When President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, 2,500 students of Japanese ancestry were enrolled in college campuses on the West Coast. About 700 of them were studying at the University of California and 500 were at UC Berkeley. For Berkeley graduate students like Charles Kikuchi, removal from campus to concentration camps was a dramatic interruption to their scholarly lives. “This is no ivory tower,” Kikuchi wrote in a letter from the Tanforan Assembly Center across the Bay in San Bruno. Many Japanese American Berkeley students interpreted their internment as a painful betrayal by the American government.
Interviews, letters, and published testimonies of eight UC Berkeley students of different genders, areas of study, hometowns, and camps show that across demographics internment prompted re-evaluations of where, when, and how UC Berkeley students continued and finished their college education but it did not challenge their fundamental faith in the practical importance of higher education for future employment. Many students developed a more powerful understanding of the importance of higher education for the Japanese American community in American society.
Many of these UC Berkeley students completed a long, arduous process of applying to transfer to other colleges while imprisoned. All but one of the eight students in this study entered another university in the Midwest or the East Coast. The exception, Art Okumo, returned to UC Berkeley to finish his B.S. and begin a Master’s in Mechanical Engineering a year after leaving Heart Mountain Relocation Center. The students who transferred received assistance from the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council (NJASRC). Organized in Berkeley in 1941, the organization helped over 3,000 students leave the camps to go to over 500 different colleges in the U.S. as transfers or new admits at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Applicants had to maintain lengthy correspondence, as one can see in the dozens of letters that Yoshiko Uchida sent from Topaz to arrange her graduate studies in education. Hiromi Dye, who was studying biology before Poston, transferred to Mount Holyoke College. She was accepted after a chain of correspondence, but it took months for the camp to clear her for educational leave. Yoshio Matsumoto “just knew that I should try to find a way to continue my education” and applied to several colleges before going to Washington University in St. Louis.
The students did not see transferring merely as a way to escape the camps, but also as a step toward their careers. They communicated with the NJASRC, expressing which schools would best serve their educational and professional ambitions. The organization reported, “There is a tendency among the evacuees to prefer the large university to the small,” valuing the name recognition of large state universities comparable to UC Berkeley. Frank Inami was accepted to Swarthmore College but “kept turning them down.” Swarthmore did not offer electrical engineering, his major at Berkeley. He eventually accepted an offer from Illinois Tech because they excelled in engineering. Uchida developed new academic interests but did not change her basic conviction in the importance of attending a school aligned with her career interests. Uchida wrote to the NJASRC. “I know that I have no right to be particular in selecting a college which I might attend, but I do want very much to attend a smaller college with good liberal arts courses, preferably back East, and in going on with graduate study, I would like to work in History and at the same time obtain an elementary teaching credential, if possible.” Uchida refused an offer for “work experience” at an elementary school because she wanted to earn her degree. She prioritized her application to Smith College’s education department. Akira Omachi, a biology student who was planning to attend Berkeley before he was interned, was relocated to Baker University but left to transfer to Cal because he found the former school insufficiently rigorous to prepare him for medical school.
While communicating with the NJASRC, many students tried to translate their work in the camps as something more like an apprenticeship or experienced-based version of the education they were acquiring at UC Berkeley. In a 1942 letter from Tanforan, Charles Kikuchi wrote that “Some of the boys have a ‘U.C. extension’ sign posted outside of their rooms, but when I went in they didn’t look like they were studying much. . . . They might as well put their collegiate memories behind them and dig in with the world of reality.” Later that year his perspective turned more optimistic. Kikuchi and the other UC Berkeley students may not have had the resources to study with schoolbooks in the makeshift Assembly Center, they could take up jobs in education, engineering, and other areas in the camps to continue learning and professional development. Kikuchi, a psychology graduate student, was an aspiring social worker and volunteered in the Education Department at Tanforan to prepare for graduate study while conducting research remotely. He was excited that other Japanese Americans could develop skills that would restore the usual pipeline of university to employment and prove their worth to America as model employees through work experiences in the camp. “I think the whole thing can be so exciting if we attack it as a challenge,” he wrote. Even if it was carried out in camps or through transferring, higher and pre-professional education was still believed a vital source for economic security, a way that Japanese Americans to prove their patriotic values and American middle-class life.
Kikuchi was not the only of our students to draw work experience from the camps. The engineering students in this study––Fred Kawahara, Art Okuno, and Frank Inami––all held jobs in the engineering teams of their respective camps. The pay was minimal, but it provided valuable work experience, as Frank Inami noted. In an interview, Inami recalled that “Instead of just menial work we got to design some of the future engineering requirements of the camp. . . . So we were able to do our own engineering work, and I got a chance to learn quite a bit from that.” Camps became makeshift apprenticeship and experience-based engineering schools. All three of the engineering students transferred to new universities after graduation, where they studied engineering and worked professionally as engineers.
