Galen Fisher

Name Galen Merriam Fisher
Born 1873
Died 1955

Galen Merriam Fisher (1873-1955) was probably the most significant and consistent white organizer of opposition during World War II to the wholesale incarceration—he used the terms "mass evacuation" and "internment"—of Japanese Americans. As a former missionary in Japan and a prominent figure in academic, religious, and international education circles who lived in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1930s and 1940s, Fisher was the key founder in 1941 of the Northern California Committee for Fair Play for Citizens and Aliens of Japanese Ancestry. Throughout the war, Fisher wrote numerous articles criticizing the mistreatment of Japanese Americans. Fisher continued his work on behalf of Japanese Americans even after the end of the war, urging help for their resettlement in their former homes and compensation for their wartime losses.

Before the War

Fisher first went to Japan as a missionary in 1897, and he headed Japan's Young Men's Christian Association from 1898 until 1919. After returning to the U.S. in 1919, Fisher earned an M.A. in Sociology from Columbia University. He published, in 1923, Creative Forces in Japan , which presented a generally upbeat account of the progress of Christianity and of Christian-influenced social reform efforts in that nation. Fisher criticized in this book, the prejudice against Japanese immigrants in California. While stating his opposition to further immigration of Japanese laborers, he called on Americans to treat those already in the U.S. "not only with justice, but with courtesy," and to make them "feel welcome." [1]

Fisher worked from 1921 to 1934 for the Rockefeller-funded Institute for Social and Religious Research. Fisher also wrote in these years several studies of religion, and relations among religious groups, in the U.S. His focus continued to be on U.S. relations with Japan, and he increasingly came to see the enormous implications of American treatment of Asian immigrants for the question of peace in the Pacific region. In the mid- and late-1930s, Fisher was a research associate in political science at the University of California at Berkeley, an adviser to the Institute of Pacific Relations (IPR), and chair of the board of the Pacific School of Religion, and he wrote frequently on Japanese and regional developments for The Christian Century , the nation's most important non-denominational Protestant weekly magazine, and the IPR publications the Far Eastern Survey and Pacific Affairs . While always seeking to have his American readers understand the Japanese viewpoint, by 1940 Fisher had become a critic of Japan's policy in China and Southeast Asia.

Protesting Incarceration

As tensions escalated between the U.S. and Japan, Fisher in 1941 assembled a group of prominent academics, religious figures, pacifists, politicians, former diplomats, and others in the Bay Area to prevent attacks on Japanese Americans in California in the event of war. His Northern California Committee for Fair Play for Citizens and Aliens of Japanese Ancestry did get prominent individuals to sign statements opposing any recriminations against Japanese immigrants or their children, but some, such as Governor Culbert Olson , backed away from these pledges in the wake of Pearl Harbor. Thereafter, Fisher led a smaller group in a series of rearguard actions against the repression of Japanese Americans. Immediately after Pearl Harbor, for example, Fisher protested the restrictions placed on travel by Japanese Americans.

By February 1942, Fisher and his associates renamed their group the Committee on National Security and Fair Play, to allay any suspicion that it did not support the war effort, and former Assistant Secretary of State Henry F. Grady served as its nominal chairperson. Fisher was still opposed to the mass removal of Japanese Americans from the Pacific coast, as he testified to the Tolan Committee on February 21, but he was already cooperating with those who were devising plans for voluntary evacuation under the control of Japanese Americans themselves. A week later, in a doomed rhetorical effort to find some common ground with President Roosevelt, Fisher's group praised Executive Order 9066 for its assertion of military control over all residents on the coast, even as it argued against the removal of American citizens of Japanese descent on the sole basis of race. By March 9, Fisher and his associates had moved to another fallback position in a meeting with West Coast military commander John DeWitt , calling for hearing boards to enable Nisei to prove their loyalty in their own communities before removal, or, failing that, at hearing boards in the preliminary evacuation centers. Fisher did not question the legality of the U.S. government detaining non-citizen Issei , but, for those whose loyalty he could confirm, he did supply affidavits supporting their release from the detention centers in Montana and elsewhere.

