columbus, Ohio.

    At U-M, the first recruits were men like Jerry Kakehashi assigned to work (and live) in residence halls; women took jobs in offices and at University Hospital. Most were single. As more and more new employees arrived on campus, problems started.

    “The employers were, of course, as strange to the Nisei as the Nisei were strange to the employers and several times, misunderstandings developed concerning working conditions,” said Wendell P. Gee, who led the WRA office in Detroit. “Some of this misunderstanding was due to the wrong leadership among the Nisei youth while some was due to the inexperience of the Caucasian supervisors in explaining just what was to be done and what was expected from the workers.”

    Leaving camps for a new town and job was particularly appealing to young Nisei. But many had never held jobs or been away from their families. Drinking, gambling, and boredom became problems.

    Edward Blakeman. (Image: Bentley Historical Library)

    “We may be creating a difficult social problem much too rapidly,” Edward W. Blakeman, the University’s counselor in religious education, told Ruthven. “There is a growing discontent among them that there is no vocational future open to them in their present work.”

    The Nisei were paid the same as their fellow U-M employees, receiving prevailing wages and annual raises. They earned between $100-$125 a month, were provided meals, and paid $10 to live either on campus or in a converted fraternity house on Washtenaw Avenue. Like all University service workers, they put in 48 hours a week.

    In other ways, their lives were regulated and restricted. They had to tell the War Relocation Authority their whereabouts. Campus officials forwarded their names to the Ann Arbor police. They had to carry WRA credentials to prove they had not escaped from a camp. Christmas leaves required U-M permission. They could be ordered back to camp at any time “for the good of the individual, of other evacuees or of the nation.”

    Blakeman spent the summer of 1943 getting to know “these young Americans,” telling Ruthven, “They are a very high type of citizen.” He and other religious leaders created the Nisei-Plus Club, an interracial social group that met twice weekly in Lane Hall for music, meals, lectures, and parties.

    Ann Arbor’s churches and Hillel invited the Nisei to dinners, youth groups, social hours, and services. But there were issues.

    Shigeo Tanabe. (Image: National Archives) 

    The Rev. Shigeo Tanabe, a Methodist minister hired by the Detroit Council of Churches to help Japanese American transplants settle into their Michigan communities, spent one day a week in Ann Arbor building bridges between whites and Nisei. It was frustrating work.

    “Due to the fact that back on the West Coast we had become so accustomed to the pattern of segregation there is always reluctance and backwardness about getting out and mingling freely with non-Nisei people,” said Tanabe, who had been held at the Tule Lake camp. “Added to this, our recent common experience of evacuation and internment heightened our group consciousness.”

    • U-M recruiting efforts were advertised in the Topaz internment camp newspaper.
      U-M recruiting efforts were advertised in the Topaz internment camp newspaper.
    • A security clearance form completed by Nobuko Takahashi. She was joined in Ann Arbor by six siblings and their mother.
      A security clearance form completed by Nobuko Takahashi. She was joined in Ann Arbor by six siblings and their mother.
      Image: University Housing records, Bentley Historical Library
  5. Chapter 5 Love and War

    By the fall of 1943,  the number of Japanese American workers had climbed to 400. Many were increasingly dissatisfied, feeling underpaid and exploited.

    Herbert Passin, a WRA official based in Detroit, summed up workers’ attitudes: “This is not ‘real relocation,’ it is temporary, menial, unimportant, with no future and little compensation.” The U-M hiring program was “in serious peril,” he warned.

    “There is little doubt that many will ‘fly the coop’ at the first opportunity, refuse to extend seasonal into indefinite leave, discourage others from coming up, and seek other types of employment elsewhere.”

    The unhappiest workers were young, single men. They felt isolated. Said Passin: “The life is artificial, unsatisfactory, suspended, futile.”

    Most frustrating to the boys, there simply weren’t enough Nisei women on campus.

    “The girls out here are so goddamned stuck-up it ain’t even funny,” one young man told the WRA. “There’s maybe a 5-1 majority of men here. Them girls have got the upper hand now and like anybody else they’re gonna keep it!”

    The workers’ complaints came at the same time the Michigan League was staffing an “acquaintance bureau” to connect servicemen on campus with women students.

    Still, at least two Nisei workers found a bright side to their work on campus.

    Earl Yoshio Namba and Amy Emiko Okabe arrived in Ann Arbor as strangers from separate camps, sharing only the label of being a security threat to their country.

    Boarding a train for U-M in October 1943, Namba was an experienced traveler, although not always by choice. He was a first-year student at San Francisco Junior College in early 1942 when the government moved his family to the Santa Anita barracks and then into the Utah desert in October 1942.

