#19 Quakers and Japanese Internment – Part 1

The Fourth of July – liberty and justice for all. Children in cages – no unity in diversity. Lessons learned, lessons forgotten. 9/11 – fear of the “other.” Confusion….

That’s just the way George Inouye, then a high school student, later a physicist, described his family’s response to Executive Order 9066, broadcast over the radio and posted in many places on February 19, 1942. The Inouyes were patriotic Japanese, owners of a furniture store in Sacramento, well respected in the community. The order called for about 100,000 Japanese Americans on the West Coast to be removed to camps in isolated areas of the U.S. until the close of WWII. The Inouye parents – Saburo and Michiyo – came to the U.S. in 1919 after Saburo had returned to Japan to claim his bride. They had not been naturalized due to an alien act passed during the 20s. The children – Williams, George, and Mikoyo, all teenagers – were citizens by birth in the U.S. as were 3/4 or more of those affected. What was the Quaker response to this obvious unjust action?

As I read page after page, screen after screen, I discovered personal connections to the Inouyes and two other Japanese friends – Jack Hasegawa and Chiura Obata. My memories were vague but would come alive as I delved deeper. These stories became Quaker stories, because they are my stories.

Jack Hasegawa was a fellow student at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California in 1963. Reconnecting with him in recent weeks while trying to find a Japanese couple, Akio and Nobuko Watanabe, friends during my family’s year at Pendle Hill, the Quaker center outside Philadelphia, I discovered new details of his life after UOP. In reading transcripts from an interview, I found many common experiences and some details of his family’s relationship to internment. Jack had gone from UOP to work in the civil rights movement, often serving as a liaison between blacks and whites during several years in the South. He became a conscientious objector (CO) and went to Japan as a Methodist missionary. While in Japan, he worked with the Quaker Friends World College. Returning to the U.S., he worked for many years for the Connecticut Dept. of Education focusing on matters of diversity. In the interview he described receiving a “redress” check for $25,000 in 1988, the only member of his family alive to receive one. His family had left one of the internment camps “on parole” to work and live on a farm in Colorado. Although actually born in Colorado, he was eligible as a child of a family “on parole” from a camp.

Chiura Obata was a Japanese artist and friend of my father-in-law, Harold S. Confer. Obata had come to the U.S. as a young man just before the big earthquake in San Francisco. He worked for several Japanese newspapers and gained a reputation for his artistic recordings of the devastation of this event despite the obstacles presented by the government’s desire to keep details invisible. He became an arts professor at the University of California at Berkeley. His colleagues tried to prevent his removal from the university in 1942, sold many of his paintings for him, stored others, supported him and his wife Habuko, and arranged for his son Gyo to get a place in a graduate school of architecture in St. Louis. During his internment Obata and other artists set up art schools at two different camps, involving hundreds of students. The government helped them get supplies and allowed Obata to leave the camps to buy supplies and teach in community colleges. After he was brutally beaten by a fellow internee as a suspected spy, Obata and his wife were released and joined their son in St. Louis. When he returned to California after the war, he met my husband’s father, a professor of humanities at San Bernardino Valley College. For years he visited Harold’s classes and stayed in their home. He intrigued the students and the Confer children by taking any line they put on paper and turning them into pieces of art. Two of his beautiful creations grace my living room wall.

In 2015 a large group of Japanese American Quakers joined with others to protest the sale of 450 works of art created in the internment camps and then at the time of the proposed sale in the private collection of Allen Eason. The Rago Arts business of Lambertville, New Jersey, planned an auction. Led by Chiyo Moriuchi, a member of the Newtown (PA) Friends Meeting, Friends and others gathered hundreds of names on petitions and caused a delay while families of the artists could be contacted to involve them in the future of the artworks.

In the 1940s Quakers in the eastern U.S. had less personal contact with Japanese families than did Quakers on the West Coast. It had been Quaker women in Philadelphia who made contact with Inazo Nitobe in 1985. From him they gained contacts in Japan for a desired missionary effort. These workers set up schools and meetings, growing their presence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some of these Japanese Quakers and their friends came and settled in Washington, Oregon, and California. They became farm workers and set up small businesses. At the time of EO 9066, Quaker meetings and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) went into action led by Fred Schmoe, helping the Japanese Americans pack their assets, arrange for storage of goods, sell businesses, and transport families to detention centers for processing. Did they agree with the policy? They did not! They were trying to be helpful in a difficult situation. They worked at the detention centers and protested conditions, brought bedding and clothes, and provided extra foodstuffs. They were practical and active.

Friends in the East, especially at the AFSC in Philadelphia, tried to work with the federal government through the War Relocation Authority (WRA) to lessen the harshness of policies without angering government officials and making matters worse for the internees and other Japanese Americans. Unfortunately, this led them to not always “speak truth to power.” The urgency of West Coast Quakers and the more pragmatic actions of those in other parts of the country led to tensions. Two actions Quakers pursued with other faith communities helped. In the Midwest and along the East Coast, hostels were set up in cities to receive internees from the camps, give them temporary housing, help them find more permanent places to live, facilitate job placements, and serve as liaisons to receiving communities. Located in cities such as Chicago, Des Moines, Cincinnati, Columbus, and Detroit, they were important way stations. When the camps closed after the war, some of these hostels provided help for the temporarily relocated and those returning to their home communities. The manager of the Pasadena Hostel was Esther Rhoads, one of the early Quaker workers in Japan.

