Quaker Theology #29 -- Summer-Fall 2016
Quiet Heroes: A Century of American Quakers’ Love and Help for the Japanese and Japanese-Americans. Tsukasa Sugimura. Intentional Productions. $20.00, paper. Reviewed by Chuck Fager
Want a good definition for “the middle of nowhere”?
Try heading north on US highway 395, almost 120 miles past Death Valley
in California, and 100-plus from the eastern entrance to Yosemite. This
is the Owens Valley. It’s home to bands of Paiute-Shoshone Indians,
some hardy fruit farmers, cattle ranchers, and not much else on two
legs. From here it’s 336 miles to San Francisco, 226 to LA, and almost
250 to either Reno or Vegas. It’s about the last place one would expect
to find a Quaker landmark.
This is high desert, nearly 4000 feet, so it’s hot
in the summer, freezing and sometimes snowy in winter, and whipped by
strong winds at any season. Twenty miles or so west are the Sierra
Nevada mountains, often capped by snow and fantastic slow-swirling
cloud formations. The area has been devastated by the long California
It’s the kind of place that quickly loses its scenic
luster for me, and as a passenger riding north through it last spring,
I drifted and dozed a lot.
I was about to doze again, as we passed through the
tiny settlement of Lone Pine, when I saw a sign that snapped me fully
awake: it bore one word: Manzanar.
I shouted that we had to stop, and shortly we did.
Manzanar (it means “apple orchard” in Spanish) is now a national
historic site, operated by the National Park Service. It is where ten
thousand Japanese-Americans were held as prisoners without charge or
recourse for most of World War Two.
Inside, there are exhibits showing the outbreak of
racism and war panic which led to the internment, and documentation of
the harsh conditions the Nisei, as many were called, were subjected to.
And there is a small gift shop, with a few shelves of books.
was on that shelf. The author, Tsukasa Sugimura, is the son of
internees, who himself is now in his 60s. “Few know the story” here, he
writes, “ . . . the Japanese-Americans are aging, and with them, this
valuable part of history is fading away.”
He is so right. It’s fading for Quakers too. When I
took the book to the cash register, I asked the ranger there, “Do you
know about Herbert Nicholson?”
She looked up, surprised. “Of course I do!” she said. And she called over the chief of the site.
Herbert Nicholson, they all knew, was one of the
more memorable American Quakers who became involved in ministry to and
advocacy for the interned Nisei. This was not a fluke, tho: although a
Philadelphia Quaker by heritage, he had been evangelized by Billy
Sunday, and spent twenty years in Japan as a missionary, sometimes with
Quakers, sometimes with other groups.
Because he spoke English as well as Japanese, he had
contacts who brought him information there beyond what the militarist
Imperial government wanted people to know; and he spoke out against the
growing war plans. This got him kicked out of Japan, and he landed in
southern California, as pastor of a Japanese-American church. Then in
early 1942, overnight, his congregation disappeared: they were hauled
off to Manzanar or one of nine other isolated camps as far east as
Nicholson was shocked and enraged by the internment.
He spent much of the next three years visiting the camps, ministering
to those in them, and advocating for their release.
But as Sugimura shows, Nicholson was by no means the
only Quaker in such work; Esther Rhoads, also a Philadelphian, was
another. She too had been a missionary in Japan, and when she was
likewise pushed out by the coming of war, she wound up working with the
American Friends Service Committee, which was also very active in
efforts on behalf of the Nisei.
AFSC’s Executive Secretary Clarence Pickett also had
more than a professional interest in these issues: his older sister had
taught and worked in Japan for close to fifty years. As this suggests,
Quaker work in Japan began long before the world war. In fact, it goes
back to 1885, when one of the earliest Japanese Friends, Inazo Nitobe,
visited Philadelphia and spoke to the very Orthodox women’s mission
board, and urged them to work for more education for women. The result
was a girls school which is still in existence. (Nitobe had become
Christian in Japan, then joined Friends in Baltimore Yearly Meeting
while studying at Johns Hopkins University.)
Nitobe was also a pioneer in another way: while
studying at Johns Hopkins University, he met and courted Friend Mary
Elkinton. They became engaged, but both her parents and their meeting
elders objected; the stated reason was that the marriage would take
Mary to Japan, far away. But one suspects that race was also involved.
Nonetheless, the couple patiently but doggedly worked to change the
minds of both parents and meeting elders, and were married in 1890.
This is a love story that deserves much fuller treatment than seems to
be available now.
Quakers did not become numerous in Japan, but were
active in important work, particularly after earthquakes and other
natural disasters. Nitobe and others also labored to maintain peace
between Japan and the United States. In the short term, they failed, as
the calamity of World War and the horror of the atomic bomb showed. Yet
their work continued. Esther Rhoads and another Philadelphian,
Elizabeth Gray Vining, became tutors of the crown prince after World
War Two, and helped inculcate peace values in the young man which
persist even in his late years today.
A native Japanese-American Quaker, Gordon
Hirabayashi, served three months in prison in the U.S. for violating a
1942 curfew specially imposed on citizens with his background. He
fought that case to the Supreme Court and lost. Many years later,
after a long legal struggle, he was able to reopen the case, and the
Supreme Court reversed itself. “The U. S. government admitted it made a
mistake,” Hirabayashi said afterward. President Obama awarded him the
Medal of Freedom in 2012, unfortunately a few months after his death at
Author Sugimura is not a historian, but rather a
pastor in a mainly Japanese-American church in California. He touches
on all this history, but his main focus is on the work of Friends with
the interned Nisei in camps like Manzanar during the war. His reading
has been broad and diligent, and his footnotes, more than 170, include
a listing of many obscure but important books and other records of this
larger saga. It deserves a fuller account, but Sugimura’s compact
volume can serve to open up the field.
And if readers off Quiet Heroes
ever find themselves on US highway 395 in Owens Valley, California,
they should keep an eye open when headed north from Lone Pine, because
soon they’ll see, there in what seems like the middle of nowhere, the
sign for an unlikely but momentous and very enriching landmark for
Quakers, and many others too; don’t miss it.
Manzanar study site:
Blog post: http://wp.me/p5FGIu-1Lc