Bureau of Sociological Research, Poston

Working under the auspices of the Office of Indian Affairs (OIA), the Bureau of Sociological Research (BSR)—a group of social scientists—was formed during World War II to study the incarceration of Nikkei . Members of the BSR Team collected data exclusively at the Poston (AZ) Relocation Center. [1] Separate from the War Relocation Authority (WRA), the main organization created by President Roosevelt to oversee wartime incarceration, the BSR had the burden of creating a set of guidelines for administering camps based on its observations. [2] As the WRA had relied on sociologists, so did the OIA employ a psychiatrist and anthropologists to understand more fully, and thereby manage more effectively, a large group forcibly placed under centralized control.

Establishing BSR

Psychiatrist Alexander Leighton was in charge of the BSR. Having earned his M.D. at Johns Hopkins University, he was finishing his psychiatry residency when he received a special request from John Collier, Commissioner of Indian Affairs. His charge, according to Collier, would be to develop a plan for how to best administer the incarceration of Nikkei at Poston, Arizona. Hardly an arbitrary location, Poston was chosen because the War Relocation Authority (WRA) had a special arrangement with the Office of Indian Affairs (OIA). [3] The WRA felt they needed to move Japanese Americans away from the coasts and into a more remote location, and the OIA needed cheap labor to build infrastructure to develop the Colorado Indian Reservation. [4] Furthermore, the federal government believed if anyone could make food spring from the cracked, dry, brown Arizona land it was the Japanese Americans. Of course, the WRA recognized this newly displaced group would be reluctant to work its magic unless handled with the utmost care. This would necessarily be difficult: it was a time of extreme stress—certainly for the Nikkei prisoners, given their sudden and indefinite incarceration—but also for administrators, who had little idea of how to run a prison camp for 18,000 people. Unsurprisingly, the results were largely unsuccessful. A series of administrative failures combined with seething resentment among camp inmates culminated in the so-called Poston Strike of November 1942.

In the wake of the Poston Strike, Leighton and Collier agreed that researchers should analyze "the attitudes of the evacuees with particular reference to their responses to administrative acts and to draw practical conclusions as to what worked well, what did not work so well and why." [5] In the final analysis, the data gathered were to be organized in such a way that they would support specific recommendations for how administrators could prevent incidents such as this in the future. After the two men outlined specific goals for the project, Collier added anthropologist Edward Spicer as Leighton's assistant.

Japanese American Researchers

As had Dorothy Swaine Thomas with the Japanese Evacuation and Resettlement Study (JERS), Leighton also relied on inmates as research assistants. [6] Unlike Thomas, who tended to use Japanese American graduate students, Leighton employed a more diverse group of prisoners. In addition to his white employees, Edward Spicer and Elizabeth Colson, Leighton's Japanese American researchers included: Hisako Fujii, Misao Furata, Iwao Ishino, Mary Kinoshita, June Kushino, Yoshiharu Matsumoto, Florence Mohri, Akiko Nishimoto, Tom Sasaki, Jyuichi Sato, James Sera, Gene Sogioka, Chica Sugino, George Yamaguchi, Toshio Yatsushiro, and Kazue Uyeno. [7] (Two JERS researchers, Tamie Tsuchiyama and Richard Nishimoto, also worked at Poston, but under the direction of Thomas for the majority of their time). [8] Whereas much more is known about the individuals who worked for Thomas—mostly because many of them went on to academic careers—far less is known about Leighton's BSR workers. Nonetheless, some background is available.

Leighton described his staff as a rather eclectic group. After three months, a "stable core" of staff "consisted of nine field workers, two secretaries, four typists, an artist, a draftsman, and a teacher of Japanese who functioned both as instructor and as translator." [9] In addition to this core group, other inmates (e.g., a handful of high school students) volunteered on a part-time basis. [10] Most were American-born Japanese; and only two were women. Some were Christian while others were Buddhist; four out of nine spoke fluent Japanese. [11] Most, but not all, had been exposed to the social sciences in school, but they were in no way advanced graduate students, as were many of Thomas's researchers.

