THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Nisei exclusion at Penn (Pt. 1 of 3)


Editor’s Note: Part of this piece was previously published as ‘Admission Denied,’ in the Pennsylvania Gazette, January-February 2000 issue.

Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, was far removed from the endemic anti-Japanese American prejudice that marked the Pacific Coast during most of the 20th century. During World War II, Philadelphia’s tiny Japanese American population remained free from mass removal, although certain travel and economic restrictions were imposed on enemy aliens. The city eventually received a stream of resettlers from camp whom local Quakers and other sympathizers welcomed, opening hostels and offering other assistance. The handful of Nisei students enrolled at the city’s proud Ivy League institution, the University of Pennsylvania, remained fully integrated in their classes and in campus activities. Nonetheless, Penn was touched during the war by the same conflicts between military security, race, and citizenship that fueled the larger confinement. Even as the White House instituted mass removal and confinement of West Coast Issei and Nisei, Penn’s leaders adopted an unjust and undemocratic blanket exclusion policy on new admissions. Paradoxically, this very action, approved by Penn’s administration in order to avoid trouble, ended by embroiling the university in nationwide controversy during spring 1944. Under the provisions of its wartime policy, the university not only denied admission to its graduate school to an existing student, Naomi Nakano, but one whose personal and academic credentials were so uncannily perfect that the university’s refusal to admit her appeared to Americans throughout the country to be motivated entirely by racism.

Penn’s singling out of its Japanese American students began well before Pearl Harbor. According to documents in the University Archives, in early June 1941 Administrative Vice President Paul Musser received a confidential memo from the Fourth Naval District’s Intelligence Office, asking the university’s help in keeping tabs on its Japanese students. Musser immediately furnished the addresses and enrollment status of all Japanese nationals. On June 9, 1941, Naval Intelligence then requested information from Musser on the six Nisei students enrolled at Penn. Although the legality of such surveillance of American citizens was questionable, Musser again complied. During fall 1941, with the university’s knowledge, and presumably its consent, Naval Intelligence officers checked up in some fashion on at least four of these students.

By December 1941, there were only a handful of Nisei students at Penn (plus a single student from Japan, Noboru Kamirya, who was listed as “withdrawn as of December 6, 1941”). On Dec. 9, 1941, the day after Congress declared war, the university was contacted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, to whom it provided the same information on its Nisei students that it had previously sent to Naval Intelligence. Significantly, in his letter to the FBI, University Vice President William H. DuBarry referred to all these Nisei as “Japanese.”

At some time in the following weeks, Penn’s administration decided on an unwritten policy of refusing admission to all Japanese American students for the duration of the war (a rule apparently adopted as well by other elite universities such as Harvard and Yale). As a result, over the following two years Penn’s admissions office responded negatively to all applications for admission and requests for enrollment information by Nisei. The administration decreed that Nisei students already enrolled would be permitted to finish their degrees, but not to continue their education in another part of the university; these would constitute new admissions. Thus, in 1942-1943, the Executive Committee of the Trustees refused to grant Robert Yoichi Sato, a graduating senior, permission to enroll in the graduate school, while graduate student Koshi Miyasaki was not allowed to pursue further studies after receiving his M.B.A.

It is not clear precisely when and how the decision to exclude was made; there is no mention of the subject in the minutes of Trustee meetings. University administrators later variously claimed that they had received orders from the War Department and informal instructions from the Navy Department to exclude Japanese Americans. In truth, the military issued several confusing and contradictory directives.

The first came in May 1942, when the new National Japanese American Student Relocation Council (NJASRC), which was founded to help Nisei students transfer to colleges outside the West Coast, inquired whether Penn would accept any students from the camps. Since Philadelphia was in a special defense area, the administration asked the Army’s opinion. On May 11, 1942, General Hugh Drum of the East Coast Defense Command recommended that no new Japanese Americans be “encouraged” to enter the defense zone. The university then declined to accept any such students. By August 1942, however, that directive had lapsed, and Nisei from the camps enrolled at other colleges in the area — the future writer and educator Kenji Murase entered Temple University, where he soon received honors. However, once the Army withdrew its opposition, the Navy interposed an unspecified objection to students from the camps. The university made no further inquiries regarding the Navy’s objection, and continued to refuse admission to all Nisei students. In October 1943, the Army Provost Marshal General issued a directive requiring universities that engaged in important defense work to obtain his approval before admitting Japanese American students. The NJASRC, which still hoped to enroll Nisei students at Penn, informed the university that it was exempt from the requirement, and that it did not appear on any Army or Navy excluded list. DuBarry nevertheless informed Naval Intelligence that Penn had ceased all such admissions after Pearl Harbor in accordance with orders from the War Department, and would continue to do so.

Clearly, the Army and Navy orders represent, at best, only one element in the university’s policy, and may have served as a pretext for exclusion rather than the actual reason. For one thing, the military’s jurisdiction covered only Nisei from the camps, not Japanese Americans who applied to Penn from outside the excluded areas. Certainly, there was no military reason for the university to deny Miyasaki and Sato, Hawai‘i-born students already enrolled at Penn, permission to continue their studies. Moreover, in 1943 the university was able to gain military approval to retain Warwick Sakami, 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, as Mitsu Yamamoto was permitted to enroll in the graduate school after receiving her B.A. Yamamoto was a biracial Nisei whose Japanese father Sannosuke Yamamoto was employed by Penn’s linguistics department during the war to teach Japanese to Army translators and develop a Japanese dictionary for the Army. Yamamoto (who would go on to contribute to The New Yorker in postwar years and later became a noted children’s book author) subsequently insisted 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 called her “white-bread appearance,” Yamamoto was not troubled by the administration, despite her unmistakably Japanese name.

All these facts suggest that the university’s blanket exclusion policy was based on other factors than simply national security: misinformation and confusion over government policy, eagerness to support the military, ignorance of Japanese Americans, bureaucratic rigidity and reluctance to take initiative, and the 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 1942-43.


Greg Robinson, Ph.D., the author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is an associate professor of history at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal. He can be reached via e-mail at

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