A Sneak Preview of Our Digital History Project: Nisei at Bethel

One reason I haven’t been writing quite as much as usual here at the blog is that I’ve spent the first month of the semester putting the finishing touches on Bethel at War, 1914-2014, a digital history project that I’ve been working on since last summer with Fletcher Warren. It started as part of a special student-faculty research collaboration fellowship at Bethel last summer, but our ambitions were a little too grand to allow for the project to finish before Fletcher graduated this past May. It’s become an alumnus-faculty research collaboration.

In short, we’re trying to use some digital tools to reconstruct and relate the story of how one Christian college experienced the century of warfare that started in 1914 — the year World War I started, but also the year that what’s now Bethel University took up permanent resident in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Here’s an earlier post explaining more of our goals.)

Sittser, A Cautious PatriotismWe’ll formally debut the project next weekend — Bethel’s Homecoming, when I’ll be giving a talk in Benson Great Hall on the commemoration of WWI — but today I’ll give Pietist Schoolman readers a sneak peek at one of the most surprising chapters in the story.

It’s excerpted from a longer essay asking whether Bethel and its sponsoring denomination (by 1945, the Baptist General Conference) exemplified what Gerald Sittser has called the “cautious patriotism” of American churches during World War II.

They were not blindly and fanatically patriotic. They attached certain conditions to their patriotism. These conditions grew out of a belief in the global fellowship of the church, the possibility of international peace and cooperation, the cultural significance of vital religion, and the relevance of biblical standards of justice. Christians were committed to the allied cause but refused to call it a holy crusade or to caricature the enemy. They believed that America had a divine destiny, but only insofar as the church was spiritually vital and the nation was morally good…

"Avenge December 7" propaganda poster
American propaganda poster from 1942 – U.S. National Archives

The first issue of The Standard to arrive in Swedish Baptist mailboxes after Pearl Harbor expressed the hope that “we shall not hate those who have chosen to be our national enemies” and attempted to distinguish between Japan’s rather “small group of war-minded militarists” and the “unwilling nation of peace-loving people” they were leading, “as sheep to their slaughter.” Days later, Bethel’s student newspaper advised those students called to arms to “fight because you must, and not because you find a gun in your hand and your mind red with hate.”

But that Augustinian caution came at the end of a letter that concluded, “And ‘it’s our country, right or wrong!’” The Clarion’s editors were even less cautious in echoing one Marine’s call for the USA to “K.O. Japan”:

A week ago last Sunday, Japan in launching an attack against possessions of a nation with whom she was negotiating, broke all the rules of noblesse oblige, and with that treacherous stroke forfeited all rights of quarter and honorable terms.

However, Japan never asked them; nor has she ever fought under terms we of the white race term “honorable.” It is altogether possible that we shall have to undergo and withstand atrocities of behavior that we cannot conscientiously associate with “civilized warfare.”

At year’s end The Standard editorialized that Japan seemed committed to fighting a war it couldn’t win: “Perhaps their defiance against half of the world is a gesture of face-saving. We do not know, who can fathom what is moving in the brain of an oriental?”

April 1942 military decree ordering relocation of Japanese-Americans in San Francisco
April 1942 military decree ordering the relocation of Japanese-Americans in San Francisco, California – U.S. National Archives

Four days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt made a point of meeting with a group of Japanese-American women in Los Angeles. That encounter helped inspire the December 16, 1941 installment of her syndicated newspaper column; recalling the mistreatment of German-Americans during World War I, Roosevelt called on Americans to “meet the challenge of fairness to our citizens of every nationality….”

But just three months later, her husband signed Executive Order 9066, which empowered the U.S. Army to do as it saw fit with the 110,000 Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast: about 40,000 immigrants from Japan (Issei) and 70,000 of their American-born, American-educated children (Nisei). By the end of March, Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt ended a brief period of voluntary evacuation and had soldiers force Issei and Nisei to leave the coast and relocate, first to fifteen temporary “assembly centers” and then, by the fall of 1942, to ten “relocation centers” — what Roosevelt himself admitted were concentration camps.

While Sittser documents protests from a variety of churches, Swedish Baptist publications were silent about the fate of the internees, many of whom were Christian. And it would not seem that an ethnically homogeneous junior college and seminary in the Midwest would play any role in the story of Japanese internment. But the histories of the Nisei and of Bethel unexpectedly intersected in 1943.

Sunday School class in the Poston concentration camp
Sunday School class ca. 1944 in the Poston concentration camp – Densho

After university presidents and political leaders warned of the importance of continuing “the education of those who might become influential leaders of the loyal American born Japanese,” the government allowed college-aged Nisei to leave the camps and attend schools in the Midwest and East. Over four thousand young men and women did just this, including three who began their studies at Bethel Institute in 1943-1944.

