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Naomi Nakano had already experienced discrimination at Penn when she was restricted to the basement of Houston Hall because she was a woman—then she found herself at the center of a storm of protest over the University’s wartime policy of excluding Japanese Americans from admission.

By Greg Robinson 

At Penn’s annual Hey Day exercises on June 9, 1944, President Thomas Sovereign Gates C’28 Hon’56, who was about to retire, was honored for his years of service to the University. But that wasn’t what prompted The New York Times and newspapers from around the country to cover the event, at least not directly. They were there because Naomi Nakano CW’44, as president of the Women’s Student Government Association, was to present Gates with an engraved tray during the festivities.
    Though Nakano, now retired and living in St. Louis, Mo., says that she didn’t attach much significance at the time to sharing the stage with Gates, to some in the audience, who applauded furiously, the event was charged with meaning. Just the day before, following widespread negative publicity and protests from alumni across the country, the University had reversed a policy of excluding Japanese Americans from admission that Nakano—an undergraduate honor student whose application to Penn’s graduate program had been rejected—had been the “guinea pig” in challenging.
    After the attack on Pearl Harbor, a wave of anti-Japanese hysteria swept the United States. The most obvious and extreme result was the forced “evacuation” of thousands of Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast to remote internment camps, but its effects were felt far and wide—including on Penn’s campus, where the same conflicts over military security, race and citizenship that fueled the internment were played out in subtler form.
    Penn’s dilemma over its Japanese-American students actually began before Pearl Harbor. Documents in the University archives reveal that, in the summer of 1941, the University had furnished Naval intelligence with information on students of Japanese ancestry, both native Japanese and U.S.-born (known as Nisei in the Japanese community). During the fall semester, with the University’s knowledge and, presumably, consent, intelligence officers “checked” in some fashion on at least four of these students.
    By December 1941, there were only a handful of Japanese-American students at Penn (as well as a single student from Japan, Noboru Kamirya, who was listed tactfully as “withdrawn as of December 6, 1941”). On December 9, 1941, the day after Congress declared war, the University was contacted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, to whom it offered the same information on its Nisei students that it had previously sent to Naval intelligence. In his letter to the FBI, William H. DuBarry, University vice president, referred to the Nisei students as “Japanese.”
    At some point in the following weeks, Penn’s administration and trustees privately decided to refuse to admit any more Japanese-American students to Penn for the duration of the war (a policy also evidently adopted by other elite universities such as Harvard and Yale). Nisei students already enrolled would be allowed to finish their degrees, but not to continue their education in other parts of the University, such as graduate and professional schools; these would constitute new admissions. Thus, in 1942-1943, the executive committee of the trustees refused to grant Robert (Yoichi) Sato W’43, a graduating Wharton senior, permission to enroll in graduate school, and Wharton graduate student Koshi Miyasaki W’41 WG’42 was barred from further studies after receiving his MBA.
    How or when the decision to exclude was made isn’t clear; the subject is not mentioned in the minutes of the trustees’ meetings. University administrators later variously claimed to be acting on orders from the War Department and/or informal instructions from the Navy Department. In truth, the military issued several confusing and contradictory directives.
    The first was in May 1942, after the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council (NJASRC), an agency founded to help Nisei students transfer to colleges outside the West Coast, inquired as to Penn’s willingness to accept students from the camps. Since Philadelphia was in a restricted defense zone due to its port facilities, the administration asked the opinion of the Army’s Eastern Defense Command. On May 11, Commanding General Hugh Aloysius Drum issued a “recommendation” to Penn that no new Japanese-Americans from outside the zone be “encouraged” to enter. The University then responded to the NJASRC, declining to accept any such students.
    By August 1942, Drum’s “recommendation” was no longer in effect, and Nisei students from the camps enrolled at local colleges such as Temple. The NJASRC again inquired whether Penn would admit Nisei, but withdrew its request shortly afterward, stating that the Navy had raised an unspecified objection to Penn’s admission of students from the camps. The University made no inquiries regarding the Navy’s objection.
