How Wash U was involved in Japanese internment in WWII

Just weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, more than 100,000 people of Japanese descent, many of them U.S. citizens, were sent to internment camps.

At Washington University, these are interesting times for law students.

Open to interpretation is the recent battle between the courts and the President on immigration.

"I tend to think that the initial orders from the court are not very strong on a constitutional grounding," said Professor of Law John Inazu.

But Inazu believes that to learn law, you must also learn history.

It was two months after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor that President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066.

"The amount of animosity and prejudice against Japanese-Americans across this country was wide-spread," explained Inazu.

75 years ago this week, more than 100,000 people, many of whom were American citizens were forced to leave their homes and abandon their businesses.  They were relocated to one of 10 internment camps located across the country.

Professor Inazu's grandparents were among the people sent away.

"They'd both been born in this country and never even been to Japan and when he asked about that they considered him disloyal and disruptive and so they transferred the whole family to a higher security camp in California," explained Inazu.

Gyo Obata's parents were also relocated.

"I left the night before my family were moved," he told 5 On Your Side.

Obata found refuge at Washington University. Some students of college age were allowed to leave the camps or avoid them altogether.

"Students weren't allowed to just pick up and get on a train and come over," said Rebecca Copeland, a Professor of Japanese Literature. "They had to prove their citizenship, they had to prove their loyalty to United States. They had to prove they had the finances."

"Washington U. [sic] was about the only University that would accept Japanese Americans at that time," recalled Obata.

Obata, studying architecture, was among more than two dozen Japanese-American students who found safe haven at Wash. U.

Responding to criticism, the University's Chancellor at the time  George Throop wrote to an indignant woman from Clayton.

"And he said I share your opinion about the Japanese," said Copeland who read the letter. "They are our enemy but these students regardless of their ancestry are American citizens."

Obata, went on to become a huge success as one of the founders of HOK, the largest architecture-engineering firm in the country. It's perhaps best known for designing sports venues like Busch Stadium.

And at 93 years old, Obata is still working.

"The interesting thing for me is solving problems," he explained with a smile.

This upcoming Friday at Washington University, there will be a panel discussion about that time in history, discussing the Japanese internment camps and Washington University's role.

"I think it's really important to learn new parts of history and re-telling history and hopefully to learn from history, "says Inazu.

One campus that opened it's doors while the rest of the country was closing the gates.

"The fear factor can affect all kinds of judgments, "added Inazu.

© 2017 KSDK-TV


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