After mass removal of U.S. citizens as well as non-citizens had become an established fact, Fisher and his associates (in what by 1943 had become the Pacific Coast Committee for American Principles and Fair Play) continued to agitate for better treatment in the camps, for the release of those of proven loyalty from the camps, and for their eventual return to the Pacific coast. Fisher's correspondence and meetings with officials and leaders from the federal government, the military, state and local governments, religious and educational institutions, the press, social welfare agencies, business groups, and Japanese American organizations were voluminous and non-stop throughout the war, even after he turned seventy years old in 1943. For example, Fisher visited at least half of the seventeen assembly centers in the first three months of their operation. Yoshiko Uchida , who later became a noted author of children's books and who called Fisher "a good friend of my father," remembered with fondness in her memoir Fisher's visit to her family in the Tanforan assembly camp and his work in lifting the spirits of those in the camps. [2]

Fisher's Writings

Fisher's important writings during the war brought the injustice of incarceration to a nationwide audience and served as an organizing focus to demand better treatment for Japanese Americans. In April 1942, for example, he wrote that E.O. 9066 violated the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, in that the Executive Order and its implementation deprived "our Japanese refugees" of their liberty "without due process of law." [3] The following year he argued that removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans posed a profound challenge to "the American way of life" and hindered the war effort and American postwar goals. Fisher wrote: "Denial on the unconstitutional grounds of race of the rights which citizenship in the United States confers establishes a precedent for further denials on this and other irrelevant grounds." He added that these American actions "have given the Chinese and other Asiatic allies good cause to think that Americans are no better than Nazis in their contempt for the colored races." [4]

Fisher's essays carefully delineated the myriad factors which led to removal and incarceration, the failure of responsible government authorities to counteract in a timely fashion the untrue reports of sabotage by Japanese Americans in Hawai'i during the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the "anti-Japanese bias" of General John DeWitt of the Western Defense Command. To demonstrate the inconsistency of U.S. policy and the lack of necessity for removal, Fisher contrasted the continued integration of Issei and Nisei in Hawai'ian society with their exile from the West Coast. Fisher's articles also highlighted the human dimension of the tragedy of removal and incarceration in ways designed to appeal to readers who generally supported the war effort. Fisher's series of four articles on this topic in The Christian Century in 1943 were also published as a single pamphlet by the Pacific Coast Committee.

Fisher used these articles not only to criticize incarceration and those who called for more punitive measures against Japanese Americans, but to work for better conditions for the Nikkei . From the outset he called on church groups around the nation to provide work and lodging to Japanese Americans as they were released from the camps. In 1944 and 1945 Fisher's focus shifted to the impending return of Japanese Americans to the West Coast, with the resultant need to prepare housing, end discriminatory land laws, stand up to still-intolerant pressure groups such as the American Legion, and provide monetary compensation for the losses that the incarcerated had suffered. Fisher also called in 1945 and 1946 for naturalization rights for Japanese immigrants along with other Asian immigrants.

Some readers today of Fisher's articles will express concern about his positive statements about the roles of Dillon Myer and the War Relocation Authority , which administered the camps, and even about the humaneness of the U.S. military in the removal process itself. Such concern–and even criticism–may be merited, but Fisher knew that in order to ameliorate conditions for those individuals confined in the camps, he needed to work with those in charge. Moreover, the WRA supported the release of "loyal" Japanese Americans from the camps for work or school, and eventually back to the West Coast. In this regard WRA officials were allies of Fisher and his associates against those in Congress, in veterans' groups, and in the nativist groups in California who were working for more punitive measures against Japanese Americans.

