Dec. 7, 1941 was called “a date which will live in infamy” by then-U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt. That day marked the attack on the Pearl Harbor Naval Base in Hawaii, which would lead the United States to declare war on the Empire of Japan and fully engage in World War II. It would also launch a magnified period of trauma and consternation for Japanese Americans.
Fearing Japan might invade the West Coast of the United States, the government rounded up thousands of Japanese Americans and confined them to internment camps under Executive Order 9066. Among the tens of thousands of Japanese Americans interned was future St. Cloud State University alumna Masako Miyake.
Originally from Portland, Oregon, Miyake and her family moved to Sacramento, California, when she was a baby. According to a 1943 St. Cloud Times article, Miyake studied for two years at the Junior College of Sacramento, and then for two quarters at San Jose State College until Executive Order 9066 sent the Miyake family to Tule Lake Internment Camp in northern California. While in the camp, Masako Miyake registered children from 3 to 11 years old. Once registration was completed, Miyake was then sent to an institute for the training of the camp’s teachers, before she started teaching third- and fifth-graders in the camp.
College-age students in the camps were allowed to leave under three conditions: they were accepted by a college that allowed Japanese Americans to attend, they had the financial means to pay for college, and they were cleared by the FBI before leaving the camp. After meeting those criteria, Miyake enrolled at St. Cloud State University — then named St. Cloud State Teachers College — on Jan. 18, 1943, as a third-quarter junior. According to the Times article, she was working on finishing her elementary education major while working at the college nursery school. She lived at the home of Blanche Atkins, a former teacher at the Teachers College, “who became interested in the program for the education of Japanese students who could not complete their educations in West Coast cities,” the Times article stated, adding that Atkins was “instrumental” in bringing Miyake to St. Cloud.
While the Times article sheds some light on how Miyake was able to leave the internment camp and continue her education, her son Jim Ryugo said questions remain. He wonders how his mother was able to pay for college, and how the college’s admissions staff decided to admit his mother as well as at least five other Japanese American students during such a tumultuous time in the country. Before his mother passed away in 2008, Ryugo said she rarely, if ever, discussed that time in her life.
“My mom really didn’t talk about the internment camp or her experience during the war. I think she kind of blocked it out,” Ryugo said. “How was it that she was able to do that, to persist and to be resilient and go through the things she was experiencing?”
Ryugo said he saw the effects of the camp resonate in his aunt, Miyake’s younger sister.
“She was, for lack of a better description, traumatized by the whole experience, to the point where she didn’t like anything that was Japanese,” he said. “She just went out of her way to reject who she was.”
While attending St. Cloud State, Masako Miyake was vice president of the Athenaeum Society, was involved in the International Relations Club and the War Information Committee, and was a member of Kappa Delta Pi International Honor Society in Education — whose membership is limited to the top 20 percent of those entering the field of education. A Feb. 22, 1943, meeting notice in the St. Cloud Times listed her as meeting with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union to describe “life in relocated centers.” She would finish her degree in elementary education in 1944, before marrying Kay Ryugo in St. Louis that same year. Kay Ryugo had also attended the Junior College in Sacramento, before he was drafted following Pearl Harbor, a 2013 Davis Enterprise article stated. According to Jim Ryugo, his father served in the Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team before the couple moved to Davis, California, and Kay Ryugo finished school on the GI Bill.
Jim Ryugo said his mother taught some preschool while raising him and his siblings, but that she mainly focused on the family. Still, Ryugo said her teaching background was kept very much alive.
“As a teacher she was always impressing upon us to study hard, to do our homework, she would check our homework — always making sure that we weren’t behind or making sure we were keeping up, and making sure that we were doing our best in school,” he said. “That was that teacher instinct inside of her that drove us all through school and college. The influence of my mom in terms of education is clearly still with me today.”
His mother raised them with some of their Japanese heritage, Ryugo said. The extended family would come over for New Year’s and make Japanese food every year, which is when Ryugo would notice his aunt’s avoidance. He said his aunt wouldn’t eat Japanese food or partake in any Japanese celebrations the family hosted.
