In December 1941, Nao Takasugi’s world was turned upside down.
Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, and suddenly the second-generation Japanese American was no longer a jitterbugging UCLA business student, but a potential threat to the security of his country. He managed to finish the semester before he and his family were sent to an internment camp in Gila River, Ariz.
“I was just a 19-year-old college student with high ideals and aspirations and hopes, and overnight they were shattered,” Takasugi recalls.
If it hadn’t been for a small, feisty organization called the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council, Takasugi might have languished behind barbed wire for three years with his family. Instead, the Quaker-led organization secured the military clearance needed to get Takasugi out of camp and arranged for his entrance into Temple University in Philadelphia.
“To me, they were the greatest people on earth,” says Takasugi, now mayor of Oxnard. “They practiced what they preached. I’ll be forever and ever indebted to them. We need to pay back this wonderful extension of help given to us when we were just young, bewildered college students.”
Some might say that Takasugi, 69, has paid back his debt in the form of community service. After receiving an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, he returned to Oxnard, ran the family market for 35 years and then became mayor. He is now serving his fifth term and is a candidate for the state Assembly.
But Takasugi and many of the other 3,500 Nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) who received financial and moral support wanted to pay back their debt of gratitude in kind by helping students in the same way they were helped 50 years ago.
So in 1982, a handful of alumni banded together to form the Nisei Student Relocation Commemorative Fund.
Their largess would not be lavished on the assimilated and relatively well-funded third- and fourth-generation Japanese Americans, they decided, but on Southeast Asian immigrant students whose academic achievements in the face of serious cultural and economic handicaps reminded the Nisei of themselves.
Endowed at only $250,000, the fund—now celebrating its 10th year—has been able to award modest $500 to $1,000 scholarships to 91 students. But its significance is much larger than its pocketbook, members say: It is an effort to keep alive the spirit of the original council.
In 1942 Tom Bodine was a 27-year-old conscientious objector and field director for the NSRC, then in its first year.
The most important aspect of the groups’ mandate was to “give the Japanese the feeling that their loyalty to America was justified” and “to restore their self-esteem as people that mattered,” Bodine says. The NSRC grew out of academic and religious leaders’ concern for the continuing education of college-aged Nisei who had been evacuated and interned. The activists took their concerns to Assistant Secretary of War John McCoy, who along with American Friends Service Committee leader Clarence Pickett, formulated a student relocation plan. By the time the camps closed in 1946 and the council shut down, the NSRC had enrolled Nisei students in more than 500 colleges and universities.
Bodine, 76, who lives near Hartford, Conn., says that while he visited each of the 10 internment camps trying to relocate Nisei from camp to college, others worked long hours at the council’s Philadelphia headquarters, writing 3,000 letters designed to shore up the spirits of the interned college hopefuls.
“Not formal kinds of letters that a dean of students would write,” Bodine says, “but chatty letters, or cards that remembered their birthdays.”
Kay Yamashita, the only Nisei to work full time for the council, not only wrote to students, she also corresponded with schools to request admittance for Nisei students.
At times, she ran into resistance from both sides. For the students, it was a matter of overcoming fear of life outside camp—the results of segregation and confinement. For colleges and universities, particularly Southern ones, it was a matter of overcoming racism.
“They couldn’t cope with us. They certainly weren’t admitting any black students,” says Yamashita, who now lives in Chicago.
But Nisei students had the sympathy of many philanthropic organizations. One low-profile group, the San Francisco-based Columbia Foundation, rescued the council on numerous occasions, Yamashita says.
“Every time the council ran out of money and we thought we couldn’t go on any further, this lady would come by train from San Francisco to the council to talk about it, and very soon after that, funds would come,” she recalls.
Since its inception in 1982, the new fund has handed out scholarships in nine regions in the United States, says founder Nobu Hibino. Interest on the endowment and matching funds raised in each region are used to finance the 10 to 15 scholarships given each year.
The fund is a bare-bones operation run out of Hibino’s Portland, Conn., home. Board members pay for their own travel and telephone expenses, and should the fund die out, what’s left will go to the American Friends Service Committee.
One direction the group has taken over the past year is soliciting contributions from Nisei who have received their $20,000 redress checks from the federal government.
Yutaka Kobayashi, a retired Wellesley, Mass. biochemist who donated his entire check to the fund, says he would rather pay tribute to his benefactors of long ago than buy a new car.
In the fall of 1942, Kobayashi was scheduled to begin classes at Alfred University in upstate New York. But December came and went, and the Army and Navy clearance he needed still hadn’t come through.
The Student Relocation Council made a special appeal on his behalf, not only expediting his exit, but also arranging four years of tuition scholarships for him. “They really took care of people like me,” Kobayashi says.
Hibino says that the donor base has widened to include Southeast Asians and whites as well as the Sansei and Yonsei (third- and fourth-generation Japanese Americans).
On June 13, a celebration will be held in Boston to commemorate the fund’s 10th anniversary, followed by a New Hampshire retreat, at which the program will be evaluated and future strategy mapped out.
To J.D. Hokoyama, a Los Angeles Sansei who helped coordinate the1986 scholarship program, the commemorative fund serves as a stand against the kind of racism that surfaced during World War II, and which many fear is on the rise again as friction between the United States and Japan escalates.
“This level of activism is exciting,” Hokoyama says. “It challenges the Sansei and Yonsei to think about the community: not just Japanese Americans, but all Asian Americans.”