“Uncommon Generosity”: Project Documents WWII-Era Students’ Experiences

Pamela Worth | January 21, 2011
“Uncommon Generosity”: Project Documents WWII-Era Students’ Experiences

From the shameful legacy of the internment camps that confined over 100,000 Japanese and Japanese-American families during World War II, Professor Paul Watanabe is documenting stories of hope.

Watanabe, associate professor of political science and director of the Institute for Asian-American Studies at UMass Boston, received a grant from the National Parks Service last fall to identify and interview Japanese-Americans who, as students over 60 years ago, who were given permission to leave camps to attend college during the war.

An estimated 4,000 Japanese-American students were allowed to attend a handful of colleges and universities, Watanabe explains, thanks to the help of primarily religious groups, including Quakers, who worked outside the camps to persuade universities to accept the students and then paid for their tuition, transportation, and expenses.

Together with Institute for Asian-American Studies Project and Events Assistant Jenny Lau and Laura Ng, a UMass Boston graduate student studying historical archeology, Watanabe is working to identify those students, who are now between 85 and 90 years old, and interview them on camera about their experiences.

“This is interesting and at times frustrating – but very important – work,” Watanabe says.  “Unless we capture these stories now, these people aren’t going to be around to tell them.”

Lau agrees that documenting the students’ histories is crucial. “This is a part of this particular story [of internment] that hasn’t received as much attention as others,” she says.

During World War II, Japanese-American students were not exempt from being interned, says Watanabe.

“They were ripped out of their colleges and thrown into these concentration camps,” he says. “Some of them were students in college at the time. There were others who came of age in the camps. Some people on the outside looked at the situation and said, ‘Isn’t it unreasonable to keep these students in the camps rather than continue their education?’”

It was members of the American Friends Service Committee who initially learned that the college-aged students among the interned had the legal right to attend college, Lau says, and they were joined in their efforts by other groups and individuals. These Good Samaritans were eventually able to lobby the U.S. government to release some students, “at no cost and no effort to the government,” says Watanabe. The volunteers assumed complete responsibility for the students’ education.

Those advocating from the outside on the students’ behalf had difficulty finding universities that would accept them. Racism and fear of Japanese and Japanese-Americans had permeated all institutions of American society. The so-called hospitable universities that agreed to accept students from the camps were far removed from the environments to which they had become accustomed.

“These kids went from their ethnic enclaves to small schools like Bates College in Maine, where there is probably not another Japanese person around for miles, or to Alfred University in upstate New York,” Watanabe explains. “Their families were left behind in the camps – they were leaving to show up at these colleges, being the only Japanese kid there during the war.”

Despite the hardships of camp, the pain of leaving loved ones, and the unfriendly reception with which some interview subjects remember being met at their host universities, Watanabe points to a recurring theme of gratitude in the interviews he has conducted with his team.

“The one universal theme, despite their varied experiences, is their deep appreciation for those who helped them leave the camps and go to college, … for the uncommon generosity shown to them at a time when there was a paucity of generosity to Japanese-Americans,” he says. “They’re in awe of why these strangers went out of their way for them, and more than 60 years later, they have not forgotten.”

The grant will fund the project until August of this year, by which point Watanabe, Lau, and Ng hope to have recorded a minimum of 15 interviews. The team has met with a documentary filmmaker from Emerson College to discuss the possibility of turning the project into an educational film for schools in California, where lessons on the internment of Japanese-Americans are required in the state curriculum.

“This group of people is really special. We want to keep their legacy alive,” says Lau.

Tags: asian american , asian-american , paul watanabe , research , the point

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