“Only later did I realize that was part of the trauma she experienced. She did not want to be identified as Japanese because she felt fearful — or maybe not fearful, but she had been separated out because of her ethnicity,” Ryugo said of his aunt. “It’s that unknown. ‘Is someone going to say something derogatory toward me, or are they looking at me funny because I’m Japanese or it’s because I’m wearing something different or … why are people looking at me?’”
Ryugo said he wonders what the general attitude toward Japanese Americans was in St. Cloud in the 1940s, especially with St. Cloud State accepting multiple students from the internment camps.
“To me that’s quite remarkable — the fact that St. Cloud even accepted Japanese Americans into the University at a time when the Japanese were considered the enemy. In my mind there were individuals at St. Cloud who recognized that Japanese Americans were eligible to attend the University, that there was no reason to deny them entrance to the University,” he said. “I think that’s a testament to St. Cloud’s administration for being open-minded about the whole process and taking the risk of allowing Japanese Americans into the college, and at the same time perhaps facing some resistance from others in the community who maybe felt otherwise.”
Ryugo’s father was featured in a 2013 Davis Enterprise article discussing the effects of internment camps on California communities, which outlined some of the resistance he faced.
“The Davis City Council basically slammed the door on the departing internees, unanimously passing a resolution in 1943 that not only supported the federal internment order, but also demanded that internees of Japanese descent be prohibited from returning to Davis once the war ended,” the article stated.
Kay Ryugo attended University of California, Davis before becoming a professor at the University.
“The University accepted us. There were some guys who were, well, what I would consider rednecks,” he said in the article. “We just ignored them, but some of them were pretty hard to ignore.”
While he still has questions about her experiences, Jim Ryugo hopes his mother felt accepted during her time in college.
“I appreciate what St. Cloud State has done, and will always be grateful for the opportunities that were granted to my mother,” he said. “I think it’s important that everybody have access to higher education. Higher education is what will drive and improve our country.”
A few additional details.
Mom didn’t talk much about Tule Lake except to say that it was a dry, dusty lakebed and the living quarters were old horse corrals.
Mom said she left the Tule Lake internment camp in December, 1942. She arrived at the train station in St. Cloud on a very chilly night and had to walk across town to the house where she stayed. Not surprisingly, there was snow on the ground. When I was a boy, she would tell me that the birds she saw in St. Cloud – cardinals, chickadees, and nuthatches – were cold-weather birds that wouldn’t be seen in the hot, dry Central Valley of California.
My dad got a draft notice right after Pearl Harbor and was inducted into the Army in January 1942 – ironically not long before FDR signed Executive Order 9066, interning the Ryugo family and forcing them to sell their family produce store, house, cars, and other belongings for pennies on the dollar. He would serve four years in the Army stateside in the 442nd and 100th. He said that Mom had written him letters from camp and from college and that was why he asked her to marry him! They were married in St. Louis in April, 1944. Dad was discharged from the Army in the fall of 1945 with the rank of First Sergeant. He returned to college on the GI Bill and earned both a bachelor’s degree and PhD from UC Davis.
In 1985, I took my grandmother, Aiko Miyake, to a food bazaar at her church, Parkview Presbyterian in Sacramento. A woman came up to me and said she recognized my grandmother as somebody she knew at the Topaz, Utah internment camp. Until then, I wasn’t aware that the Miyake family had been transferred out of Tule Lake to Topaz.
Internment did seem to have more of an impact on our aunt Helen (Sayeko) and uncle Yukio. Neither ever married. Helen never left home. She got a job with the CA Dept of Motor Vehicles and worked there into the 1980s. Yukio became an ultra-conservative Republican. He worked for the CA Dept of Transportation as a bridge engineer. As much as Yukio was angry about internment, he never seemed to see the contradiction in cheerleading for Rush Limbaugh when he suggested rounding up all Muslims.
For the record, I want to say that Blanche Atkins did not treat my mother well. My mother rarely said anything mean or bad about anyone, but she detested the Atkins woman. My mother said that Atkins treated her like a slave, ordering her around, demanding that she do all her dirty chores, and always making it point to belittle her.
I publish NikkeiWest. I’ve requested permission to reprint this article. Tom and David, can I use your comments if I get approval from the college?
Thank you for this article and subsequent comments.