Kanshi Stanley Yamashita grew up in Terminal Island, a fishing village near Long Beach, California. He and his family, who learned of Pearl Harbor while attending church, were sent to Poston, the largest of the ten concentration camps. A high school senior when he arrived in southwestern Arizona, Yamashita remembered the staggering heat:

Those hot summer days and the things we learned! Self-appointed experts in the art of keeping cool, that’s what we are! Saturate the floor with water, take off all clothing, dump all available bath towels in a bucket of water, drape them on oneself à la Gandhi, and there we were, just as hot.

When given the chance to leave Poston and attend college, Yamashita chose to apply to Bethel. He arrived in the fall of 1943. “Bethel has made a new Swede,” joked The Clarion: “Stan Yamashita, newly christened, Johnson.” Yamashita later trained at the Army Intelligence School at Fort Snelling and was deployed to postwar Japan. He described the devastation of the American bombing campaign for Bethel students, in a Clarion issue dated three months to the day after an atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.

Aomori city itself was just about 98% wiped out—it was really appalling. We stayed about two days at the 8th army headquarters in Yokohama…. It was just about wiped out too—just like Aomori. When one remembers its former grandeur, it’s really frightening what a bombing raid can do—just about level off a modern city.

Yamashita ended up staying in the Army for three decades, earning multiple graduate degrees along the way. He testified in the 1980s Congressional hearings on the internment program and helped found the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.

Paul Nagano in 1999
From a 1999 oral history interview with Rev. Paul Nagano – Densho

L.A. native Paul Nagano was finishing his bachelor’s degree at Chapman College and preparing for ministry when he joined Yamashita and thousands of others at Poston. Although he was ordained through the Los Angeles Baptist City Mission and acted as a pastor at multiple camps, Nagano’s request to serve as a chaplain with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team — the legendary all-Nisei unit that would fight with distinction in Europe — was refused because he didn’t have a seminary degree.

Invited to the Twin Cities by Minnesota Baptist Conference leader Rueben Nelson, Nagano founded two Nisei Christian fellowships and served as a minister to trainees at the Fort Snelling intelligence school. In the fall of 1943 he began to attend Bethel Seminary; in his memoir, he recalled that Japanese-Americans like Yamashita and himself “were adjusting to a community that was predominantly white, and they were curious to know how to treat us.” Nagano stayed at Bethel for two years, but was unable to complete his degree because he was called back to California to start a Japanese Baptist church for people returning from the concentration camps.

While Nagano later said that his experience of being interned confronted him with fundamental questions of faith, justice, and personal identity, none of his spiritual and intellectual struggle emerges from the mentions of him in Bethel’s student newspaper and yearbook. But when The Clarion ran a profile of one of their new student-reporters in November 1943, Bethel’s community received a brief, jarring glimpse of the injustice experienced by Japanese Americans.

Kiyoo Shimatsu as a Bethel student in 1943-44
“Kay” Shimatsu (top left) also played percussion in Bethel’s Pep Band — an ensemble “not heard from too frequently,” admitted Bethel’s yearbook, The Spire – Bethel University Digital Library

After being moved to the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming, Kiyoo Shimatsu was working at a local sheep ranch when he had the opportunity to apply to colleges in the Midwest. His application to the University of Minnesota was rejected (“because of his ancestry,” claimed The Clarion, all too plausibly), so he switched to Bethel and threw himself into campus life, serving as vice-president of the freshman class and working on the yearbook, The Spire, in addition to writing for The Clarion.

Although, like Yamashita, he left Bethel early to serve in the Army, Shimatsu didn’t hide his bitterness at the treatment he’d received from his own government. “The barbed-wire fences, guard houses, and soldiers armed with machine-guns and bayonets sickened him and made him very bitter,” ran The Clarion’s description of Shimatsu’s initial internment in Pomona, California. “I damned everything and everyone,” he recalled in that profile. “I lost all the faith I ever had… Only one word adequately describes it all: Hell!”

Class photo of Bethel freshmen in 1943-1944
The freshman class of Bethel Junior College in 1943-1944: Stan Yamashita and Kiyoo Shimatsu sit in the first row (1st and 3rd from left, respectively). 2nd from left in the third row is Wichita native LeRoy Gardner, the first African-American to graduate from Bethel. He told the Clarion that his goal was “to champion the cause of a misunderstood and oppressed race; to better the condition and status of my people, the Negro, mentally, spiritually and socially.” Gardner later founded North Central Baptist Church in the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul – Bethel University Digital Library

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