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


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

Until the story of her exclusion was broadcast nationwide, Naomi Nakano had been, by her own admission, rather removed from the controversy. She had not participated in the protests, and The Bennett News had been 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 recalled.

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 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 administration backpedaled. On June 2, 1944, President Thomas Sovereign Gates stated publicly that the university had only just learned of a change in military regulations under which a student and a university could apply for clearance. Such an application had been made on behalf of Nakano. The Philadelphia Record reported on June 4 that a spokesman for the Army Provost Marshal’s Office had denied that there had been any recent change in policy, and he stated that there had been no application filed on behalf of Nakano, or for Koshi Miyasaki or Robert Sato, whom the university had previously barred from continuing their education. Gates immediately issued an additional statement, asserting that, “Under recent Governmental regulation, applications for permission to continue their studies have already been filed jointly by the students and the university in the Philadelphia office of the Provost Marshal, in the Bankers Securities Building — not in Washington, as was the mistaken impression in some quarters.”

He offered to admit Nakano, and reiterated the university’s “impartial” attitude toward its students of Japanese ancestry.

In fact, the university had been informed of the provost marshal’s policy long before. However, it did not file an application on behalf of any student until mid-May 1944, well after Carolyn Merion’s first editorial on the exclusion policy, when University Vice President William H. DuBarry met with Naval Intelligence officers to discuss the Nakano case. On May 19, DuBarry asked Nakano, as well as Hajime Honda and Mitsu Yamamoto ­— the two other students of Japanese ancestry then enrolled at the university — to make appointments to visit his office in order to provide “additional information” of an unspecified nature. Thus, on May 29, Nakano finally filled out a worksheet for a Personnel Security Questionnaire, and she returned to sign the completed form on June 1. (Even then, the university listed her on the form as a student in the College for Women, not as a prospective student in the graduate school).

On June 8, the Army’s Security and Intelligence Division informed President Gates that it had no objection to Nakano’s attendance at Penn. By that time, it was too late — Penn had already been exposed to nationwide criticism for racial bias. It was also too late for Nakano, who had already committed to attend Bryn Mawr.

In an ironic coda to the controversy, on June 9 Penn held its Hey Day exercises. A contingent of reporters and photographers from The New York Times and other national newspapers, lured by the Nakano controversy, were in attendance. During the festivities, President Gates was honored for his years of service as university president. Nakano, acting as president of the Women’s Student Government Association, appeared on stage to present Gates with an engraved tray, and was fiercely applauded by spectators.

Following its embarrassment in the Nakano case, the university officially opened its doors to Japanese Americans. In October 1944, after being cleared by the provost marshal, Chieko Shigekawa, Lily Sakaguchi, and Chihiro Kikuchi became the first Nisei students since 1940 to enroll at Penn. Shortly afterward, the War Department rescinded its order requiring military approval for admission of Japanese Americans.

Students of Japanese ancestry became commonplace at Penn in the years after 1945. Still, the wartime discrimination left its traces. In 1949, a Nisei scholarship student publicly accused Penn of ignoring her application for admission, reviving memories of the Nakano controversy. This time, the administration moved quickly to demonstrate that it did not discriminate, and pointed with pride to its Japanese American students, including Nakano’s younger sister Teru. University President Harold Stassen called on his chief political lieutenant, future Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, to launch an investigation. When Burger determined that the reason that no action had been taken on the protesting student’s application was that she had failed to take her College Board exams, the matter was resolved amicably.

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. (After the celebrated diplomat and economist Eleanor Lansing Dulles, Nakano was apparently the first female faculty member of the Wharton Business School, in which the sociology department was then located). She later stated 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 the postwar period, she became active with the Philadelphia chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, and served as chapter president. A few years later, she married Joseph Tanaka, a St. Louis native who was professor of architecture at Washington University, and moved with him to St. Louis, where today she lives in retirement. Her sister, her daughter and her sister’s son all attended Penn, marking three generations of the Nakano family at the university.

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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