Robert O'Brien

Name Robert Williams O'Brien
Born 1907
Died 1991

Robert Williams O'Brien (1907-1991) was among the chief organizers of the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council (NJASRC), which arranged for over five thousand Nisei to leave the incarceration camps and continue their education in colleges and universities away from the West Coast. O'Brien served for several months as director of the NJASRC, and was its initial historian. His book, The College Nisei , published in 1949, was for several decades the standard account of the organization and of this group within the Japanese American community, and it helped shape broader American opinion about removal, incarceration, and Japanese American ethnic identity.

Biographical Overview

O'Brien, a Quaker, grew up in a pacifist and socialist home, and received his B.A. from Pomona College in 1929. Two years later he earned an M.A. in sociology from Oberlin, where he taught for several years before moving on to the University of Washington. He taught and served as assistant dean at UW while he worked on his doctorate. O'Brien's first two academic publications—one on the place of the contemporary Chinese ethnic community in the caste system of the Mississippi Delta, and the other a historical study of Black emigrants from California to Vancouver in the 1850s and 1860s—prefigured his career-long interest in race and ethnic relations, racial discrimination, and resistance to discrimination. His original dissertation proposal, on Seattle's African Americans, was shelved due to the war and his consequent involvement in Japanese American student relocation. O'Brien received his Ph.D. in 1945 for a thesis on "The Role of the Nisei College Student During the 1931-43 Crisis Period," which became the basis for his later book on the NJASRC and for two other articles as well. By the late 1940s O'Brien had moved to a long-term position at Whittier College, and he edited a well-regarded textbook. Readings in General Sociology , which went through several editions over two decades. In 1976 he co-authored a brief study of Richard Nixon's political rhetoric. In 1982 the Nisei Student Relocation Commemorative Fund, which had been launched by Nisei alumni of the wartime program, gave its first award to the American Friends Service Committee and honored O'Brien, along with several others involved in the NJASRC.

O'Brien's status as faculty advisor to UW's 450-member Japanese Student Club provided the immediate context for his wartime activism. In the weeks after Pearl Harbor, as he sought to help and reassure those he had worked with and their families, O'Brien circulated petitions against the firing of secretaries of Japanese background employed by the Seattle public schools, helped organize attendance by UW students at the hearings of the Tolan Committee , and served as advisor for a group of white UW students who wished to maintain contacts with exiled Nisei.

Advocate for Nisei Students

With the full support of UW President Lee Paul Sieg, O'Brien was one of the eight original West Coast organizers of the Student Relocation Committee, which first met in March 1942 and established the template for what would become the NJASRC. This initial group, which coordinated its activities with the Japanese American Citizens League and other Japanese American organizations, included professors and administrators from UW, the University of Oregon, and the University of California at Berkeley, along with YMCA and YWCA representatives from these schools. As the Committee and Council set to work, the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization, provided many of its day-to-day leaders and staff members, including Thomas Bodine , Joseph Conard, and Trudy King; thus, O'Brien fit in easily. In part due to a conflict between the NJASRC staff in its San Francisco office and its second director, historian Howard K. Beale, O'Brien became national director of the organization, in its Philadelphia office, from the Fall of 1942 until March 1943. Sieg arranged for O'Brien to take a one-year "war leave" from UW for this purpose. Despite O'Brien's distaste as a Quaker for this military designation, he soon appreciated what he termed Sieg's "political savvy" in this area, as it protected him against calls by nativists for O'Brien's firing from the University for his aid to Japanese Americans. [1]

The NJASRC and its staff members, including O'Brien, engaged in a multitude of tasks to arrange for Nisei college students to leave the camps and continue their education. NJASRC staff members saw their mission as liberating those they could from the oppressive incarceration camps, but they were more critical of the removal process than of the WRA 's administration of the camps. Indeed, the NJASRC needed the WRA's cooperation to carry out its work, and WRA officials supported the release of these Nisei from the camps.

After his stint as NJASRC director, O'Brien returned to Seattle and remained for the rest of the war a key activist in that city's chapter of the Pacific Coast Committee for American Principles and Fair Play. His main associates in that endeavor were fellow pacifists Mary Farquharson, a Socialist Party member, former elected state senator, and Seattle representative of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and Floyd Schmoe, the Seattle AFSC leader. O'Brien also wrote several articles about student relocation as he was completing his dissertation.

The College Nisei

In The College Nisei (in which he referred to his own work with the NJASRC in the third person), O'Brien reviewed the history of Japanese immigration to the U.S., the prejudice they faced and their resultant concentration in ethnic communities, the attitudes of Nisei college students in the 1930s toward Japan, the decision for mass removal and the consequent "confusion which accompanied the uprooting of one hundred thousand people," life in the incarceration camps, the work of the NJASRC, and the experiences of the Nisei students in their new colleges. [2] Written in a dispassionate, academic style, O'Brien's own opposition to mass removal of the Nisei—American citizens—nevertheless comes through. His depiction of life in the camps emphasized above all the loss of freedom that Japanese Americans suffered.