    After eight months at Topaz, Namba requested leave to work as a fireman at a Colorado mountain lodge for the summer. Namba then continued eastward to U-M; he was a month shy of his 20th birthday when he began working in the kitchen at East Quad in October 1943. The work was basic: “wash dishes, mop kitchen floor, serve staff at cafeteria counter.” He worked 48 hours a week for $100 a month and meals, living across campus at West Quad, amidst thousands of sailors who had christened the residence hall “the ship.”

    As Namba settled into his work, 20-year-old Amy Okabe, a native of Seattle, received approval to leave Minidoka, a camp in Idaho, for a U-M office job starting in December 1943.

    Unlike many male Nisei working at U-M, Okabe lived off campus in a sorority house on Tappan Street. She joined her older sister, Mary, who had arrived at U-M in the summer to be a secretary for the Michigan Law Review.

    And unlike many young men who moved to U-M, Amy and Mary had experience as college students. Mary graduated from the University of Washington in the spring of 1940; Amy enrolled later that fall and was in her sophomore year at the Seattle school when she withdrew from classes.

    As a U-M typist, Amy Okabe went to work in University Hall, where Morris P. Tilley, a longtime professor of English, was compiling proverbs from 16th and 17th century England for a book. “She is exceedingly helpful to the Proverb Dictionary Project,” he said.

    It’s unclear how Namba and Okabe found each other. They may have met at a meeting of Nisei-Plus. Or at a basketball game, where Namba and other Nisei from East Quad competed weekly in a city league at Slauson School.

    Amy and Earl Namba. (Image: Suzy Namba)

    They were a couple on campus until December 1944, when Namba enlisted in the Army. Okabe stayed with the proverb project until the following October, when she returned to Seattle. The couple remained in touch while Earl was in the service, and married in 1948. They were together 55 years, making a home in California until Earl’s death in 2004 at age 80. Amy died in 2014; she was 90.

    There’s maybe a 5-1 majority of men here. Them girls have got the upper hand now and like anybody else they’re gonna keep it!
    – A Japanese American man
  6. Chapter 6 “Well Accepted By Patients”

    Bain Chiba was a third-generation pharmacist and the rare Japanese American man whose job at U-M matched his education and experience.

    When President Roosevelt instituted a military draft in 1940, Chiba was the first Nisei in his hometown of Seattle to register. After Roosevelt ordered the removal of Japanese people from the West Coast in 1942, Chiba was sent to Minidoka, in Idaho, with his wife, Lily, and their young daughter, Betty Anne. He had been working at his father’s pharmacy in downtown Seattle.

    Chiba came to Ann Arbor in July 1943, shortly after his 30th birthday, to start work in the University Hospital pharmacy. Lily and Betty joined him two months later, and the family rented a house in the Burns Park neighborhood.

    Just as Chiba found comparable work at the hospital, so did Asayo Kimura. She trained as a nurse in California before the war, continued that work at the Granada camp in Colorado, and joined the University Hospital staff in the final days of 1943.

    Harley Haynes was thrilled with the labor turnaround at his hospital. The worker shortage had been so dire in early 1943 that University Hospital closed its doors to all patients except those needing emergency care.

    Harley Haynes. (Image: Bentley Historical Library)

    “We are doing everything we can to secure additional personnel,” he said at the time, “but I think this is just one of the problems that Sherman had in mind when expressing his opinion of war.”

    By the time Kimura joined the nursing staff on the eve of 1944, the hospital was employing 70 Japanese American men and women from camps. Most were ward helpers, a wide-ranging position that paid the least. It could mean wheeling patients to and from operating rooms, folding laundry, assisting nurses, and cleaning and making up beds. Others were orderlies, office clerks, and kitchen staff.

    “As a group, these workers have been ambitious and anxious to please their superiors as well as to cooperate with their associates,” Haynes boasted in Modern Hospital magazine.

    “They have been well accepted by patients and have made a worthy contribution toward the continued operation of the hospital in these difficult times.”

    The Nisei workers were less effusive. Where Bain Chiba was able to live in one of Ann Arbor’s nicest neighborhoods, most men working at the hospital made their homes in a converted wing of the building. A venereal disease clinic was down the hall.

    “They did not like their places, they lack privacy, they cannot have visitors, they cannot conveniently so much as boil up a pot of coffee, the appointments are inconvenient, the sink is in the wrong place, the doors do not lock, there is always noise, etc.,” wrote Passin.

    The women employees were no happier, saying their jobs were unfulfilling and below their skill levels. “They cannot ‘get ahead,’ they are ‘going no place,’ there is ‘no future or improvement’ in the work,” Passin said. “Psychologically, they do not regard it as ‘real relocation.’

    “It is temporary, uncertain, unrewarding and static.”

