Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The National Japanese American Student Relocation Council was the primary civic organization that helped 4,000 nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) leave concentration camps and enter some 600 colleges and universities in states outside the Pacific Coast exclusion zones (California and western Washington, Oregon, and Arizona) during World War II.

In 1942 the U.S. government uprooted over 120,000 Japanese Americans from their West Coast homes "for their security" and sent them first to army-administered assembly centers and then to more permanent concentration camps (euphemistically called relocation camps or internment camps) operated by the War Relocation Authority (WRA). Nisei, who were American citizens by birth, outnumbered the first generation (issei) by more than 30,000; their median age was seventeen. More than 2,500 nisei had been attending college in Pacific Coast states at the beginning of the war. Although college admission and work release were the only initial ways to leave the camps, many colleges refused to accept any nisei. The Relocation Council, a collective of several regional organizations, began operations on May 29, 1942, with Robbins W. Barstow, president of Hartford Seminary, as the first national director. The group was supported by the YMCA, the YWCA, church groups (especially Quakers), government agencies, educators, and the Japanese American Citizens League. The three major functions of the Council were to coordinate with the FBI and the WRA to obtain clearance for the nisei and for the colleges that accepted them, to raise funds for scholarships, and to work with Japanese Americans in the camps to increase morale and encourage the pursuit of higher education.

Between July 1942 and July 1946 more than fifty institutions of higher learning in Great Plains states accepted a total of 991 students: 505 in Colorado, 197 in Nebraska, 83 in Wyoming, 73 in Texas, 42 in Kansas, 30 in Montana, 29 in South Dakota, 22 in Oklahoma, and 10 in North Dakota. The University of Nebraska was one of the first universities to respond to the nisei's plight, admitting 80 students by 1943. The university had originally decided on a cap of 10 students but gradually increased this to 120. Five of the major participating institutions–University of Colorado, University of Denver, Denver Art Institute, Colorado State College of Education, and Colorado State College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts–were located in Colorado, reflecting Gov. Ralph Carr's hospitable attitude toward Japanese Americans.

Not all the nisei students were admitted with the help of the council; some applied independently, inspiring other nisei to pursue higher education. Recently, however, Gary Okihiro has argued that, although the work of the Student Relocation Council was antiracist, by working closely with the WRA it assisted the government's policy of relocating Japanese Americans and therefore accepted the racist implication that the Japanese Americans themselves were to blame for the reaction against them.

Noriko Asato University of Nebraska-Lincoln

James, Thomas. "Life Begins with Freedom: The College Nisei, 1942–1945." History of Education Quarterly 25 (1985): 155–74.

O'Brien, Robert W. The College Nisei. Palo Alto CA: Pacific Books, 1949.

Okihiro, Gary Y. Storied Lives: Japanese American Students and World War II. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999.

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