“My Life History” Oberlin Admissions Essay by Dave M. Okada ’44

The following is a transcription of the personal essay for admission to the *Junior class of Oberlin College, written by Dave Masato Okada from a Japanese-American internment camp during 1942. In this eloquent account, Dave accounts the hardships of having to work to afford to attend junior college and, once graduating, working full-time at 17 years old to support his four younger brothers after the loss of their parents, which leads him to develop a permanent heart condition. He speaks of the influence of his mother and how he overcame shyness through church work in which he had become a singer, leader, and public speaker. He had just married May Machida in the camp about a week prior.

“My Life History” by Dave M. Okada (photo)

The  month of August, 1914 is to the world the beginning of World War I. For the purpose of this brief autobiography, August, 1914 should probably be more significant as the time of my birth.

The family life of an immigrant Japanese home in California was not too conducive to what might be termed the ideal rearing of a child. My father, before claiming my mother as his picture bride, has incurred debts and obligations in starting a barber shop. As long as I can remember, those debts and obligations continued to harass him, bringing in its wake a certain amount of strain within the family circle due to financial difficulties. Since both of my parents were thoroughly occupied in raising a family of five boys, I was left pretty much alone to amuse myself in games improvised through my own imagination or through various sports such as baseball and football which I played with the neighborhood children.

Yet in all her busy hours, clothing and feeding my brothers and me, and helping in the barber shop in her spare time, my mother still utilized every opportunity to counsel me and to direct my thinking toward consideration of others and helping people who were less fortunate than we. Although I was little impressed by this advice and prompting in my early adolescent yers, its subsequent effect on my way of thinking and attitude toward life has been more than beneficial.

Very early in my childhood, I was fortunate in being taken to a Sunday School operated under the auspices of the Baptist denomination. The influence that I received in the many years that I attended the Sunday School faithfully and in which I eventually became a teacher and superintendent has, I believe, contributed invaluably to any claim of character and person integrity which I may hold today.

As to my education, I was not an exceptional pupil in my grammar and high school years, although my grades were better than average. A vivid recollection which comes to me in connection with my early school years (and which hindered my full development) is the fact that I was very shy with people and unable to express myself clearly before my classmates, teachers, and strangers and people with whom I was not acquainted. Fortunately for me, during my last year in high school, through attendance at the Baptist young people’s meetings and participation in its varied activities, I developed an interest in singing and speaking in public. Through a process which required great physical and mental effort in overcoming fear and nervousness before groups of people, I was able to become an active participant and eventually a leader in young people’s activities, both religious and secular. Probably the one person who helped me more than any single individual was a white American worker in our church who devoted much time and effort toward the development of my Christian life and full and proper use of my limited talents in the service of others. To her and my mother, I owe my deepest debts of gratitude for anything of value which I may have done to date.

When I was seventeen, I lost both of my parents and as a result, I had to support myself through two years of junior college as well as contribute toward a large portion of the maintenance of a home for my four younger brothers. Fortunately, during teh first two or three years,  insurance money provided sufficient means of support to help me finish junior college. However, soon after I graduated, it was necessary for me to devote all of my time to the support of my brothers. But I was unable to find a job which paid enough, and moreover, I developed a permanent heart condition which has restricted my physical ever since. The privations which we had to endure seemed almost unbearable at times, but through the assistance of friends and some aid from the welfare department of the State, we managed to struggle along.

In 1937, after finishing a course in accounting in a local commercial school, I took and passed an examination for a State civil service position. Through hard work and through conscientious effort, I received two promotions leading to a position requiring the acceptance of many responsibilities, which included for a period of two years immediately preceding my termination of State service the privilege and responsibility of directing the work of a large group of other civil service employees. But after five years of what I considered my best efforts, the present war resulted in my dismissal in my dismissal together with all other Japanese-American workers on charges questioning my loyalty to the country of my birth which had given me all the opportunities to make myself independent and self-supporting and to appreciate the democratic foundation of my country. Today, as a consequence of the war, I have entered a new phase of my life confined (physically) for the moment within the bounds of an internment camp. The future at best is uncertain and I do not know what great changes, both social and economic, will come about as the aftermath of this war to affect the lives of us American citizens of Japanese extraction.

