IU expresses regret for WWII ban on Japanese Americans

This week Eric Langowski got a letter from Indiana University President Michael McRobbie expressing regret for a World War II-era policy banning admission of Japanese American students. It’s an acknowledgment Langowski had been seeking for more than two years.

“I was really happy to see President McRobbie address this, and I think it’s a very courageous thing for him to do and for Indiana University to do,” said Langowski, an IU alumnus.

McRobbie will direct IU Archives to research the 12 Japanese American students who were denied admission, according to the letter. If any relatives of those students can be identified and located, the university will contact them to formally express regret.

A plaque commemorating regret for the policy will be placed in a location on campus that has not yet been determined. McRobbie will also ask IU Bloomington Provost Lauren Robel to appoint a committee of faculty members to plan an event, “that will describe the disgraceful treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II,” according to the letter. The event will also address IU’s ban on Japanese American students.

It’s not exactly what Langowski and others were asking for. In February, he was involved in a panel discussion at the IU Asian Culture Center about Japanese American incarceration during World War II and IU’s response.

At that event, people had the opportunity to sign a petition asking IU to rectify its past ban on Japanese American students. In addition to an admission of wrongdoing from the university, the petition requested funding for educational programming on Japanese American incarceration during World War II. It also asked for IU to issue retroactive diplomas to the Japanese American students who were denied admission during the war.

Some schools on the West Coast that expelled Japanese American students during World War II have since issued honorary diplomas to those students.

Langowski said Wednesday requests in the petition were suggestions. He still has some questions, such as what the plaque will say and where it will be placed, but overall he’s happy with the university’s response.

“I think it’s a great way to kind of close the chapter of not having ever acknowledged IU banned Japanese Americans after it happened,” he said. “Hopefully it will spur wider conversation about who is able to be a student at IU.”

Lagowski is a fourth-generation Japanese American and has served on the board of the Hoosier Japanese American Citizens League. For years he helped organize events on Feb. 19, the date in 1942 when then-President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the internment of thousands of American citizens of Japanese ancestry.

While working toward a bachelor of science degree at IU, Langowski learned about the university’s policy regarding Japanese Americans during the war. On May 9, 1942, the IU Board of Trustees voted to bar the admission of Japanese American students to the university.

Minutes from a meeting Langowski found in the IU Archives showed the decision was at least partially motivated by racism. Trustee Ora Wildermuth was reported to say the following:

“As I see it, there is a difference in Japanese and Germans or Italians — they are Aryans and can be assimilated but the Japanese can’t — they are different racially. I can’t believe that any Japanese, no matter where he was born, is anything but a Japanese.”

Wildermuth’s name was removed from a campus building in 2018 because of other racist comments he made during his time on the board.

IU’s full ban lasted until December of 1944, when three honorably discharged Japanese American veterans were allowed to enroll. At the same meeting, the IU Board of Trustees also approved the admission of Japanese American students from Indiana. The board finally repealed the decision to deny students of Japanese ancestry on Sept. 21, 1945.

The university’s Office of The Bicentennial eventually hired Langowski when he was still an IU student to produce a research paper on the ban. Despite his work, Langowski graduated in 2018 without the apology he sought. But he kept pushing for it.

Faculty members, such as Ashlyn Nelson, associate professor at the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs, and Ellen Wu, director of IU’s Asian American Studies Program, joined Langowski in requesting some kind of acknowledgment.

On Feb. 19, 2020, Langowski came back to IU for a panel discussion at the Asian Culture Center and told people about the petition. IU leaders received it, but still no action was taken.

Over the next few months, more groups got involved, such as the IU Asian Alumni Association, Langowski said. On July 1, the Bloomington Human Rights Commission sent a letter to McRobbie, Robel and the IU Board of Trustees seeking university acknowledgment of the ban on Japanese Americans. On Tuesday, a statement of regret finally came.

“It required everyone coming together to do this,” Langowski said.

McRobbie apologized in his letter for taking so long to respond. He said he received the petition in February, but the COVID-19 pandemic and other unspecified issues prevented a more prompt response.

McRobbie also thanked Langowski for his research on the ban.

“This is precisely the type of research envisioned by one of the IU Bicentennial’s signature projects, Bridging the Visibility Gap, which has sought to expand the history of Indiana University to be more inclusive of the compelling stories of the women, underrepresented minorities, and other individuals that have been part of the fabric of this institution, both the good and the bad, for 200 years,” he said in the letter.

Now, Langowski is hoping the university’s acknowledgment swiftly reaches those most affected by the Word War II ban. Through his research, Langowski said he identified and contacted one of the students who was denied admission. That was in 2018 and she was living in a nursing home. Langowski is not sure whether she is still alive.

While Langowski is satisfied with the university’s plans, he said there are other opinions that matter more.

“It’s really about making sure the families or the people denied admission feel the apology is sufficient, makes sense and they agree,” he said. “I can’t speak to that.”

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