    In October 1943, the Army provost marshal’s office issued a directive requiring universities engaged in important defense work to obtain clearance before admitting Japanese-American students. The NJASRC, which still hoped to enroll Nisei students at Penn, informed the University that Penn was exempt from the provost marshal’s directive, and added that the University did not appear on any Army or Navy list of institutions closed to Japanese-Americans. However, DuBarry voluntarily informed Naval intelligence that Penn had ceased all Nisei admissions after Pearl Harbor in accordance with orders from the War Department, and would continue to do so.
    In sum, the Army and Navy directives represent, at best, only one element in the University’s blanket policy, and may have served more as a pretext than a reason. For example, the War Relocation Authority, the civilian agency in charge of the internment camps, informed Penn that neither it nor the military had any control over Nisei students from outside the evacuated zone, but Penn continued to refuse admission to Nisei students from Hawaii and the East Coast. Certainly, there was no military reason for the University to deny Miyasaki and Sato, who were already Penn students, permission to continue their studies. Moreover, in 1943 the administration was able to gain military approval to retain Warwick Sakami Gr’44, a Nisei Ph.D. student working on a secret government research project at the University’s Laboratory of Physiological Chemistry.
    The ban was also not universally enforced. Mitsu Yamamoto CW’43, a biracial Nisei whose Japanese father was employed by Penn’s linguistics department during the war, was permitted to enroll in the graduate school after receiving her BA. Yamamoto says today that she was never informed of any exclusion policy: “I signed up for graduate work with complete freedom and took classes in the English department.” Perhaps because of her mixed ancestry and what she calls her “white-bread appearance,” Yamamoto was not troubled by the administration, despite her unmistakably Japanese name.
    These facts suggest that the University’s exclusion policy was inspired by a number of factors other than national security: misinformation and confusion over government policy, eagerness to support the military, bureaucratic rigidity and reluctance to take initiative, ignorance of Japanese-Americans, and a general desire to avoid trouble. In addition, the policy reflected an indifference to the equal rights of American citizens that was informed by prejudice and racial animosity, as is indicated by the numerous references to the Nisei as “Japanese” and “foreign students” in administration correspondence during 1942 and 1943.
    In Spring 1944, the administration’s exclusion of Japanese-Americans rebounded strongly against it after Naomi Nakano, a senior in the College for Women, was denied admission to Penn’s graduate school. Naomi was a Philadelphia-area native who had grown up in the only Japanese-American family in the suburb of Ridley Park. Her father, Nick (Yosuke) Nakano GAr’16, was a distinguished Penn alumnus who had immigrated to the United States from Japan at age 19 and worked his way through college. After receiving a master’s degree in architecture from the University in 1916, Nick Nakano joined the firm of Wark and Co. During the 1920s and 1930s, he helped construct a significant chunk of Philadelphia’s skyline, including the Bell Telephone building, the Sun Oil building, and the Presbyterian Hospital (and, according to one source, the Christian Association building on Penn’s campus). Nakano was so well-respected by building-industry giant Edward Budd that, during World War II, Budd insisted he be granted a security clearance for defense work, even though he was an enemy alien, and Nakano supervised the Budd Company’s construction of a quartermaster depot.
    Naomi, the elder of two daughters, entered the University in 1940. An excellent student, she became a member of Phi Beta Kappa in her junior year and was also involved in a wide variety of student activities—working as a Red Cross volunteer, playing on the women’s field-hockey team and serving as associate editor ofThe Bennett News, the College for Women’s newspaper, among others. She was especially active in the Student Christian Association Movement, touring campuses on the East Coast to promote the admission of Nisei students from the camps. In her senior year, she became vice chair of the movement’s Middle Atlantic Regional Council. She was also president of her junior class, and, as a senior, became president of the Women’s Student Government Association.
    She speaks fondly of her student days at Penn. “There were some good restaurants around campus. My favorite was called the Lido. I made friends through the Christian Association, which was a center for socially minded students, and through other student activities,” she says.
    She never felt any hostility as a Japanese-American from other students or faculty. “There was no prejudice, although there was one woman librarian at Penn who panicked after Pearl Harbor and wanted to deny me access to the library—until cooler heads prevailed,” she recalls. “Actually, I felt more the discrimination against women students. For instance, in those days the men had the student union at Houston Hall to themselves! Women were restricted to the basement, which was where the campus bookstore was.”