The anticipation of new experiences hitherto uncharted and the knowledge of sharing these experiences with my bride of a little more than a week convey to me the thought that I am starting life anew beginning with World War II. Whatever lies ahead, I have implicit faith in a Divine Providence, a personal God who will direct me into proper avenue of service by which I can render myself useful to my fellow men.

In his application, Dave said that “[Oberlin’s] high academic standards, conservatory of music and its willingness to accept students of Japanese extraction” were features or advantages at Oberlin that most influenced him to attend. A “Mrs. William S. Brant” also encouraged him to attend.

Although he spent most time working while in school, he did speak in oratorical contests and before large church groups and conventions.

“I also sang with the McNeill Club, the oldest male chorus in this section of the state.”

Other activities in high school and Jr. College: baseball (V letter), Spanish Honor Society (secretary), book club, music & drama club.

Hobbies: singing, collecting operatic recordings, reading, attending concerts & lectures

On March 2, 1943, while studying at Oberlin, Dave took part in a convocation of Three Short Talks in Finney Chapel concerning Japanese-American Relocation; his portion was entitled “The Antecedents of Evacuation” . Dave appears to have been good friends with Kenji Okuda ’45 (another Nisei who became student body president at Oberlin- a progressive feat during the war) and Sammy J. Oi.

After graduating from Oberlin in 1944, Dave got a MA from University of Chicago in Sociology, for which he won a Julius Rosenwald Fund fellowship for studying the growth of racial attitudes of Nisei in Chicago, particularly towards Negroes. (An article documenting this was published in The New York Times, May 17, 1946). Eventually he rose to be an assistant sociology professor of sociology at Carleton College. In 1955 he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study and lecture at Waseda University, to which he was accompanied by his wife May and children Michael and Kimi. Dave sadly passed away in St. Paul, Minnesota at the early age of 44 from a heart attack.

New names of Obie Nisei

From combing through the Alumni Directory up to 1960, I seem to find new names of Oberlin Nisei (grads and non-grads) every time.

Today I stumbled upon:

  • Esther Matsu Kinoshita (Mrs. William Ujifusa), college & con, 1943-4, 1947 Nongrad
  • Lily Yuriko Fukuhara, college & con, 1944-5, 1948 Nongrad (information unknown)
  • Mr. Renso Enkoji, college, 1944-6, 1948 Nongrad (California)
  • Michiko Matsushima (Mrs. Thomas T. Fujimoto), 1944-46, 1948 Nongrad (Cleveland)
  • June Kimura, college, ’44-5, 1948 Nongrad  (http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/mercurynews/obituary.aspx?n=june-kimura&pid=106312036#fbLoggedOut)
  • Saburo Kawahara, conservatory, ’46-8, 1950 Nongrad, “Gate Mills, O, Chagrin Valley Hunt Club”
  • Teruko Akagi, conservatory, 1945 Graduate, violinist, Chicago area
  • June Kitazawa, (Mrs. C. E. Barr), college,1946
  • May Kitazawa, (Mrs. David E. Arbegast), college, 1945 (I’d originally found her in the ’45 Oberlin Hi-O-Hi yearbook, and while looking her up in the Alphabetical Index of the Alum Registry was surprised to see her listed under a “June” Kitazawa. They are sisters.)
  • Arthur Shuntetsu Kodama, college, 1941-4, 1945 Nongrad. I first saw “Arthur” as the cryptic “A. Kodama” in a group photo in the ’45 yearbook. However, his photo and full name had not been listed within any of the four classes, unless I missed it. After attending for so long I wonder what prevented him from graduating from Oberlin.
  • Ray Masaaki Egashira, college, conservatory, 1945-6, 1949 Nongrad. I had seen a “Ray Egashira”‘s freshman year picture in the 1946 yearbook and was puzzled when I could find no other traces of him in any of the other books.

You’ll notice that most of these people did not graduate from Oberlin. In most of these cases, students were only temporarily studying at Oberlin after being forcibly “evacuated” (for their “own safety”) from their academic institutions on the West Coast. Oberlin President Wilkins corresponded with many West Coast schools and offered to take in the displaced Nisei. While some graduated from Oberlin, others were able to go back and obtain degrees from their former schools.

After two weeks of being overwhelmed by this task, I’m finally beginning to settle into a routine. My nonsensical spreadsheet is also beginning to really fill-in and shape up. By now I have about 32 names.