Conscience and the Constitution

Michi Weglyn, Rosa Parks of the Japanese American Redress Movement, dies at 72

by Phil Tajitsu Nash
Monday, April 26, 1999

Michi Nishiura Weglyn, author of the critically acclaimed Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America’s Concentration Camps, passed away quietly at her apartment in New York City on Sunday morning, April 25th. She was predeceased by her husband Walter in 1995. At her request, there will be no formal memorial service, but informal gatherings of friends will be held in many cities. In lieu of flowers, she requested that donations be made to the Cal Poly Pomona Foundation, which is administering the Walter and Michi Weglyn Endowed Chair in Multicultural Studies at the school. For more information, call 909-869-2289 or write to President Bob Suzuki, a personal friend of Weglyn and her late husband, at Cal Poly Pomona, 3801 West Temple Avenue, Pomona, California, 91768.

Michi Weglyn had great stature in the history of twentieth century civil rights, yet she was a thin, small-framed woman whose self-effacing style masked her determination to bear witness against injustice. A West Coast farm girl, Weglyn was born in 1926 in Stockton, California to Tomojiro Nishiura and Hisao Yuwasa Nishiura. Recognized early as a promising young scholar, she attended Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts until personal misfortune forced her to withdraw.

Moving to New York City in the late 1940s to launch her career as a costume designer, she met Walter Weglyn, a Jewish refugee from the Netherlands, when both were living in Columbia University’s International House. They married in 1950. Walter was one of the few Jewish children from his hometown to survive the Nazi holocaust, so he well understood the importance of supporting Michi as she documented the history of her own internment. He also was a tireless critic and editor, urging her always to tell the truth in her writing, even if the truth was not palatable or popular.

Before embarking on her career as a historian and writer, however, she overcame the prejudices of the post-war era to become a successful showbiz artist. She served as a costume designer for eight years on "The Perry Como Show," a widely-acclaimed music and entertainment television program in the 1950s. A renaissance woman, she also painted and wrote poetry while pursuing her demanding career in broadcast television.

When the Vietnam War and Watergate opened governmental actions to increasing scrutiny, however, Weglyn began to question the decisions that had led to her internment in the 1940s. "Curiosity led me into exhuming documents of this extraordinary chapter in our history....Among once impounded papers, I came face to face with facts, some that left me greatly pained....At a time when angry charges were being hurled at heads of state, the gaps of the evacuation era appeared more like chasms. Persuaded that the enormity of a bygone injustice has been only partially perceived, I have taken upon myself the task of piecing together what might be called the ‘forgotten’ or ignored parts of the tapestry of those years."

Working without salary, she spent years reading through dusty boxes of documents at the National Archives, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Library, and other institutions. Entering when the doors opened at 9, eating a carefully-wrapped sandwich at midday, and not leaving until closing, she searched for proof that there was no "military necessity" for the wartime internment. Sometimes her best finds would come from tips she received from curators and librarians. Other times she had to rely on her own growing awareness of what was important. When she found key documents, she waited in line at the copier machines, and then paid for the copies out of her own money. No grant monies subsidized her extraordinary quest for the truth.

By the time Years of Infamy was published in 1976, piecemeal activities to redress the unjust wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans had already taken place. What the movement for redress still lacked, however, was a clear refutation of the claim, made by President Roosevelt and other military and civilian officials in 1941, that a "military necessity" had existed for the mass detention of Japanese Americans. Several wartime Supreme Court decisions, an official Pearl Harbor inquiry, and other governmental actions made the camps seem justifiable in the minds of Japanese Americans and many other Americans. As Weglyn herself said in the Preface to her book, "With profound remorse, I believed, as did numerous Japanese Americans, that somehow the stain of dishonor we collectively felt for the treachery of Pearl Harbor must be eradicated, however great the sacrifice, however little we were responsible for it....In an inexplicable spirit of atonement and with great sadness, we went with our parents to concentration camps."

Finding the documents and writing a book that combined both scholarly rigor and moral authority were, as Weglyn soon found out, only the first two tasks involved in publishing her book. The next challenge was to find a publisher who believed in the book enough to buck the prevailing view that the camps were justified. Michi often told how the support of Howard Cady at William Morrow was instrumental in its original publication, while the support of new editors at the University of Washington Press helped to bring out a revised version of the book twenty years later.

