SI’s Japanese-American Students

For at least two students, the war meant dislocation. Takashi Watanabe ’42 and John Morozumi ’42 were forced to leave school two months shy of graduation because they were Japanese-Americans. Rather than report to the detention centers which would send them on their way to internment camps, they decided to live freely elsewhere. Both moved further east — Morozumi to Denver and Watanabe to Yerington, Nevada — and both continued their studies at Jesuit Colleges.

“SI was the best time of my life,” Watanabe said. He and Morozumi had been friends at Morning Star School in Japantown, where they studied under Irish nuns and converted to Catholicism. Both boys went to SI and found that their classmates accepted them without prejudice. However, Morozumi remembered that he “never entered one of my classmates’ homes. That was an unspoken convention.”

Both men felt at home at SI. Morozumi joined the debate society and, although not tall, played basketball for two years. “I played against the likes of Kevin O’Shea, a formidable player even in grammar school. I remember getting thoroughly thrashed.”

While both boys saw the war coming, they felt removed from it. And they had no doubt whose side they were on. In his junior year, Morozumi joined the ROTC and eventually became a student officer. “My parents, who chose to immigrate to the U.S. and who were ineligible for citizenship because they were Japanese, taught me to have the utmost allegiance to my country of birth and citizenship.” He knew the war was inevitable when the government froze all assets of Japanese-Americans and cut all telegraph lines between the U.S. and Japan. “I couldn’t withdraw 5 cents if I wanted to, even though I had nothing to do with Japan.”

When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Watanabe recalled that he “was shocked to hear the report. I didn’t realize the significance of it until much later. I was still a little naïve at 17.”

Their classmates didn’t treat the two differently after the attack. “They knew I had nothing to do with it,” said Morozumi. “They had no unreasonable biases. I think that speaks to the higher intelligence of the group of boys who went to SI.”

In March 1942, all Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast were told of the U.S. government’s plan to send them to internment camps. “They felt we constituted a danger,” recalled Morozumi. “I was aghast. When I heard this news, I immediately became a rebel. I was not about to be imprisoned. Even though Japanese-Americans were subject to curfews and martial law, I decided not to obey these rules.” (Former SI College President Edward Whelan, SJ, protested this policy in the pages of America magazine.)

By late March, both boys realized they would not be able to stay in San Francisco in order to finish their last two months at SI, and they knew they would be arrested if they remained in California. Watanbe decided to follow his parents, who had moved to Yerington a month earlier. His father, leaving most of his family’s possessions behind, managed to find work at a friend’s laundry in Nevada. “We didn’t have that much to lose, but it was still devastating,” he recalled. “I couldn’t finish my schooling. Everything was just gone. Our friends lost their businesses, their homes, their furniture. They were allowed to carry only their personal belongings to camp.”

In Yerington, he worked on his friend’s ranch — “a good experience for a city boy.” Six months later he left for Loyola University in Chicago and, after the war, returned to San Francisco where he received a degree in pharmacy from UCSF.

Morozumi’s parents decided to go to the interment camps and reported to the detention center at the Tanforan race track where they were housed in horse stalls. They eventually went to the Topaz internment camp in Utah. Morozumi chose not to follow them. Instead, he went to Regis College in Denver, which accepted him despite his not having a high school diploma. There, he paid his way by working at the college 60 hours a week for $25 room and board. He became classmates once again with Watanabe after transferring to Loyola University in Chicago where he studied medicine.

In 1944, Morozumi, on his second try to enlist, was accepted into the 442nd Regiment, an all-Japanese-American combat team that fought in Africa, Italy, Germany and France. But Morozumi never saw those countries. Instead, the U.S. Army sent him to central China where he worked in intelligence-gathering. A technical sergeant, Morozumi wore both the dog tags of a GI and the uniform of a Chinese officer because he dealt with Chinese officers “who would lose face if they had to deal with a sergeant.”

In China he interrogated Japanese prisoners of war to determine their troop strength on the Chinese-Soviet border. “From the information we gathered, we knew that the Japanese were moving their vaunted Manchurian Army from central China to Shanghai, Hong Kong and Japan in preparation for a U.S. invasion. After serving for four years, Morzumi attended both USF and Loyola Chicago, where he earned his degree in medicine.

Both men returned to SI in 1992 for their Golden Diploma. There they also received their high school diplomas 50 years late in a moving ceremony before the surviving members of their class. “It was doubly meaningful to me to receive this,” said Morozumi. “It symbolizes the integrity, intellectual honesty, the constant search for truth and veracity and the rejection of expediency that SI instills in its students.”