The second action was to spearhead the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council, headed by John Nason, then President of Swarthmore College, a Quaker school outside Philadelphia. The group worked with the WRA and placed 4000+ students in colleges and universities away from the West Coast. This work returns us to the Inouyes. While the family moved from the Walerga Detention Center and Tule Lake Camp in California and later the Jerome, Arkansas Camp, first George and then William and Mikoyo found places at Swarthmore College, providing them opportunities for study and changing their lives forever. The Inouye siblings were hard workers, excellent students, and popular with their classmates. They made friends with President Nason and his family, professors, and other college staff , all of whom supported them. Another Quaker, Henry Patterson, head of the Philadelphia WRA Office, helped their parents become houseparents at the Philadelphia Hostel at 3228 Chestnut St. in the city. Michiyo, a dietician, did the shopping and cooking while Saburo did maintenance work and welcomed newcomers. They were well liked and pleased to be so close to their three children. Over a 1000 Japanese Americans passed through the hostel which charged $1 – $2 per day, dependent on employment and length of stay. The hostel stayed open longer than most, then moved to 4238 Spruce St, where it served as student housing. Saburo died in 1968, never becoming a citizen. Mochiyo continued at the new location until 1974, delighting residents with her Japanese and American dishes. She became a citizen in the 50s, retired in 1974, and died in 1978.

Her children and grandchildren visited both locations. One of them was David Inouye, son of William and his wife Eleanor, born in 1950, educated like his father at Swarthmore, married to a classmate Bonnie Gregory, graduated in the class of 1971, and later a professor of zoology and botany. Like his parents, uncle, and aunt, David and Bonnie were active members of the Religious Society of Friends(Quakers). When David came to the University of Maryland in College Park, he and his family joined my Quaker meeting in Adelphi, Maryland. The boys were about the same age as my two younger children and grew up together in the 1980s. Despite spending time with David and Bonnie, I never heard him talk about his parents and grandparents’ involvement with internment nor the influence of their relationship with Swarthmore College or the AFSC. It is a rich story filled with relationships and accomplishments.

His father William worked in an asbestos factory after Swarthmore to raise money for medical school tuition. He trained as a surgeon and loved the teaching part of work with medical students and residents. Two awards have been given annually in his memory. In 1983 he worked meticulously to record his deposition in a lawsuit against the owners of the asbestos factory, hoping that other workers would benefit from the harm done them while employed there. In 1985 he died from the asbestos damage, three years before President Ronald Reagan apologized for the government’s actions during the WWII internment and declared them a “failure of political leadership based on racial prejudice and war hysteria.”

His Uncle George kept a journal from the moment of EO 9066 until his arrival at Swarthmore. During his time at college and especially before his brother and sister joined him there, he sent postcards daily to let his parents know what he was doing, filling their lives with the details of his everyday life. He often mentioned that his generation (the Nisei) should give the U.S. a second chance to overcome racial prejudice and work for international understanding. After getting an engineering degree at Swarthmore, he went to Harvard with the help of some of professors and received a PhD in physics.

His Aunt Miyoko went to medical school after Swarthmore, became a pediatrician, married a fellow doctor David Barrett, and went to India to work for the AFSC for two years, spent four years in Hawaii, and then settled in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Active in Quaker activities, Miyoko and David counseled med students, did research, and had busy medical careers. Miyoko found herself not sharing her experiences from the internment years with the next generation, silent as were her parents and her siblings. When 9/11 occured, she regretted not being more vigilant as she saw Arabs and Muslims suffer prejudice, fear, and hatred as the “other.” Still, for many years she had worked promoting better U.S. – Japan relations, so active the Emperor of Japan awarded her the Order of the Sacred Treasure, 6th Class in 1974. When she received her “redress” check in 1988, she divided it in half and donated the money to the AFSC and to Swarthmore College. When 9/11 occured, she regretted not being more vigilant as she saw Arabs and Muslims suffer prejudice, fear, and hatred as the “other” similar to her own hurts of the past.

David, Aunt Miyoko, and other relatives have donated photographs, papers, documents, and many of George’s penny postcards to Philadelphia’s Balch Institute of Ethnic Studies. Several websites share photographs of the hostel on Chestnut St. and have George’s writings – http://www.asianartsinitiative.org by Rea Tajiri and Vince Schlitwiler and http://www.citiesofrefuge.org. I spent several hours on them.

Questions to ponder:

  • Why do you think victims of trauma such as Japanese internment camps, the Mexican/US border detention camps, Native American boarding schools, the Trail of Tears have not shared their stories with subsequent generations? Find out what you can about these events and other similar ones and compare/contrast their characteristics.
  • What do we do when confronted by people who are so different from us that we cannot find a comfort zone with them?
  • In “South Pacific” there’s a song that tells us we have to be taught to hate. What does this mean to you?
  • If you could have had 15 minutes with President Roosevelt before he issued Executive Order 9066, what would you have said to him?


  • A Place Where Sunflowers Grow by Amy Lee-Tai – picture book
  • Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki – early primary
  • Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston – intermediate
  • A Boy No More by Harry Mazer

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