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Kenji Murase

Name Kenji Murase
Born January 3 1920
Died June 2 2009
Birth Location Parlier, California
Generational Identifier

Nisei

Kenji Kenneth Murase (1920–2009) was a social worker, educator and litterateur who collaborated with the Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study (JERS) project during his time in the WRA camps.

Early Life

Kenji Murase was born in Parlier, California, near Fresno, in January 1920 (while his birth and marriage certificates listed January 9 as his date of birth, Murase claimed January 3 as his birthday). Known in his younger days as "Kenny," he was the second of three sons of Mantsuchi (AKA Manzuchi) and Moto Murase, Issei tenant farmers who harvested grapes. After graduating from Parlier Union High School, he worked as a farm laborer during the day and wrote in the evening. During this time, he started working as a columnist and fiction writer for the Los Angeles newspaper Kashu Mainichi , and later for the short-lived newspaper Los Angeles Mirror and the San Francisco Nichibei Shimbun . He enrolled as an English major at UCLA, but left after a short time.

In 1941, Murase enrolled at UC Berkeley as an English major. As a result, he scaled back his writing for the daily Nisei press, though he contributed to the monthly magazine Current Life . He rapidly joined assorted progressive on-campus clubs, reflecting his literary and political interests. Following the Pearl Harbor attack and the outbreak of the Pacific War, Murase was invited to join the Nisei Writers and Artists Mobilization for Democracy (NWAMD). On behalf of the NWAMD he wrote a column for the Nichibei in March 1942 expressing his frustration with anti-Nisei discrimination and impending mass removal. He nevertheless pushed his fellow Nisei to look ahead and contribute to the international struggle for democracy against the Axis powers. In early 1942, he published two more letters in the Fresno Bee defending the Americanism of the Nisei (and immigrants generally) against racist attacks on their loyalty.

World War II Incarceration and Resettlement

Sometime in spring 1942, Murase returned to his family farm in Reedley. During this time, he was active with JERS, which was headquartered at the Berkeley campus. He corresponded with JERS Director Dorothy Swaine Thomas and other staffers. Using Tamotsu Shibutani as a courier, he passed to study members a binder of research notes on the Nisei that he had put together. Thomas expressed interest in hiring Murase as a field worker at the Tule Lake camp. However, as Murase was located in Reedley, outside of Military Area 1 , he was not initially ordered to undergo confinement and so could not be hired for work in the camps. Hoping to continue his education, Murase applied for admission to Howard University, an African American university in Washington DC, to study social work. Thomas wrote to Howard's President, Mordecai W. Johnson, to recommend that Murase be offered a scholarship. Due in part to concerns over whether Nisei students would be admitted into the East Coast Defense zone, Howard officials deferred consideration of the request until it was too late. Shortly after, Murase was invited to join an interracial work camp in Dearborn, Michigan. While Dorothy Swaine Thomas wrote a letter of support for Murase to the Army Provost Marshal’s office so that he could leave the excluded area, army officials refused to grant such permission.

In summer 1942, the army evacuated Military Area 2 of its ethnic Japanese residents. Facing confinement, Murase applied to join the project at Tule Lake, but was sent instead to Poston , where he arrived in early August 1942. Once at Poston he joined the Bureau of Sociological Research (BSR), working under the direction of Dr. Alexander Leighton. Poston JERS researcher Tamie Tsuchiyama told Thomas that Murase hoped to work for her project if he could get released from his existing job with BSR. In the end, Murase does not seem to have been employed directly by JERS during his time at Poston, though he collaborated as a volunteer.

During his time at Poston, Murase remained active. In early September 1942, he wrote in a letter, "We have been here for about a month now and I do not think I am necessarily exaggerating anything if I were to say that every minute of my time is spent on work on something—in addition to the six or seven hours of sleep which I manage to squeeze in somehow." [1] He organized a study group on cooperatives, and discussed starting a Little Theater group. Most importantly, he returned to journalism, and was named acting city editor of the inmate newspaper Poston III Press Bulletin . In addition to his editing work, he produced a column "Whistling in the Dark," for the Pacific Citizen . The column featured "Little Esteban," an imaginary Mexican-Native American "sagebrush imp" and spirit of Poston, who appeared to the narrator and engaged him in a series of dialogues. Murase used these dialogues to speak on such topics as Issei-Nisei relations, and the need to avoid useless divisions between the inmates. In a column recommending that inmates lobby against poll taxes in southern states that disenfranchised African Americans, Murase had Esteban say "Don't you see that by helping Negroes win their right to vote that you'll be demonstrating to the rest of America what democracy means to you?" [2] Murase also devoted a significant amount of time to obtaining recreational facilities for confined children. He sent a letter to the San Francisco Chronicle' s September 18, 1942 issue calling attention to the lack of facilities, and appealing for donations of recreational equipment, including sporting goods, toys, and games. The letter led to the creation among supporters of a "Murase baseball fund" to purchase extra play equipment.