After the War

By the end of the war, Fisher and the PCCAP&FP decided that "the time had come to switch the emphasis from the rights of one minority to those of all minorities," as he put it, and so the Committee folded itself into the California Councils for Civic Unity and the American Council on Race Relations. This broadening of focus stemmed both from the more complex racial dynamics on the West Coast as a result of what Fisher termed "the great wartime influx of Negroes and Mexicans," but also because of the global ideological and political situation. [5] Fisher continued to write on Japan, on Japanese Americans, on the history and contributions of the YMCA, and on the missionary endeavor until his death in 1955.

Galen Fisher's activism, both organizationally and in his writings, demonstrates that there were significant figures who protested removal and incarceration. (See also, for example, Carey McWilliams and Norman Thomas .) While Fisher and his associates could not prevent these injustices, their actions ameliorated conditions in the camps and facilitated the release of incarcerated Japanese Americans.

Authored by Robert Shaffer , Shippensburg University

For More Information

Published Writings of Galen Fisher

Creative Forces in Japan . New York: Missionary Education Movement, 1923.

"Oriental-Americans: A Touchstone of American Christianity." Christian Century 51 (4 July 1934): 901-902.

"Our Japanese Refugees." Christian Century 59 (1 April 1942), 424-426.

"Japanese Evacuation from the Pacific Coast." Far Eastern Survey 11 (29 June 1942): 145-150.

"Untruths About Japanese-Americans." Christian Century 60 (18 Aug. 1943): 937-939.

"Our Two Japanese-American Policies." Christian Century 60 (25 Aug. 1943): 961-963.

"Are the Evacuees Being Coddled?" Christian Century 60 (1 Sept. 1943): 984-986.

"What Race-Baiting Costs America." Christian Century 60 (8 Sept. 1943): 1009-1011.

A Balance Sheet on Japanese Evacuation . Berkeley, CA: Pacific Coast Committee on American Principles & Fair Play, [1943].

"Unsnarling the Nisei Tangle." Christian Century 61 (8 Nov. 1944): 1285-1288.

"Justice for the Evacuees." Christian Century 62 (24 Oct. 1945): 1198-1199.

"Resettling the Evacuees." Far Eastern Survey 14 (26 Sept. 1945): 265-268.

"Our Debt to the Japanese Evacuees." Christian Century 63 (29 May 1946): 683-685.

Other Sources

Boes, Cynthia. Other-Directed Protest: A Study of Galen Fisher's Anti-Internment Rhetoric . M.A. thesis, Oregon Statue University, 2003. (accessed 27 June 2012).

Davidann, Jon Thares. A World of Crisis and Progress: The American YMCA in Japan, 1890-1930 . Bethlehem, PA: Lehigh University Press, 1998.

Davidann, Jon Thares. Cultural Diplomacy in U.S.-Japanese Relations, 1919-1941 . New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Pacific Coast Committee on American Principles and Fair Play records, BANC MSS C-A 171, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. Shaffer, Robert. "Cracks in the Consensus: Defending the Rights of Japanese Americans During World War II." Radical History Review #72 (Fall 1998): 84-120.

Shaffer, Robert. "Opposing Internment: Educators and Missionaries Defending Japanese-American Rights During World War II," The Historian 61 (Spring 1999): 597-619.

Uchida, Yoshiko. Desert Exile: The Uprooting of a Japanese-American Family . Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1982.


  1. Galen Fisher, Creative Forces in Japan (New York: Missionary Education Movement, 1923), 63.
  2. Yoshiko Uchida, Desert Exile: The Uprooting of a Japanese-American Family (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1982), 85.
  3. Galen Fisher, "Our Japanese Refugees," Christian Century 59 (1 April 1942), 424.
  4. Fisher, "What Race-Baiting Costs America," Christian Century 60 (8 Sept. 1943), 1009, 1011.
  5. Fisher, "Our Debt to the Japanese Evacuees," Christian Century 63 (29 May 1946), 685.

Last updated Jan. 9, 2024, 3:57 a.m..