Michi Nishiura Weglyn


Name Michiko Nishiura Weglyn
Born November 29 1926
Died April 25 1999
Generational Identifier

Nisei

Activist and author of Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America's Concentration Camps, the first comprehensive book about the World War II incarceration written by a Nisei. A former costume designer for the Perry Como Show in the 1950s, Weglyn (1926–99) was incarcerated at age fifteen in a camp at Gila River, Arizona, a fact that lent authority and emotional power to this highly regarded work. The result of exhaustive research, her book refuted President Franklin Roosevent's claim that the incarceration had been a "military necessity." After it was published in 1975, Weglyn became a well-known activist in the Japanese American community while based in New York City.

Before the War

Michiko Nishiura Weglyn was born in Stockton, California, on November 29, 1926, the eldest of two daughters of Tomojiro and Misao Nishiura. Her father had immigrated from Japan in 1916, and his picture bride wife, Misao Yuwasa Nishiura, came to the US in 1922. They lived and worked alongside Misao's family members as tenant farmers in Brentwood, California. They leased land to raise fruits and vegetables, including cantaloupes, tomatoes, cucumbers, and apricots, in the San Joaquin Valley. An exceptional student while attending Liberty Union High School in Brentwood, Weglyn received a citizenship award from the American Legion in 1940 and won first prize from the Rotary Club for an essay on the U.S. Constitution.

Detention and Resettlement

After the war broke out, the Nishiura family was forcibly removed from their home in Brentwood, first to the Turlock Assembly Center in May 1942, and then in August, to the euphemistically named Gila River Relocation Center. She remembers traveling two days and nights to reach the isolated desert enclave in Arizona, where they were assigned an end room in Block 66, Barrack 12, among roughly 13,000 other inmates, and where the family spent the next three years. The teenage Michi and her sister Tomi attended Butte High School. Among Weglyn's many activities were organizing and leading a Girl Scout troop and winning essay and oratorical contests as president of the Forensics League. As Girls League president, she led the effort to sponsor a day-long Girls League Convention at the camp, drawing more than five hundred girls from throughout Arizona.

After graduating from Butte High School in 1944, with the encouragement of a committed English teacher Mabel Sheldon, Weglyn was accepted to Mt. Holyoke College in Massachusetts. With the help of the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council, she received a full scholarship and went on to major in biology. Winning a prize for a set design she created for a college stage production prompted her interest in set and costume design. In December 1945, a bout with tuberculosis forced her into treatment at the Glen Gardner Sanatorium in New Jersey, and she had to subsequently withdraw from college without a diploma.

In January 1945, Weglyn's parents and sister resettled at Seabrook Farms, a frozen food plant in Bridgton, New Jersey, that recruited and employed Japanese Americans from camp. Weglyn eventually joined them there and worked as a disc jockey during the summers while she continued her education in New York City at Barnard College in 1947 and the Fashion Academy in 1948. In 1949, she was treated again for tuberculosis and had a brief stay at the Mt. Kipp Sanatorium in Saranac Lake, New York. While living as a student in New York City, Michi met Walter Matthys Weglyn, a German Jew who had escaped Nazi Germany to live in hiding in Holland from ages 12 to 17, and they were married on March 5, 1950, in Washington, D.C. During the first years of their marriage, her big break into show business came in 1952 when she was asked to design costumes for the gala opening of the new ice-colorama stage show at the Roxy Theater. This led to jobs designing for additional Roxy ice shows, as well as for nightclubs, such as the Copacabana and La Vie en Rose. She began designing for television with the Kraft Television Theater in 1954, followed by other musical variety shows with Tony Bennett, Patti Page, Dinah Shore, and others. In 1957, she achieved fame and success as the costume designer for the Perry Como Show, where she remained until 1966, when the show moved to Los Angeles.

Years of Infamy and Activism

After a brief period with her own costume rental and manufacturing company, Weglyn embarked on a seven-year research project that led to the publication of Years of Infamy. With encouragement from her husband Walter and influenced by the 1960s civil rights movement, she wanted to set the record straight about the causes of the WWII incarceration and relieve the guilt felt by many of her Nisei peers. Working with primary documents she uncovered at the National Archives, the Franklin Roosevelt Library, and the New York City Library, Weglyn pieced together the dramatic story of how the incarceration came to be—not as the result of "military necessity," as claimed by the Roosevelt Administration, but because of racial prejudice and governmental blunder. She recounted in detail the findings of the Munson Report, which found that Japanese Americans living in the U.S. presented little security risk in the event of war with Japan. Commissioned by Roosevelt himself, it was compiled by a White House special investigator Curtis B. Munson, but largely ignored in the days leading up to Executive Order 9066.

Years of Infamy also detailed little known facts about the incarceration, including the U.S. government's plan to use Japanese Latin Americans in a prisoner barter exchange with Japan. Weglyn also discussed the protest movements within various camps, and added photos and files from attorney Wayne M. Collins, who represented Japanese Americans who had been sent to the Tule Lake camp after being forced to fill out a loyalty questionnaire.

Released to critical acclaim in 1975, Years of Infamy was hailed by Japanese American activists, most notably Edison Uno, as providing the necessary evidence for the subsequent decades-long battle for redress and reparations, and was coined the "Bible of the Redress Movement." In the years following its publication, Weglyn continued her advocacy for the thousands who had been initially denied redress, including railroad and mine workers fired from their jobs at the behest of the government, and Latin Americans abducted from their native countries. She continued active work on behalf of the Japanese Peruvians until her death from cancer on April 25, 1999.

Although never having graduated from college, Weglyn was awarded honorary degrees from Mt. Holyoke College, Hunter College, and California State Polytechnic University at Pomona, the current site of the Michi and Walter Weglyn Endowed Chair for Multicultural Studies.

Authored by Sharon Yamato

For More Information

Cal Poly Pomona. "Weglyn Endowed Chair Of Multicultural Studies." http://www.class.csupomona.edu/Organizations/weglyn/michi-and-walter-weglyn/.

Nash, Phil Tajitsu. "In Memorium: Michi Nishiura Weglyn 1926-1999." Amerasia Journal 25.1 (1999): iv-viii.

__________. "Michi Nishiura Weglyn: A Friend's Reflections, a Decade Later." Pan-Japan 7.1–2 (Spring/Fall 2011): 56–76.

Putterman, Judith, ed. Gnomes and Knots. New York: Harper & Row, 1978.

Ware, Susan, ed. Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary. Boston: Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University, 2004.

Michi Nishiura Weglyn. www.michiweglyn.com.

Weglyn, Michi Nishiura. Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America's Concentration Camps. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1976.

Weglyn, Michi Nishiura, Betty Kuhlbert Mitson, and Herbert Victor Nicholson. Valiant Odyssey: Herbert Nicholson in and out of America's Concentration Camps. Upland, CA: Brunk's Printing, 1978.