STOries: The Unstoppable Yosh
“Until December 7, 1941, I thought I was a normal boy, a normal American,” reflected Yoshiteru “Yosh” Murakami ’51. “All of a sudden, I was dirty. All of a sudden, I was sinister. All of a sudden, I couldn’t be trusted.” Following the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. The order forcibly removed from their homes approximately 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry living in the United States, among them the Murakami family of San Pedro, California. These 120,000 Japanese Americans were rounded up and incarcerated at ten hastily built remote internment camps in California, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and Arkansas.
On April 4, 1942, the War Relocation Authority (WRA) assigned the Murakami family with the number 04577 and herded them into a troop train, where they were transported to Manzanar Relocation Camp, located in the desolate Mojave Desert in southeastern California. For 15-year-old Yosh, the transition was startling. For two years, approximately 10,000 Japanese Americans were crowded into one square mile, surrounded by barbed wire fences and sentry towers. Their homes were tar paper barracks with loosely constructed floors, and their beds were straw-filled bags covered with blankets.
“[Manzanar] was hard to understand in a land where we say there is freedom and justice for all. We wondered why we were behind barbed wire and not the Germans or Italians.”
After graduating from the internment camp’s high school, Yosh sought the opportunity to attend college under the WRA, which permitted Japanese American citizens to complete their educational studies. Roughly 600 non-West Coast colleges accepted students from the camps, including St. Olaf College. At age 18, Yosh officially enrolled at St. Olaf on September 12, 1944.
Despite the fact that the United States was still at war with Japan, Yosh and two other first-year St. Olaf students of Japanese descent — Esther Nagao from the Granada Camp in Colorado and Paul Sugino from one of the Arizona camps — were welcomed on the Hill. Other second-generation Japanese Americans included returning St. Olaf students Helen Kinoshita, Yuki Takei, and Elaine Uyemura.
The 1945 student annual, the Viking, has a photograph that is emblematic of Yosh. Standing in the back row far right, dressed in a white shirt, coat, and tie, he wears a smile wide and welcoming. In his first year on the Hill, he had successfully adjusted to the cultural and climatic differences of Minnesota and made friends among the predominantly Norwegian American student body of 744. Yosh felt he had found a new home, where he was welcomed who he was, and not mistreated or shamed because of his race.
It seems the jovial Yosh was everywhere on campus his first two years, playing his saxophone at student events, assisting in war loan drives, serving as class secretary his sophomore year, and performing in the St. Olaf Band, St. Olaf Orchestra, and the Viking Chorus. In 1944–45 and 1945–46, he and Kinoshita were both selected for the St. Olaf Choir, making them the first students of color in the ensemble’s history.
In the fall of 1946, Yosh interrupted his studies to enlist as a Japanese interpreter in the Counter Intelligence Corps of the U.S. Army. During his three-year service stationed as a U.S. sergeant in Japan, he met his future wife, Mikiko “Miki” Anzai and was able to bring her to the U.S. through a special bill introduced to Congress by Senator Edward Thye (a Northfield native) and signed by President Truman. Returning to St. Olaf in the fall of 1949, the 23-year-old music major picked up right where he left off. In his final two years at St. Olaf, Yosh returned to the orchestra and choir and directed the Viking Male Chorus in his senior year.
After graduating from St. Olaf in 1951 and marrying Miki, the unstoppable Yosh studied at the School of Sacred Music at Union Theoglogical Seminary in New York City. He then returned to Northfield, where he taught music and served as choir director for the high school until 1968. That year, he, Miki, and their four children (Paul, Stephen, Jane, and Jonathan) moved to Moorhead, Minnesota, where Yosh served as a professor of music at Concordia College before joining the Fargo Public Schools faculty.
Sadly, Yosh passed away at the age of 48 in 1975 after a short and severe illness. He was remembered by his colleagues, friends, and students as a generous, kind, and inspirational man with a self-deprecating sense of humor. And while he had good reason, he was never bitter nor resentful. Instead, Yosh contributed to the cause of racial tolerance throughout his life.