Because Leighton's staff had limited training (and because he had a specific set of goals in mind), he instituted a teaching program for his field workers, which he described as "somewhat along the lines of a group carrying out clinical studies, but with the community rather than patients being the subject of study." [12] Unlike Thomas who left her researchers without a conceptual framework or specific research questions to guide their observations, Leighton (with the help of Colson and Spicer) held staff meetings twice a week to answer questions and exchange ideas about refining the system of data collection. [13]

Under Leighton's direction, the Japanese American staff had five main tasks: (1) record their "general observation of what was happening and what was being said in all parts of the community…" and with particular emphasis on "meetings that were held concerning community problems, politics, religion and recreation;" (2) conduct "intensive interviews which consisted in prolonged and repeated discussion with certain representative individuals on topics relevant to ascertaining information about sentiments and social organization;"(3) collect records from official sources (e.g., census, employment and educational records); (4) conduct public opinion polls toward the end of the study; and (5) conduct personality studies—as outlined by Leighton—"of a limited number of individuals with emphasis on life-stories, interpersonal relationships, mental and emotional make-up, and deeper patterns of sentiment" through in-depth interviews and psychological tests. [14] The BSR researchers submitted lengthy typed journals, personality studies, summaries of conversations, and descriptions of key events at Poston.

Impact of the BSR

During the fall of 1943, the BSR finished its fieldwork and Leighton began preparing reports about what his group had found. [15] He then published the results of their work as book-length study, one meant to serve primarily as an instructional manual for the administration of a hypothetical "occupied area" in the future. [16] Although his book, The Governing of Men , was highly specialized, it did catch the attention of one mainstream magazine. In a Time Magazine article titled "Japs are Humans," the work of the BSR was summarized in the following way: "After 15 months at Arizona's vast Poston Relocation Center as a social analyst, Commander Leighton concluded that many an American simply fails to remember that U.S. Japanese are human beings." [17] Indeed, as a psychiatrist, Leighton was very interested in the human dimension—that is, the psychological cost—of wartime incarceration.

Authored by Karen Inouye , Indiana University, Bloomington

For More Information

Ichioka, Yuji. "JERS Revisited: Introduction," in idem, ed., Views from Within: The Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study . Los Angeles: University of California at Los Angeles, 1989.

Leighton, Alexander H. The Governing of Men: General Principles and Recommendations Based on Experience at a Japanese Relocation Camp . Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1945.

Nishimoto, Richard. Inside an American Concentration Camp: Japanese American Resistance at Poston, Arizona . Edited by Lane Ryo Hirabayshi. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1995.


  1. Yuji Ichioka, "JERS Revisited: Introduction," in idem, ed., Views from Within: The Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study (Los Angeles: University of California at Los Angeles, 1989), 3.
  2. Alexander H. Leighton, The Governing of Men: General Principles and Recommendations Based on Experience at a Japanese Relocation Camp (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1945), 373.
  3. Francis Feeley, America's Concentration Camps During World War Two: Social Science and the Japanese American Experience (New Orleans: University Press of the South, 1999), 190-194.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., 373.
  6. Dorothy S. Thomas organized the most well known wartime study concerning incarceration: the Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study (JERS), which resulted in the publication of Dorothy S. Thomas (with Richard Nishimoto), The Spoilage (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1946), 40.
  7. Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Records 67/14c, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, xvi.
  8. Nishimoto's experiences as a JERS worker have been published in extensive detail in Inside an American Concentration Camp: Japanese American Resistance at Poston , Arizona, Lane Ryo Hirabayshi, ed. (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1995). This book is especially illuminating in that, in the words of the editor: "this book illustrates how and why biography, autobiography, and in Nishimoto's case auto-ethnography fully complement the ethnographic enterprise" (xiv). Hirabayshi also wrote at length about the experiences of JERS worker, Tamie Tsuchiyama, in The Politics of Fieldwork: Research in an American Concentration Camp (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1999). Tsuchiyama was a particularly interesting figure, because she "was the only professionally trained Japanese American woman to carry out full-time research in an American-style concentration camp" (preface).
  9. Leighton, The Governing of Men , 376.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid., 377.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid., 388-399.
  15. Ibid., 375.
  16. Ibid., vii-viii.
  17. "Japs are Human," Time Magazine , November 25, 1945.

Last updated June 23, 2024, 9:39 p.m..