The Oberlin Sanctuary Project

Nisei at Oberlin in the World War II Years

... we are still the Oberlin of old. Despite this war and the brutal necessity which makes us long for the time when the forces representing the land of their [Nisei] forefathers shall be beaten back in complete defeat--despite it, we wish these fellow American citizens an entirely happy and intellectually profitable stay in Oberlin. May their experience only serve to strengthen their belief, and our belief, in the democratic way of living.
--Charles Mosher, editorial, Oberlin News-Tribune, October 1, 1942

During World War II, approximately forty Japanese American students attended Oberlin College. President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 led to the internment of people of Japanese ancestry, including those who were U.S. citizens (Nisei), and prompted some officials, such as University of Washington President Lee Paul Sieg, to seek opportunities for Japanese American students to attend colleges in communities across the country.
​​​​Responding to the concern that members of the Oberlin community were not ready to accept the Japanese American students, Charles Mosher, editor of the Oberlin News-Tribune and a strong supporter of the students, challenged any Oberlin resident who opposed their presence in the community.  Mosher reminded Oberlin of its values and beliefs, and that the students should receive a friendly welcome and support.  

In Oberlin, local businesses like the Cosmopolitan Barber Shop served Nisei students without prejudice, while the congregation at First Church collected toys to send to Japanese American children in incarceration camps. Oberlin was “not the type of America one pictures after reading camp newspapers for the year,” Kenji Okuda, Class of 1945, recalled. He came to Oberlin from Granada Relocation Project, Lamar, Colorado. For him, Oberlin was “the ideal haven for any evacuated student."

Oberlin College President Ernest H. Wilkins was instrumental in helping Japanese American students come to Oberlin. The students lived and worked in the community, and attended the local churches. Kenji Okuda arrived on campus in January 1943 and two months later was elected president of the Oberlin Student Council. Renso Enkoji came to Oberlin in 1944 and played on the Oberlin College men’s soccer team. 

Alice Imamoto Takemoto attended the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and lived with an Oberlin family. In August 1995, she said about her time at Oberlin, “I can honestly say that there was never time to have any fun the entire 4 years. It was such hard work. But I made such good friends.”

Wilkins also helped to bring a Navy V-12 officer training program to campus during the war. Though the V-12 program was welcomed on campus, some Nisei students recalled that cadets made derogatory remarks about them, accusing them of being spies. Kenji Okuda and fellow Nisei student Dave Okada, Class of 1944, addressed campus and community groups about the plight of Japanese Americans, including life in the internment camps and their loyalty to the United States. 

In July 2017, the Go for Broke National Education Center launched a traveling exhibit, Courage and Compassion: Our Shared Story of the Japanese American World War II Experience (at Oberlin, top). The Center invited ten cities to host the exhibit and contribute their local stories to the national exhibit theme. Courage and Compassion was exhibited at Oberlin College in February and March, 2018. Alumni from the Network of Oberlin Asian Alumni gathered to visit the exhibit, and talks by internment survivors, including Alice Takemoto, Class of 1947, were among the special events in conjunction with the show.

Cassie Guevara, class of 2013, researched the Japanese American students at Oberlin during World War II, and wrote a post for her blog, Ikiru--To Live. The Chronicles of a Filipino American in Japan.


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