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American Refugees:The Japanese-American Relocation

Japanese American internment following the attack on Pearl Harbor

Soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the United States government began a program of relocating people of Japanese ancestry who lived on the West Coast. Some 110,000 people--citizens and non-citizens--were interned. After the evacuation, the AFSC, under the signature of Clarence Pickett, its executive secretary, released a statement to members of the Religious Society of Friends stating, "…we should share in such ways as our limited resources permit in breaking the force of this calamity which has come upon the Japanese population."

The American Friends Service Committee's quick reaction to the internment at the beginning of World War II is not surprising. The reason lies in the history of the Service Committee and the Religious Society of Friends, and the particular interest of Clarence Pickett.

Japanese-American child at internment camp

Clarence Pickett's interest in Japan

Clarence Pickett was the youngest child of a large family. His sister, Minnie Pickett, left the family farm to go to Japan as a missionary. She wrote long letters about her life there and later married a fellow missionary, Gilbert Bowles. She and Gilbert spent forty-five years of missionary work in Japan. Clarence Pickett was fascinated by his sister's descriptions of Japan and, with the encouragement of his mother, wanted to become a missionary as well. While this particular vocation did not work out for him, he still retained his interest in Japan.

Before Clarence Pickett became the AFSC executive secretary in 1929, the Service Committee was involved in trying to address the tremendous resentment caused by the Japanese exclusion clause in the Immigration Act of 1924. To alleviate some of the unhappiness caused by the exclusion clause, the AFSC brought representatives from Japan to the United States in an effort to promote understanding between the two peoples.

Missionaries from the Philadelphia Mission Board had helped establish a Quaker presence in Japan, and a small number of Japanese were attracted to the Religious Society of Friends there. Some of these missionaries returned to the United States before World War II. After the Pearl Harbor attack, at least one, Esther Rhoads, volunteered to assist in whatever way she could to lessen the suffering of those who were interned.

AFSC's role in eliminating internment camps

All of these strands created connections that produced a vigorous effort to help Japanese-Americans who had been removed to camps in the interior states of the West and as far to the East as Arkansas by the end of 1942. Esther Rhoads and others from AFSC's West Coast offices began by visiting the temporary camps, one of which was created out of racetrack stables. Some of them later visited and lived briefly in several of the permanent camps. Those visitors who had Japanese language skills, as did Esther Rhoads, helped build connections with Japanese Americans in the camps — especially with the elders, who had minimal fluency in English. Such visits helped those interned to realize there were people interested in their situation and who wanted to help eliminate the camps as quickly as possible.

Swarthmore and Japanese-American students sit together at Swarthmore College

Two programs were established to help get people out of internment camps. The first, which started almost immediately, was an effort to find colleges and universities in Midwest and Eastern states that would be willing to receive evacuees who were already students or were eligible to enter schools of higher education. The other program was geared to the release of those who could find jobs in the same areas of the United States where college opportunities were being sought. The AFSC, sometimes in cooperation with other groups and sometimes alone, established hostels in various cities where individuals who were released from camps could live while looking for work. Once they found jobs, they were assisted in locating places to live for themselves and their families, who sometimes joined them later.

The end of the war terminated these programs. The AFSC then provided a considerable amount of the material aids sent to Japan through the Licensed Agencies for Relief in Asia. Esther Rhoads was sent to Japan to serve as the AFSC's representative in this program. Much support for the relief effort came from Japanese-Americans who had received aid from the AFSC during the wartime period.Approximately 4,000 students were assisted in resuming or beginning their college careers through the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council, of which the AFSC was a member agency. In addition to the help students received, hundreds of other Japanese Americans found help through the hostels projects, upon being released from the internment camps and seeking jobs.

- Written by Jack Sutters, former AFSC archivist, February 2002