“Quiet Heroes: A Century of American Quakers’ Love and Help for the Japanese and Japanese-American”* A Review

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 drought.

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.

Quiet Heroes 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 Arkansas.

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 93.

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


*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

Leave a comment