When a Christian College Sheltered Japanese Americans During WWII

Seventy-five years ago today, Japanese forces attacked the American military base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, leading to U.S. involvement in World War II. That evening Pres. Franklin Roosevelt issued an emergency proclamation authorizing the arrest of “Alien enemies deemed dangerous to the public peace or safety of the United States.” Within three months, FDR had authorized the War Department to do as it saw fit with the tens of thousands of Japanese Americans living on the West Coast, most of whom had been born in the United States. By the fall, the Army had established ten “relocation centers,” which eventually housed some 120,000 men, women, and children.

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

Last year I had the chance to tell a lesser-known chapter of this tragic American story. As part of a digital history project on Bethel University‘s experience of the century of warfare spanning the start of World War I and the ongoing War on Terror, I discovered that then-Bethel Institute became home to at least five Japanese American internees less than two years after Pearl Harbor.

You can read the full story here, but in summary…

After political and educational leaders pointed out the importance of continuing the education of a new generation of Japanese American leaders, over 4,000 Nisei were allowed to enroll at colleges, universities, and seminaries in the Midwest and East. (Though not at West Coast schools like the University of California, whose president had helped bring about this reform.) Between 1943 and 1945 Paul Nagano, Kanshi Stanley Yamashita, Kiyoo Shimatsu, Eddie Shimatsu, and Frank Shindo all enrolled at Bethel.

Just before Thanksgiving break in 1943, readers of The Bethel Clarion learned of Kiyoo Shimatsu’s experience of the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming:

The barbed-wire fences, guard houses, and soldiers armed with machine-guns and bayonets sickened him and made him very bitter… “I damned everything and everyone. I lost all the faith I ever had,” he said. “Only one word adequately describes it all: Hell!”

Shimatsu soon left Bethel to fight for the same country that had imprisoned him, serving with with other former internees in the highly decorated 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Stan Yamashita likewise entered the Army, eventually spending three decades as an intelligence officer; while a translator with the American occupation regime, he wrote a bracing article for the Bethel student newspaper about life in postwar Japan. As far as I know, only Shindo graduated from Bethel and stayed in the Twin Cities, where he became a pastor at Elim Baptist Church. Nagano returned to California before the end of the war to set up a new church for Baptists returning from the internment camps.

(For more on the experience of Japanese American Christians during the war, see Emma Green’s recent Atlantic interview with historian Anne Blankenship, author of a forthcoming book on the subject.)

Bethel freshmen in the fall of 1943
Some members of Bethel’s freshman class from the fall of 1943: Stan Yamashita sits in the bottom-left corner; Kiyoo Shimatsu is two seats to his left — Bethel University Digital Library

So how did the story of Japanese American internment intersect with the story of a small Swedish Baptist junior college and seminary? Some students had personal connections. For example, Nagano came to Bethel Seminary at the invitation of Reuben Nelson, head of the Minnesota Baptist Conference. But we don’t know much about the other students’ reasons for coming to Bethel, nor about the institution’s reasons for opening its doors to them.

Like most private colleges, Bethel suffered a serious decline in enrollment early in the war, so I’m sure that administrators were eager to find new sources of tuition. But not all schools in the Midwest and East accepted Japanese American students. Princeton and MIT refused to enroll any Nisei, and Kiyoo Shimatsu came to Bethel after the University of Minnesota turned him down (“because of his ancestry,” reported The Clarion).

Reeves, InfamyA more charitable explanation seems plausible: that the Bethel community acted out of shared Christian commitments deepened by its own collective memory of discrimination. During the First World War, Bethel was populated by first- and second-generation Swedish immigrants who had had to prove their patriotism to neighbors suspicious of their pre-1917 neutralism and German-sounding language. (For that matter, Bethel Seminary continued to hold most classes in Swedish well after the end of that war.)

While the story of Japanese American internment during WWII has been used to justify the registration of Muslim Americans today, the story of the Nisei at Bethel suggests a healthier lesson of history. In the midst of a war that inflamed racial hatred, the grandchildren of European immigrants gave sanctuary to the children of Asian immigrants, perhaps recognizing their common identity as “aliens and exiles” who sojourned in the same country but still desired a better one.


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