    In early 1944, Nakano filed an application to the graduate school. The philosophy department voted to recommend her for a scholarship, which was then approved by the Graduate Council. Soon after, however, the dean of the graduate school, Dr. Edwin Williams, told Nakano that University policy required the school to deny her application. Nakano remembers that she initially accepted the rejection without protest, believing that the University was under explicit military orders. “I thought that it was a bureaucratic administrative decision,” she says. She proceeded to apply to other graduate schools.

However, Carolyn Merion, women’s chair of the Student Cabinet of the Christian Association and editor-in-chief of The Bennett News, was outraged by the rejection. Merion was a friend of Nakano’s and had managed her campaign for junior class president. A dedicated opponent of anti-Semitism and racial prejudice, she had asked Nakano to join her sorority, Alpha Omicron Pi, the previous year to integrate it. Nakano agreed to Merion’s request to serve as a “guinea pig” in a challenge to Penn’s exclusion policy, although she had decided by that time to accept a graduate fellowship at Bryn Mawr.
    Merion organized a group of students from The Bennett News and the Christian Association to discuss Penn’s policy with Dean Williams, who explained that he believed that there was an official Navy exclusion order and that the University had no choice. Accompanied by Dr. George H. Menke, the regional secretary of the Student Christian Association Movement, Merion then met with the University’s provost, George W. McClelland, who insisted that the trustees had decided on the policy after informal conversations with the Navy, and referred all further inquiries to the University’s president, Thomas Sovereign Gates.
    On April 27, 1944, in an editorial headlined “An Issue to Face,” Merion expressed her “respect and admiration” for the University’s wartime accomplishments, but deplored the fact that “because of what is said to be an unwritten, unofficial request of the Navy,” the University was excluding all people of Japanese ancestry. The editorial did not name Nakano, but stated that an “arbitrary ruling” had precluded an honor student with an outstanding record of leadership and service from attending graduate school at the University: “What good does it afford to talk of postwar ideals, for the future, if our very educational policies now are discriminatory? Why not practice democracy now?”
    Receiving no response from the administration, on May 16 Merion and Walter Speake, the Christian Association’s Men’s Student Cabinet chair, wrote Gates a joint letter protesting the exclusion policy. After Gates failed to reply, Merion published it as part of an editorial in the May 25 issue of The Bennett News, in which she called on the administration to issue a statement justifying its policy and clear up the “fog of confusion” created by its contradictory statements. This also failed to prompt a response. “Bennett News was pretty unimportant,” recalls Merion, now a historical writer and researcher in England, “so the University authorities felt, no doubt, that the affair was a pin-prick.”
    Merion next put a front-page editorial, “Paging Dr. Gates,” in the June 1, 1944 issue of The Bennett News, recounting her attempts to discover who was responsible for the exclusion policy and how Gates and the administration had ignored her efforts. The editorial was to have closed with an appeal to students and faculty members to “go see” President Gates and request an official statement. However, Dr. Arnold Henry, dean of student affairs, insisted that the passage be removed. Merion remembers hearing from a male friend on The Daily Pennsylvanian that a dean had warned him “that that ‘Merion girl’ was a troublemaker.”
    Student Christian Association secretary Menke’s attempts to obtain an explanation for the exclusion policy were equally unsuccessful. After several cancelled appointments to meet with the president, on May 16 Menke wrote Gates asking him to name the government agency responsible for ordering exclusion and adding that Nakano’s case would be the subject of a discussion at the next regional student conference.
    On May 20, Gates sent Menke a brief and evasive response in which he stated that Naomi Nakano had accepted a scholarship at Bryn Mawr and presented the issue of exclusion as arising from Nakano’s request to attend certain classes at Penn under an agreement between the two institutions.
    Next, Merion and Menke took their story to the press. On June 2, The Philadelphia Record featured a long article on Penn’s exclusion of Naomi Nakano from graduate school, accompanied by a large photograph of Nakano in a Red Cross uniform. The Record recounted Merion’s and Menke’s fruitless efforts to obtain information and quoted the head of the Navy’s security program, Admiral Randall Jacobs: “I never heard of such a rule—it sounds cockeyed to me.” In the article, Nakano, described as an “attractive, dark-eyed, slender brunette,” expressed her great disappointment at not being able to continue at Penn, where she had spent four very happy years. “The principle of discrimination hurt me very much. I have lived all my life on the East Coast and haven’t been too much aware of it. This is the first time—the only time, in fact—that it ever touched me.”
