by Akemi Tamanaha, Associate Editor
Today, as Americans across the country commemorate the internment of Japanese Americans for the Day of Remembrance, faculty members and alumni at Indiana University submitted a petition asking the university to apologize for its WWII ban on Japanese American students.
The petition was drafted by Eric Langowski, a Japanese American IU alumnus, and Ellen Wu, an associate professor of history at IU Bloomington.
In March 2018, while Langowski was still a student at IU, his boss at the Asian Cultural Center told him that the university had rejected Japanese American students during WWII. Langowski began doing extensive research and published a journal article in June 2019.
According to the article, Indiana University rejected the applications of 12 prospective Japanese American students from 1942 to 1945. The paper argues that the rejections were motivated by racial profiling.
On May 9, 1942, the IU Board of Trustees ruled that “no J*p. be admitted to Indiana University.” Langowski even included a quote from Trustees President Ora L. Wildermuth in which she explains the rationale behind the ban.
“As I see it, there is a difference in Japanese and Germans or Italians—they are Aryans and can be assimilated but the Japanese can’t—they are different racially,” Wildermuth said, according to the petition. “I can’t believe that any Japanese, no matter where he was born, is anything but a Japanese.”
After the article was published last summer, Langowski said the administration remained silent. Langowski reached out to Wu in the fall of 2019. Wu agreed to help him draft a petition that would ask the administration to acknowledge the ban.
The petition asks the current administration to address Indiana University’s wrongdoings. It lays out a series of demands that were inspired by the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which granted restitution to Japanese Americans who were interned during WWII.
First, the petition asks that the IU administration acknowledge that the ban on Japanese American students was wrong. Langowski said that while President Herman Wells rescinded the ban in 1945, no formal apology was issued. It was also the last time the administration seems to have spoken about the ban.
It also asks that the administration directly make amends with the 12 Japanese American prospective students who were banned by issuing retroactive diplomas. Colleges in California and Canada have already begun implementing this practice.
Finally, the petition also asks that the university “provide funding for research, creative activities, teaching, and public-facing programming related to Japanese American incarceration.”
Langowski and Wu submitted the petition to the IU Board of Trustees, President Michael McRobbie and Provost Lauren Robel.
The President’s office and the provost’s office told AsAmNews that they would not comment at this time.
Indiana University celebrated its bicentennial on January 20. For the past few months, the university been championing its mission statement values in celebration of the bicentennial. Those values include the “discovery and search for truth;” “diversity of community and ideas” and “respect for the dignity of others.”
Wu and Langowski believe that the requests in their petition tap into those core values.
“That’s why I think 2020 is the ideal time to commemorate this past episode in the university’s history and then use it in a forward-facing way as the university moves into its third century,” Wu said.
In honor of its bicentennial, the university has been encouraging research projects and programs that celebrate the university’s history. Langowski believes that it is important to acknowledge all of that history, even the unfavorable parts.
“I think a lot of people on campus have been receptive to complicating that narrative and kind of including stories where IU hasn’t necessarily been great or done the right thing,” Langowski said. “I’m excited to kind of see those conversations continue and to kind of reframe the history of the university outside of white ethnocentrism.”
Langowski pointed out that the Japanese American ban is just one part of IU’s long history of discrimination. He says that stories about the discrimination African American students faced are also not widely discussed.
Wu says she also hopes that the petition will shed light on the importance of Asian American history. Every semester, Wu teaches an undergraduate Asian American history course at IU Bloomington. Bloomington has an undergraduate enrollment of around 33,000 students, but barely 25 students enroll in Wu’s course each semester.
“Regardless of what the university decides, a positive outcome in my mind would be that the university committee sees this an entry point for people to say, ‘Hey Asian American history matters,'” Wu said. “And the midwest, we are part of that history too. That is our history.”
The story of Japanese American internment is not just commemorated on the Day of Remembrance. Internment has been brought up in conversations about the Trump administration’s travel ban and the increased detention of migrant children. Langowski, who is also on the board of the Japanese American Citizen League in Indiana, hopes that the petition will help advance the causes of other civil rights groups.
“We always try and use the Japanese American story to advance civil rights causes of today it’s definitely a case where having a discussion about a case of banning Japanese Americans only promotes and strengthens the ability of IU and other colleges to support disadvantaged groups,” Langowski said.
Both Wu and Langowski hope that the petition will lead to broader discussions of inclusion and diversity.
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