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Japanese American camp survivors to return for reunion

STANFORD -- Stanford University's upcoming Reunion Homecoming Weekend will give thousands of graduates a chance to visit the Farm and catch up with old friends.

Perhaps the most poignant gathering, though, will be the Oct. 1 reunion of nine Japanese American alumni whom the federal government forced to leave campus in 1942. That came when President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9006 authorizing the wartime internment of 120,000 U.S. citizens and residents of Japanese ancestry.

Now in their 70s, many haven't seen each other since they hastily packed their duffel bags and boarded trains for the internment camps, more than a half century ago.

"Much has changed at Stanford since that sad and unfortunate chapter in the history of our country," Stanford President Gerhard Casper wrote last spring in personal invitations to the survivors.

"Your presence would help educate our younger generation about events that had a profound impact on our nation."

Members of Stanford's Asian American community began planning the reunion about nine months ago as part of an ongoing research project, led by historian Gordon Chang, on the history of Asian Americans at Stanford. (University of California-Berkeley and UCLA held similar reunions last year).

Students and scholars hope to interview the alumni during their visit to learn more about their time at Stanford and subsequent internment.

Formal reunion activities, on Friday, Oct. 1, will include the laying of a memorial plaque at the Asian American theme house (Okada) at 3:15 p.m., and a recognition ceremony hosted by President Casper at 7 p.m. in Campbell Recital Hall.

"The young Asian American students are particularly excited to have these folks come back," said Rick Yuen, assistant dean and director of Stanford's Asian American Activities Center, who helped organize the event. "There is a real thirst for learning about what went on in 1942."

According to Yuen, students of Japanese ancestry have been a part of Stanford since its earliest days, when six Japanese students were enrolled in the inaugural Class of 1891. By winter quarter 1942, when the Executive Order was issued, two dozen students with Japanese surnames were enrolled on campus.

Traditionally segregated from general student housing, they lived and socialized together in the Japanese Clubhouse, a stucco building on the corner of Mayfield and Campus Drive that has since been demolished.

One of its residents was Wataru Takeshita, who came to Stanford in 1940 as a 19-year-old transfer student from Fresno, Calif. A former writer for the Stanford Daily, he recalls the university as an "understanding, tolerant" place for Japanese American students, even after the attack on Pearl Harbor. So when Executive Order 9066 came, it was a shock.

"I always told my (Japanese-born) dad, 'They might put you in camp, but not us. We're citizens. We have equal rights,' " Takeshita said. "My dad got the last laugh."

Despite efforts by then-President Ray Lyman Wilbur to exempt Stanford from the order, the students finally followed the advice of the Japanese American Citizens' League, packed up their belongings, and headed for the West Coast assembly center at Santa Anita racetrack.

"As students, we were lucky - we could carry everything we owned in one bag," Takeshita said. "It was much harder for my parents. They had to sell everything - their car, their property. After the war, they had no place to call home. The family just scattered all over the country."

Surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards, Takeshita spent three years in Arizona at the Gila River internment camp, teaching English and editing the camp newspaper. Later he joined the army, earned a master's degree from Stanford (his bachelor's degree was mailed to him at camp) and went on to a career at the San Rafael Independent Journal.

Now 72 and living in San Anselmo, Calif., Takashita clearly is looking forward to the reunion and to seeing all his old friends - particularly his old roommate.

Still, he's a little embarrassed by the attention he's receiving.

"It's a big surprise, but we don't deserve to be singled out more than any other Stanford graduates," Takeshita said. "We didn't do anything. We were just in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Other activities planned for the reunion weekend include an exhibit at the Hoover Archives Display Gallery on Stanford's involvement with the Japanese American internment, a film and panel discussion about the internment at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 30, in the Kimball Hall Lounge; and a panel discussion about the constitutional aspects of the internment at 2 p.m. Friday, Oct. 1, in the Law School.

For more information, contact the Asian American Activities Center at (415) 723-3681.



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