John Okada’s college year in Nebraska recalled at opening of historic Japanese Hall

exhibit display
Courtesy of Vickie Schaepler.

John Okada spent only three weeks with his family at the WRA camp in Minidoka, Idaho, before he was granted indefinite leave through the National Student Relocation Council to attend Scottsbluff Junior College in Nebraska. His year at Scottsbluff is now being recalled as part of a new display at today’s grand opening of the Japanese Hall and History Project at the Legacy of the Plains Museum in Gering, Nebraska.

The June 8 grand opening is the culmination of years of work by Vickie Sakurada Schaepler. Vickie is the niece of Shogi Sakurada, who steered Okada and his college buddies toward Scottsbluff when they were searching for a college outside the exclusion zone that would accept them. Vickie provided me with the local history that informed the Nebraska section below of my 2018 biography of John Okada. With that material, I was able in turn to draft the text for this panel in the new Japanese Hall exhibit.

Courtesy of Vickie Schaepler.

The History Project also preserves the letters between the WRA, the student relocation council, and the college for approval of Okada’s enrollment there along with his school pals Roy Kumasaka and Frank Ashida,

Courtesy of Vickie Schaepler.

Here’s the Scottsbluff passage from my biography, “An Urgent Need to Write,” that appears in JOHN OKADA: The Life & Rediscovered Work of the Author of No-No Boy, pp. 39-43 (University of Washington Press):

… A suggestion for the choice of college came from a friend of Frank Ashida’s brother: Shogi Sakurada recommended that Frank and John try a school in his hometown in Nebraska, Scottsbluff Junior College.

FRANK ASHIDA: My brother had researched quite a few different colleges and because of his friendship with Sakurada, [Sakurada] told him about Scottsbluff. And that just fit our pocketbook, budget-wise: small college, low tuition, a job, a place to stay. So we wrote Scottsbluff.

Courtesy of Vickie Schaepler.

The austere campus of Scottsbluff Junior College could not compare to the elegant gothic buildings on the University of Washington quad, but it met Okada’s needs: it was not in the exclusion zone, and it would accept him. Other Nisei who were admitted to Ohio University had been threatened with rumors of lynching, compelling Scottsbluff dean Wayne Johnson to assure relocation officials, “We believe the attitude of this community is such that American citizens of Japanese ancestry, fully accepted for admission at this college, may reside here without being molested.” Johnson admitted Okada, Ashida, and Roy Kumasaka with letters that offered part-time work with “some of the Japanese people here.”

Scottsbluff: “A blond giant from Nebraska”

Set squarely in the western Nebraska Panhandle, Scottsbluff was home to a small Japanese American community of about 250, established by Issei like Okada’s father who built the railroads. The sugar beet industry kept them there. The town held a Japanese social hall and several Japanese-owned cafes and boardinghouses on Broadway, the main street through town. The three students from Minidoka got jobs at the Eagle Cafe, working for an Issei owner and cook, Shigemori Hangui (“unusual name for a Japanese,” recalled Ashida). They called him Sam, and cleared tables and washed dishes for him; Okada took over scrubbing the heavy pots when Ashida could not.

FRANK ASHIDA: I had to quit because my fingers were getting raw, so I took odd jobs, like painting the barn or something. But John stuck it out, he worked at the restaurant because we got our meals there. He wasn’t a complainer. I hated it, but a job was a job for him, and he did a good job. 

Eagle Cafe
The Eagle Cafe in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. Sam Hangui wears the white hat and apron in the center. Courtesy of Vickie Schaepler.

Twice during the war the Eagle Cafe was busted up by rowdy servicemen on leave. A cross was burned at the Japanese Americanization Society hall in the nearby town of Mitchell, and the building was later scorched by arson, but the people of Scottsbluff continued to patronize the Eagle. For lodging, Okada and Ashida shared a bedroom, with a bathroom down the hall, in a boardinghouse adjacent to the restaurant.

FRANK ASHIDA: We took our showers at the restaurant. Then when Roy came, he didn’t have any place to stay so we offered him a space, so the three of us slept in the same bed. Three in a bed. When you turn, the one in the middle gets all the cold air because Nebraska, the winters are cold. We had a space heater in the window, which was not very warm. John got the middle. He was the lightest I think, he was on the slim side, so he was a better fit in the middle. That lasted about two months.

Gordon Wilson
Gordon L. Wilson/Social Sciences in the Scottsbluff Jr. College yearbook. Courtesy of Vickie Schaepler.

At Scottsbluff, Okada took the general courses offered in English, math, social science, and continued his studies of German and Latin. Getting good grades was no problem, and he earned nearly straight A’s.

The students soon befriended their history professor, Gordon Wilson, who taught the avid poker players the more refined game of contract bridge. Wilson would come to their boarding house to play, when they weren’t at the pool hall playing snooker, and got their help correcting the test papers of other students.

School ended for John that same month: he ranked seventh out of a class of 439. For a while, Okada, Ashida, and Kumasaka stayed on at the home of a Wilson friend in Denton, but the students didn’t have the resources to remain indefinitely in Nebraska. Once again, Ashida’s brother suggested colleges to which the young men might transfer. When they couldn’t decide, he then suggested the three could stay together by enlisting in the army’s Military Intelligence Service (MIS), which was actively recruiting Nisei linguists from the camps for secret work in the Pacific as interpreters and translators.

Continue reading in JOHN OKADA: The Life & Rediscovered Work of the Author of No-No Boy available from the University of Washington Press.JOHN OKADA book cover

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