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From Kenny Murase to Kenji Murase: The Journey of a Nisei Writer, Scholar, and Activist - Part 2

Kenji Murase visiting friends in New York City. (Second from right) From U.C. Berkeley's Bancroft Library, War Relocation Authority Photographs of Japanese-American Evacuation and Resettlement collection.

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In August 1942, Kenny Murase arrived at Poston with his parents and brothers. He soon was invited to join the Bureau of Sociological Research (BSR), where he worked under the direction of Dr. Alexander Leighton. He also volunteered to assist JERS researcher Tamie Tsuchiyama. Meanwhile, Murase returned to journalism. First, he took the position of Acting City Editor of the inmate newspaper Poston III Press Bulletin. In addition to his editing work, he was invited to write for the Pacific Citizen by editor Larry Tajiri (whom Murase had gotten to know in San Francisco when they both worked with the NWAMD). During September-October 1942, Murase produced several installments of a column, “Whistling in the Dark.” The column featured “Little Esteban,” an imaginary Mexican-Native American “sagebrush imp” who was a form of resident spirit of Poston, and who appeared to the narrator and engaged him in a series of dialogues. Murase used these dialogues to speak on such topics as avoiding useless divisions between the inmates and obtaining recreational facilities for confined children.

Murase was so concerned about the lack of recreational equipment, and the danger of juvenile delinquency and demoralization if youngsters in Poston lacked recreational outlets, that he sent a letter to the San Francisco Chronicle appealing for donation of recreational equipment, including sporting goods, toys, and games. The letter appeared in the Chronicle’s September 18, 1942 issue, and led to the creation among Bay Area white supporters of a “Murase baseball fund” to purchase extra play equipment.

In the end, Murase was able to leave Poston in early October 1942, after being confined for barely two months. Even after being confined, Murase did not cease his efforts to transfer to an outside college. In early September he wrote in a letter to M. Margaret Anderson, editor of the magazine Common Ground that that he was making arrangements to enroll at the University of Nebraska, as one of the first three Poston Nisei admitted to outside colleges through the new National Japanese American Student Relocation Council (NJASRC). In order to leave, he required FBI clearance and an armed escort out of the camp. Hoping to get to join the work camp in Dearborn that had previously accepted him, Murase initially applied to Wayne State University in nearby Detroit, and was granted a scholarship there. Reverend Owen Geer, pastor of the Mt. Olivet Baptist Church in Dearborn, proposed bringing Murase to resettle in town. The Dearborn Safety Commission vetoed the plan, and when Reverend Geer requested an open hearing on the matter, three hundred local residents attended the meeting to protest the idea. In the face of public hostility, Wayne State University withdrew its acceptance. Soon after, Murase was accepted by Haverford University, an elite Quaker institution in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Within a week of his arrival, though, he decided that Haverford was not a good fit for him—he later described his feelings of discomfort upon moving into a residence with a servant who made his bed for him every day. With help from a local professor, he transferred to Temple University in center city Philadelphia.

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 became well known on campus after he contributed an essay, entitled “What Are We Fighting For?” that won second prize in a campus contest and was published in Temple’s student newspaper. Murase sent back a handful of articles for publication in the Pacific Citizen and the Poston Courier (articles that were reprinted in the Japanese Canadian newspaper New Canadian.) His letter to Carey McWilliams from 1942 was cited in the article “The Nisei Speak” in the magazine in Common Ground. In 1943 he participated in an “Institute on Minorities” sponsored by the Youth Committee for Democracy, and led a discussion on “Economic Factors in Minority Problems.”

While at Temple Murase become reacquainted with Kimi Tanaka, whom he had first met at Poston. The couple lived in an interracial cooperative in Philadephia called Budercoop. After Murase completed a bachelor of arts degree in Sociology at Temple in February 1944, the couple married, and moved to New York, where Murase was hired as an aide in a social service agency. He also worked as a feature writer and rewrite man for the News Letter of the antifascist Japanese American Committee for Democracy. In 1945, after the West Coast reopened to Japanese Americans, Murase returned to Reedley with his wife, and worked on the family farm. He later explained that he felt duty-bound to replace his two brothers, who were in military service. (Though Murase was quoted in an April 1943 Associated Press article that he was anxious to enlist, he did not serve during the war).

After several months, the Murases moved back to New York. At first, Kenny was excited about reuniting with the dynamic progressive Japanese Americans he had known before the war, such as Joe Oyama, Dyke Miyagawa, Chiye Mori, Eddie Shimano, and Ernest and Chizu Iiyama. Murase attended meetings of the Nisei Progressives and wrote articles and assisted with production of the short-lived newspaper Nisei Weekender. However, he found that Nisei circles in New York were too diffuse and lacked the cohesive energy of prewar groups such as the Oakland Nisei Democrats.