    • Asayo Kimura at Modesto Junior College in 1937.
      Asayo Kimura at Modesto Junior College in 1937.
      Image: U.S. School Yearbooks, 1900-2016, Ancestry
  7. Chapter 7 “The Greatest of Sacrifices”

    Both Uncle Sam and U-M wanted Takao Ted Ninomiya.

    He was a 23-year-old working on a fruit farm in his hometown of Fowler, Calif., when his family was rounded up in October 1942 and shipped to the Jerome camp in Arkansas. Eleven months later, in September 1943, Ninomiya arrived at U-M to be a West Quad dishwasher and stockroom clerk.

    During the war, the University sought military deferrals for many of its employees, including Nisei like Ninomiya, saying their services were essential to running the institution.

    In the spring of 1944, the Selective Service draft board rejected a deferment request for Ninomiya. There was no way to appeal.

    The Army assigned him to the 442nd Combat Regiment Team, a segregated, all-Nisei unit. By the spring of 1945, Ninomiya was fighting in southern Europe. In a fierce battle against German troops in Italy’s Apuan Alps, Ninomiya triggered a small land mine. He died on his 25th birthday.

    “His was the greatest of sacrifices,” members of Ninomiya’s platoon wrote to his mother, Misayo. “Your son and others like him made our battalion and regiment so highly praised and respected. We are fully confident that his life was given not in vain, but that all can reap the benefits of his deeds.”

    It’s hard to fathom the pain felt by Ninomiya’s mother. Her oldest son, Katsumi, had died at age 12 in 1929; four years later, her husband drowned, leaving her to raise five children. And now Takao, head of the family, was gone.

    Six weeks after Ninomiya’s death, people in Ann Arbor gathered at the First United Methodist Church to remember him and nine other local Nisei killed in action. Lighted candles, hymns, and violin solos filled the sanctuary. When an unnamed U-M dean complained that “too much was being said and done for the Japs – nothing of the sort was done for others,” he was quickly silenced by Edward Blakeman and others.

    Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes sent a letter praising the Ann Arbor Nisei who had served in the military. “They have proved to America and to all the world that the desire for freedom is not a racial trait.”

    By the end of the war, the 442nd Combat Regiment Team was the most highly decorated unit in U.S. military history.

  8. Chapter 8 “They Can’t Do That to Us”

    Eugene Uyeki believed in himself. And he tried to believe in his country.

    He hoped to attend U-M in the fall of 1944 to study the sciences, perhaps leading to a career in physics or pharmaceuticals. “If I am able to contribute a little to the progress of science and to mankind,” he wrote in his admission application, “I shall have been a success.”

    He had been a high school honors student in Seattle, where he was born and lived with his parents and two younger brothers. His junior year collapsed before it began, in August 1942, when the military forced his family into the barren Minidoka camp in Hunt, Idaho.

    Uyeki said Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor left him humiliated. But America’s assault on his family and all Japanese American people was worse.

    “When evacuation really came, all my conceptions of democracy were shattered,” he wrote. “To the last day I thought we would not have to evacuate, that we are Americans, they can’t do that to us.”

    At high school in Idaho, Uyeki earned As and Bs, became president of the debate club, vice president of his senior class, and business manager of the school yearbook.

    Seeking admission to Michigan, he had the backing of not only his school principal and the camp director (“We are proud to be represented by this young man”) but also of the all-important National Japanese American Student Relocation Council, which worked to get Nisei out of camps and onto campuses.

    “We believe Mr. Uyeki to be a loyal American student of better than average ability, to be cooperative, to be in good health, to have shown evidence of good leadership, and to have met the crisis of the evacuation with a high degree of poise,” said C.V. Hibbard, the Council’s national director.

    When the war began, U-M had allowed a handful of students of Japanese descent already on campus to continue their studies – after review by the Provost Marshal General. But in May 1944, President Ruthven reinforced the 1942 enrollment ban, partly because of the hundreds of Nisei brought to campus to work.

    Alexander G. Ruthven. (Image: Bentley Historical Library)

    “There are already in the University somewhat more students in this category than we had before the war. When to this number are added the several hundred Japanese Americans employed in Ann Arbor, it is the opinion of the Board (of Regents) and of others concerned with this matter that we now have in this vicinity as many of these people as can be properly cared for and protected in the community,” Ruthven told deans and admissions officers.

    There were exceptions: Nisei residents of Michigan would be considered, along with “well qualified” students to fill any seats vacated by Japanese American students who had dropped out.

    Ruthven added: “All Japanese American students must be reported to me as they are admitted.”