Unsurprisingly O'Brien in The College Nisei portrayed student relocation very favorably, but he saw its benefits not merely as providing freedom for these young people, but as facilitating a "break with Japanese customs and institutions, thereby speeding up the assimilation process" of Japanese Americans into American life. [3] O'Brien lauded the program for its wide dispersal of Nisei, and he lauded the released students who vowed not to recreate Nisei organizations or societies in their new locations, but to interact mainly with Americans not of Japanese American descent. O'Brien's support for the end of Japanese American networks and institutions and his focus on assimilation has led historian Allan Austin to point out that O'Brien, despite being "clearly both a friend of and an advocate for Nikkei students," also represented "the limits of liberal thought on matters of race and ethnic identity in the 1940s." [4]

Nevertheless, O'Brien's accounts, in The College Nisei and in his 1944 essay, "Selective Dispersion as a Factor in the Solution of the Nisei Problem," remain of interest as more than documents by a participant-observer in the NJASRC. They include insightful comparisons and contrasts between the reception of Nisei students into new communities east of the restricted areas and the reception of prior immigrant groups and wartime migrants into American communities and American life, and of the state of racial and ethnic relations more generally in the 1940s. For example, O'Brien noted that the "acceptance of the college Nisei in southern white institutions points to a modification of the caste system in the South," with whites accepting limited integration of Japanese Americans even as they insisted on continued segregation of African Americans and Chinese Americans. The careful preparation in local communities for the arrival of Nisei students, with churches and universities as sponsors, pointed the way, O'Brien suggested, for the peaceful integration of other immigrants and migrants. [5] Indeed, O'Brien's analysis allows us to see the NJASRC approach as a forerunner of the more recent sponsorship of refugees by churches and other community institutions.

Robert O'Brien exemplifies the work and attitudes of the group of West Coast educators who worked closely with Japanese American students before World War II, and who thereby developed a high regard for the achievements and "Americanism" of these students. These West Coast educators, committed to the ideals of racial equality, devoted much energy during the war to alleviating the injustices imposed on Nisei students and other Japanese Americans.

Authored by Robert Shaffer , Shippensburg University

For More Information

Published Writings by Robert W. O'Brien

"The Status of Chinese in the Mississippi Delta." Social Forces 19:3 (Mar. 1941): 386-390.

"Victoria's Negro Colonists." Phylon 3:1 (1942): 15-18.

"Student Relocation." Common Ground 3:4 (Summer 1943): 73-78.

"Selective Dispersion as a Factor in the Solution of the Nisei Problem." Social Forces 23:2 (Dec. 1944): 140-147.

"Reaction of the College Nisei to Japan and Japanese Foreign Policy from the Invasion of Manchuria to Pearl Harbor." Pacific Northwest Quarterly 36:1 (Jan. 1945): 19-28.

"Profiles: Seattle." Journal of Educational Sociology 19:3 (Nov. 1945): 146-157.

Readings in General Sociology (as editor). Palo Alto: Pacific Books, 1947. (Several updated editions followed, with several co-editors, until 1969.)

The College Nisei . Palo Alto: Pacific Books, 1949.

The Night Nixon Spoke: A Study of Political Effectiveness (with Elizabeth Jones). Los Alamitos, CA: Hwong Publishers, 1976.

Other Sources

Austin, Allan. From Concentration Camp to Campus: Japanese American Students and World War II . Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004.

"Interrupted Lives: Japanese American Students at the University of Washington, 1941-1942," available at , accessed 26 June 2012. National Japanese American Student Relocation Council Records, Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

Okihiro, Gary. Storied Lives: Japanese American Students and World War II . Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999.

Robert W. O'Brien Papers, University of Washington Library, Seattle. (These consist mainly of a 1975 oral history interview.)

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.


  1. Oral history interview with Robert O'Brien, 24 April 1975, Robert O'Brien Papers, Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries, excerpt on-line at .
  2. Robert O'Brien, The College Nisei (Palo Alto: Pacific Books, 1949), quotation at 31.
  3. O'Brien, The College Nisei , 115.
  4. Allan Austin, From Concentration Camp to Campus: Japanese American Students and World War II (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004), 167.
  5. O'Brien, "Selective Dispersion as a Factor in the Solution of the Nisei Problem," Social Forces 23:2 (Dec. 1944), quotation at 147; O'Brien, The College Nisei , chap. VII.

Last updated Oct. 8, 2020, 4:04 p.m..