During this period, Murase enrolled in Columbia University’s School of Social Work. He later recalled that one of his first assignments as a student was as a fieldworker in a welfare office in a black community in Brooklyn, and that seeing the oppressive living and working conditions his African American clients faced strongly shaped his ideas. After receiving his master's degree in 1947, Kenneth Murase (as he then called himself) worked as a social worker in the psychiatric division of King County Hospital, then later moved to the children’s court in Manhattan, which he considered a very rich experience. During this period, he separated from his wife, and took up residence in the East Village.

After 1951, Kenneth Murase turned to teaching and academics. His first teaching job was as a lecturer in the School of Social Work at the University of Minnesota. In 1952 he was named as the first American Fulbright Scholar in Japan (it is not clear whether he was also the first Nisei Fulbright scholar). He spent that year as a visiting professor of social welfare at Osaka University. While he originally planned to do research on juvenile delinquents, he ended up studying the needs of war orphans and teaching social work. Following his return to the United States, he took a position as Assistant Professor at the School of Social Work at the University of Washington. He remained there for three years. During this period, he published a set of professional articles and book reviews in Social Service Review., beginning with the study “Some Considerations for Programs of Social and Technical Assistance”in the September 1955 issue. During this period, he met a Japanese-born student named Miyako Ohno. The two were married in Oregon in 1954.

In 1956, Murase returned to New York, and enrolled once more at Columbia University for his doctoral studies. During this period, he served as a Teaching fellow at the New York school of Social Work. He received a Doctorate in Social Work in 1961 from Columbia. His dissertation, entitled “International Students in Education for Social Work”, traced the enrollment of foreign students in U.S. doctoral programs in Social Work during the previous decade and their experience.

After graduation, Murase served as the director of the Intercountry Social Services Research Project at Columbia University. He worked with the Mobilization for Youth Project, which involved low-income, ethnic households in Manhattan's Lower East Side. In 1965 he was hired by the American Friends Service Committee. During this period, he married his third wife, Seiko. 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. He taught there for 23 years. He later founded its Institute for Multicultural Research and Social Work Practice. While at San Francisco State, Murase coauthored the guide. Social Work Practice With Asian Americans (1993) and contributed to the anthology, Community Organizing With People of Color (1991).

 In addition to mentoring students and publishing scholarly research, Kenji Murase devoted his time to helping meet the social service and mental health needs of Asian American communities. He did this not only through his scholarship, but also his grant-writing and executive board work with nonprofits. For example, Murase wrote the grant to the United Way that resulted in the founding of the San Francisco-based social service programs United Japanese Community Services, the Japanese Community Youth Council, and Kimochi, Inc. He produced a guide to health care services, Home Care: A Help Guide to Japanese American Seniors and their Families (1994)

Murase also worked with the Pacific Asian Mental Health Research Project. In particular, he directed a study under its auspices, "Alternative Service Delivery Models in Pacific/Asian American Communities" (1981) which analyzed 50 community-based agencies providing mental health-related services to Pacific/Asian American communities in Seattle, San Francisco Bay Area, San Diego and Los Angeles. Murase took a special interest in the health needs of Southeast Asian refugees. In 1991 he codirected a survey for San Francisco’s Department of Public Health that took as its subject Southeast Asians living in San Francisco's Tenderloin area and their level of information concerning AIDS and the means of preventing its transmission. The result was a text coauthored with Susan Sung and VuDuc Vuong, AIDS Knowledge, Attitudes, Beliefs and Behaviors in Southeast Asian Communities in San Francisco (1991). Released at a time when same-sex sexuality in immigrant communities was was stigmatized and free discussion rare, this was an especially important study.

Murase 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, as a way of passing on the gift. The Fund raised money for college scholarships for children of Southeast Asian refugee families, who had arrived in the United States without funds. He later stated that his work with the Fund was the most satisfying of all his community activities.

In his later years, Murase returned to his intellectual roots by working to preserve and further the cultural heritage of Japanese Americans. In a 1996 panel discussion, Murase defined Japanese American cultural heritage as "those cultural values which were transmitted from the Issei generation to the succeeding generations." Such values, he added, contributed to the Nikkei having the highest per capita and median family income among Asian Americans, and also the most education, the lowest rates of crime, mental illness, alcoholism, drug addiction and AIDS, as well as the longest life span. As part of this mission, he 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. His article on the death of Seiichi Nakahara, an Issei taken into custody in 1942 as an “enemy alien,” was also featured on Discover Nikkei. On June 2, 2009, at the age of 89, Dr. Kenji Murase died of cancer at his San Francisco home.


© 2020 Greg Robinson

activist social scientist