In the beginning of October 1942, Murase was able to leave camp, as one of the first three Poston Nisei admitted to outside colleges through the new National Japanese American Student Relocation Council (NJASRC). Hoping to join a work camp in Dearborn, Michigan, Murase applied to Wayne State University in nearby Detroit. However, when the Dearborn Safety Commission, acting out of wartime hysteria, produced a resolution officially opposing the entry of Japanese American students, the university withdrew its acceptance. Murase was then accepted by Haverford University and resettled in Pennsylvania. Within a week of his arrival, though, he decided that Haverford was not a good fit for him socially or academically, and he enrolled instead at Temple University—one of four Nisei students who transferred there.

Academic Career

Murase spent two years at Temple. His studies were funded by a scholarship through the American Baptist Home Missionary Society, and he worked as a janitor at a settlement house and also as a staffer for the NJASRC. Murase gained attention on campus when his essay "What Are We Fighting For?" won an award in a university essay contest and was published in Temple's student newspaper.

After Murase completed a bachelor of arts degree in sociology at Temple in February 1944, he moved to New York, where he worked as an aide in a social service agency. Soon after, he enrolled in Columbia University's School of Social Work. He received his master's degree in 1947.

After 1950, Murase turned to teaching and academics. In 1952, he was named as the first American Fulbright Scholar in Japan. He spent that year as a visiting professor of social welfare at Osaka University. Following his return to the United States, he took a position as a professor at the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Washington. In the late 1950s, Murase returned to New York, and returned to Columbia University for his doctoral studies. During this period, he met his wife Seiko, whom he married in 1965. (Murase had two brief prior marriages, both of which were apparently childless.) The couple had three children, daughters Emily and Miriam and son Geoffrey.

In 1967 Dr. Kenji Murase (he switched in these years to using his Japanese name) was recruited as one of the first faculty members at the newly-formed Graduate School of Social Work & Social Research at San Francisco State University, where he taught for twenty-three years.  In addition to mentoring students and publishing scholarly research, Murase devoted his life to the social service and mental health needs of Asian American communities through his consulting and grant-writing work with nonprofits. For example, Murase wrote the grant to the United Way that resulted in the founding of the San Francisco-based social services programs United Japanese Community Services, the Japanese Community Youth Council, and Kimochi, Inc. Murase also worked to meet the mental and physical health needs of Asian Pacific Americans.

He never forgot his camp experience and the scholarship he had obtained through the NJASRC which had made it possible for him to attend Temple University. In 1980, he and other beneficiaries created the Nisei Student Relocation Commemorative Fund , which raised money for college scholarships for children of Southeast Asian refugee families.

In his later years, Murase collaborated with the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California, of which he was a founder, and wrote historical articles for Nikkei Heritage , the magazine of the National Japanese American Historical Society .

On June 2, 2009, Dr. Murase died of cancer at his San Francisco home. He was 89.

Authored by Greg Robinson , Université du Québec À Montréal

For More Information

Robinson, Greg. " From Kenny Murase to Kenji Murase: The Journey of a Nisei Writer, Scholar, and Activist. " ""Discover Nikkei , Sept. 14-15, 2020.

" Legacies of SFSU Social Work Emeritus Faculty, Dr. Kenji Murase ." Press Released, San Francisco State University, June 4, 2009.

Footnotes

  1. Kenny Murase, letter to M. Margaret Anderson, Sept. 6, 1942, Correspondence files, Norman Thomas Papers, Princeton University.
  2. Kenny Murase, "Little Esteban is Against the Poll Tax," Pacific Citizen , Oct. 1, 1942.

Last updated Nov. 5, 2020, 11:44 p.m..