While engineering students attested to how their work experience in the camps nurtured existing professional interests, other students developed new professional ambitions in the camps. Uchida developed a passion for teaching while in Tanforan and Topaz. At Berkeley, she pursued History, English, and Philosophy, “without a thought as to how I could earn a living after graduation.” However, Uchida wrote to Smith College that despite her lack of academic instruction in education, teaching students for 48 hours each week at Topaz had given her the practical experience and inspiration that prepared her for graduate study: “In fact, it was from these months of actual teaching that I received the joy and inspiration from the children, which has spurred me on to desire further study in the field of Education.” In another letter to Smith, Uchida wrote that “The utter lack of privacy and a quiet place for study makes straight ‘book-learning’ almost an impossibility. Therefore, these courses have both been highly practical, and I believe that in my past ten months of teaching I have gained a wealth of invaluable knowledge through actual trials and experiences.” Uchida leveraged her real-world experience while interned to gain access to a more formal, institutionalized study of education at Smith College. She equated this with the lessons an undergraduate major in education received on a university campus, redefining her college-to-career pipeline even as she reaffirmed it.
We have seen how these Berkeley students kept their faith in higher education as a practical engine of future employment, even if they were forced to adapt to more experiential, remote, and makeshift forms. What, then, did the students make of the intangible benefits of college instruction and education more generally? In these contexts, education came to take on new or sharpened meanings through and after internment. In or outside of camp, Berkeley students and alumni described education as a source of pride and resilience for the Japanese American community and to ensure that American society at large would not repeat this chapter of its history.
In the contexts of internment and its aftermath, the students cited education, and especially higher education, as proof of a claim that the Japanese Americans possessed to their dignity as American citizens and human beings. On April 30, 1942, the day he was forced to evacuate Berkeley, Charles Kikuchi reported on other Nisei’s behaviors: “The Nisei around here seem pretty bold and bold and their manners are brazen. They are demanding service. I guess they are taking advantage of their college education after all.” In a jocular tone, Kikuchi expressed how a college education could provide future internees with a self-respect that contrasted with the dehumanizing effects of internment. Fred Karawaha, writing to the NJASRC with the hope of transferring from Topaz to the University of Texas, engaged more seriously with the same ideas. He wrote in a letter from December 1942 that “It wasn’t until now that I fully realized the necessity for a foundation for the development of character and personality. This foundation can be laid as a result of a higher education and is vital in maintaining our free way of life and the foundation of our state.” To preserve the fiber of his dignity as an individual and as a member of a free America, Karawaha needed to finish his interrupted studies. The subtext of this claim was that internment, in disrupting his education, challenged this preservation.
Along with providing a sense of self-worth to the interned and formerly interned, education could also nurture respect for Japanese American identity at the cultural level. In 1952, Yoshiko Uchida spent two years as a Ford Foundation Area Fellow, as she describes in Desert Exile. Uchida went to Japan to study its art, folklore, and Zen philosophy for her writing. Her ‘self-education’ provided both material for her books and a newfound sense of pride for the culture of her parents: “I came home aware of a new dimension to myself as a Japanese American and with new respect and admiration for the culture that had made my parents what they were.” Uchida was both a student and a teacher of Japanese American heritage. With Desert Exile and her other books, she hoped in part to educate other Japanese Americans “who seek a sense of continuity with their past.” Along with enriching her sense of being Japanese, education could also strengthen the Japanese American cultural group’s self-awareness.
For Uchida and other interned Berkeley students, however, the study of the internment of Japanese Americans was as necessary for American society at large as it was for Americans of Japanese ancestry. Uchida wrote in Desert Exile that “I wrote it as well for all Americans, with the hope that through knowledge of the past, they will never allow another group of people in America to be sent into a desert exile ever again.” Art Okumo, in his interview, said similarly that his motivation for giving talks to schools about his experiences was that “The younger people, we try to encourage them to remember this and remember that things like this should not happen to anyone and, because eventually, they will be voters. And same with the college kids, too, or junior high school, high school.” Both described education in Japanese internment as crucial to improving American society’s moral fiber by raising the awareness of the voters who shape it.
Internment forced Japanese American UC Berkeley students to re-evaluate their educations. Students did not lose their fundamental belief in the value of university study for their professional goals. They remained faithful to the traditional American pipeline of a degree to a career as they developed new or stronger understandings of the civic and cultural importance of college and education more generally. However, this is not to say that the Japanese Americans were blind to the racial inequalities that shaped the pipeline to which they remained faithful. Frank Inami, for example, noted that “I feel we were mistreated. . . . My white classmates from UC Berkeley, or even from Illinois Tech, they all got good jobs, and they were advancing ahead.” He, on the other hand, faced not only internment but also employment discrimination and racism as an engineer for the U.S. Army and private companies, experiences which hampered his professional development. The efforts of formerly interned Japanese American Berkeley alumni to educate the American public about internment attests to their awareness that the American society their higher education brought them into was by no means equal: the goal of this civic education was, most fundamentally, to prevent the recurrence of internment.