    The Associated Press picked up the story, and within 24 hours, an abbreviated version had appeared in newspapers throughout the nation, as well as in the military press. It aroused a wave of public indignation—especially as it followed on the heels of a well-publicized incident in which a Nisei war veteran had been driven off a New Jersey farm by bigoted neighbors. Editorials condemning the University’s action appeared in the Record, as well as such papers as The Des Moines Tribune and The Daily News of Dayton, Ohio.
    President Gates received protest letters from all regions of the country. Individual Penn alumni and clubs in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Cleveland and elsewhere wrote to oppose the exclusion policy. An alumnus in Chicago called it an “ugly, caste-creating, stranger-hating sort of Rassenpolitik” as close to Hitler’s “worst vagaries as it is foreign to democracy.”
    Up until that time, Nakano herself had been rather divorced from the controversy. She did not participate in meetings with the administration, and The Bennett News was careful not to reveal her name. “I was pleased that the challenge was carried forth by the Student Christian Movement, and brought to national attention. I knew why they were protesting, and I was happy to provide the test case—that’s how I viewed it,” she recalls. Now she was a public figure, dazzled and a bit disturbed by her sudden fame. “I used to do a lot of commuting late at night. I remember being dismayed at seeing my picture in newspapers strewn around trolley cars and in trash cans.” She was nonetheless grateful for the letters of sympathy and support she received from high-school friends, American soldiers overseas and interned Japanese Americans. “I was very touched by the letters from people in the camps. I actually received several proposals of marriage from men in the camps who offered to protect me!”
    In the glare of bad publicity, the University backpedaled. On June 2, President Gates stated publicly that the University had only recently learned of a change in government regulations, under which a student and a university could now jointly apply for the student’s clearance, and that it had made such an application on behalf of Naomi Nakano. In fact, the University had known of the provost marshal’s clearance policy at least as early as January 1944. Although the administration had asked Nakano and other Nisei students to fill out and sign security forms at various times, notably a separate questionnaire requested by Naval intelligence in January 1944, no attempt was made to have them complete the form needed for Army clearance until the end of May 1944, well after Carolyn Merion’s first editorial on the exclusion policy. On May 19, one day after Vice-President DuBarry met with Naval intelligence officers to discuss the Nakano situation, he asked Naomi (as well as Hajime Honda EE’44 and Mitsu Yamamoto, the two other Nisei students then enrolled at the University) to make appointments to visit his office, in order to provide “additional information” of an unspecified nature.
    On May 29, Nakano finally visited DuBarry’s office and was asked to provide the information for the Personnel Security Questionnaire used by the Army provost marshal. She returned to sign the typed form on June 1. On June 8, the Army informed the University that it had no objection to Nakano’s continued attendance at Penn. By that time, it was too late—Penn had already been exposed to nationwide criticism for racial bias and Nakano had committed to attending Bryn Mawr.
    Following its embarrassment in the controversy, the University officially opened its doors to Japanese-Americans. In Fall 1944, after receiving clearance from the Army, Penn accepted its first new Nisei students since 1940. Shortly afterwards the Army rescinded its order requiring military clearance for admission of Japanese-Americans.
    Naomi Nakano attended Bryn Mawr in 1944-45. During this time she took an evening course at Penn and frequently visited the campus. After receiving a master’s degree in philosophy from Bryn Mawr, she briefly studied at Columbia University. In 1947, Nakano returned to Penn as an instructor in sociology, thus apparently becoming the first woman instructor at the Wharton School, where the sociology department was then located. She says today that she never felt any hesitation about returning, or bitterness over the wartime events. “I had family ties to Penn. It was my university,” she says simply.
    During this period, she also helped found a Philadelphia chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, a civil-rights group, and served as chapter president. A few years later, she married a Japanese-American professor of architecture at Washington University and moved to St. Louis. Her sister, her daughter and her sister’s son all attended Penn, marking three generations of the Nakano family at the University. 

Greg Robinson C’88 is working toward a Ph.D. in American history at New York University. The subject of his dissertation is “Franklin Roosevelt and Japanese-Americans.”

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