    Michigan did not admit Eugene Uyeki. But Oberlin College did, and he shifted his academic focus toward the social sciences. After receiving his bachelor’s degree, he earned master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Chicago; his dissertation explored the impacts of internment on Chicago-area Nisei like himself.

    Uyeki spent 44 years as a sociology professor at what is known today as Case Western Reserve University.

    When evacuation really came, all my conceptions of democracy were shattered.
    – Eugene Uyeki
  9. Chapter 9 Those Who Stayed

    As 1945 approached, the War Department began allowing people of Japanese ancestry to leave their temporary jobs and return home to Oregon, Washington, and California. “The trek back to the west coast began almost immediately,” said Gee, the WRA officer in Detroit.

    Most Nisei who had come to Ann Arbor now left to reunite with their parents and siblings. There was little mention of their departure. “With the end of the war the status of these individuals changed, and with the exception of several who were retained as permanent employees, these groups are no longer with us,” a hospital official noted.

    By mid-1945, with the war’s end in sight, the University resumed admitting Nisei as students. That included Toyoaki Robert Yamada, who transformed from kitchen worker to incoming student.

    Like Eugene Uyeki, Yamada had attended Seattle’s Broadway High and graduated while being held at Minidoka. Unlike Uyeki, he first applied to work, rather than enroll, at U-M.

    Toyoaki Yamada. (Image: Memoirs yearbook)

    Yamada arrived as a 17-year-old in the summer of 1943 and spent two years working in the Michigan Union cafeteria. He lived on the building’s fourth floor alongside his older brother, Tomokiyo, a Union busboy.

    As a freshman studying library science, Toyoaki Yamada continued to work part-time at the Union. He also became heavily involved in left-leaning campus groups such as the Inter-racial Association, the Student Socialists Club, the Inter-Cooperative Council of student housing, and a food-sharing program called the Eating Club. Nisei enrollment on campus had climbed to 22 students.

    Yamada graduated in 1949, moved to Wisconsin for graduate school, and returned to Ann Arbor. He worked at Marshall’s Bookstore and threw himself into socialist politics. Fifteen years after starting work at the Michigan Union, Yamada was outside the building distributing copies of the “Young Socialist” newspaper. His nickname was “Lefty.”

    Most notably, Yamada was active in the Student League for Industrial Democracy, which would morph into Students for a Democratic Society, one of the most influential campus organizations of the turbulent 1960s. He moved to Berkeley, Calif., in 1961 to run a bookstore.

    • Toyoaki Yamada lived and worked at the Michigan Union when he registered for the draft in 1944. A year later he was a U-M student.
      Toyoaki Yamada lived and worked at the Michigan Union when he registered for the draft in 1944. A year later he was a U-M student.
      Image: U.S., World War II Draft Cards Young Men, 1940-1947, Ancestry.com
  10. Chapter 10 “I Used to Work There”

    It took Robert Isamu Nagata nearly 50 years to talk about his days as a U-M worker.

    In 1993, Nagata came to Ann Arbor from his California home to visit his daughter, Donna, a psychology professor starting her U-M career. When he asked the location of her office, and she answered, “West Quad,” Nagata began to laugh.

    His daughter was confused. What was so funny about faculty offices in a building he’d never seen?

    “I used to work there,” he explained, further perplexing his daughter. She knew her parents had met while held at the Topaz camp in Utah, but little more.

    Robert Nagata had never shared that he came to U-M in July 1944 after graduating from the makeshift camp high school. With $25 in his pocket from the WRA, the 17-year-old rode a one-way train to Ann Arbor to wash dirty dishes in the basement of West Quad. Now, his daughter the professor was working in the same building.

    Nagata’s aversion to telling his family about his wartime work did not surprise his daughter. Donna Nagata has made a career of studying the generational impacts of the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans, including a reluctance to look backward.

    Showing her father around Ann Arbor in 1993, she drove along Thompson Street and past West Quad. When she asked her father if he wanted to go inside, he did not hesitate. “No thanks.”


    Special thanks to Suzy Namba and Donna Nagata for sharing their family experiences and photographs.

    Sources at the Bentley Historical Library included: University Housing records; Alexander G. Ruthven Papers; Board of Regents records; Edward W. Blakeman Papers; Ira M. Smith Papers; College of Pharmacy records; Office of the Vice President and Secretary of the University papers; University Hospital records; War Historian records; The Army Japanese language school; a preliminary report on the academic program, by Joseph K. Yamagiwa.

    External sources included: Densho; Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Records, University of California, Berkeley, Bancroft Library; Japanese American Internment Camp Newspapers, Library of Congress; The 442nd Regimental Combat Team; Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of CiviliansGeorge Kakehashi oral history, Hanashi Oral History Project Collection; The College Nisei, by Robert O’Brien; “When You Leave the Relocation Center.”