When it was released in 1976, Years of Infamy’s irrefutable analysis, supported by numerous photos, photocopies of government documents, notes, and references gave it immediate credibility. The power and eloquence of her writing also contributed to the awards and wide acclaim it received. Years of Infamy, whose title was a play on FDR’s comment that December 7th, 1941 was a "date that shall live in infamy," was hailed by Japan scholar and former ambassador to Japan Edwin O. Reischauer as a "truly excellent and moving book . . . . The story of the concentration camps for Japanese [Americans] has often been told, but usually with an emphasis on the silver lining. . . .Michi Weglyn concentrates instead on the other side of the picture. Years of Infamy is hard-hitting but fair and balanced. It is a terrible story of administrative callousness and bungling, untold damage to the human soul, confusion, and terror."

Similarly, the scholarly Kirkus Reviews called it a "formidable" work of scholarship and noted that it was, "Certainly the most thoroughly documented account of WWII Japanese American internment. . . Behind the claim of ‘military necessity’ Weglyn points to the U.S. desire for a ‘barter reserve’—i.e. hostages of war. Also discussed is the little known fact that Japanese nationals from . . . Latin American countries were exported to the U.S." In this latter regard, Weglyn was 20 years ahead of her time, as the movement is just now gaining momentum to give redress to Japanese Latin Americans who were kidnapped early in World War II from Peru and other countries south of the border to barter for American G.I.s and American civilian internees.

The release of Years of Infamy in 1976 finally gave redress advocates the facts they needed to press their righteous claims in the courts and in Congress. The redress movement’s efforts led to a 1988 law giving $20,000 per former internee, and it was research done by Weglyn and other activist-scholars such as Aiko Yoshinaga-Herzig that made the difference for Congressional skeptics and critics. Weglyn also was a key backer of the William Hohri et al. versus United States class action redress lawsuit in the 1980s and the Heart Mountain draft resisters, who refused, on principle, to be drafted to fight for freedom when they themselves were living behind barbed wire. Until just weeks ago, she served as a resource person for Japanese American railroad workers, Japanese Latin Americans, and anyone else who had been denied redress compensation for any reason.

While Michi Weglyn requested that no ceremonies be held in her honor, gatherings are being planned in several cities. For more information, contact philnash@tajitsu.org. "She was a hero to so many people," said Bob Suzuki, President of Cal Poly Pomona College and a longtime social justice advocate. "No matter how many honors she received, she always had the people who suffered inequities uppermost in her mind."

Phil Nash can be reached at:
4701 Sangamore Road, #220N
Bethesda, MD 20816
301-263-9302
301-263-9303 (fax)
philnash@tajitsu.org


Update: Tuesday, April 27, 19999
From: Phil Tajitsu Nash <
pnash@sciencewriters.com>

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

Thank you for the many emails concerning Michi’s passing. I’m sure she would be happy to know she had had such an impact. Gatherings are being organized in New York, where she lived, on the West Coast, where she had many friends, and in Pomona, California, where Bob and Agnes Suzuki will be inaugurating the Walter and Michi Nishiura Weglyn Endowed Chair in Multicultural Studies at Cal Poly Pomona.

Michi, however, was not a talker as much as a doer. She was a person of action as well as ideas. In this spirit, the most fitting memorial to her would be if each of you did the following:

  1. Commit yourself in the next few months to read her book (Years of Infamy), and then invite a few friends over for an evening to discuss it. While the Japanese American internment is over, the concerns she raises about government lying and coverups are alarmingly current.
  2. Contribute to the endowed chair in Multicultural Studies that she and her husband Walter set up at Cal Poly Pomona (call 909-869-2289 for info), but also think of ways you can build ongoing institutions such as this to further your own vision of a better world.
  3. Continue her concern that all interned Japanese Americans get redress. This is of the utmost urgency, because many in the Japanese American community, including its legislators and leaders, are accepting the compensation given to many and are not willing to go the distance for those not yet compensated for their suffering. Write to the press, legislative leaders, the JACL and other Asian American leaders, and anyone who will listen. Japanese Latin Americans and others remain to be redressed, and deserve your support (contact the Japanese Peruvian Oral History Project for more details at jpohp@prodigy.net).

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Updated: April 29, 1999

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