In 1942, more than 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry were uprooted from their homes in the Western United States and imprisoned in 10 internment camps scattered throughout the United States. Among them were thousands of college students who were Nisei, American-born children of Japanese immigrants. That year, courageous individuals and organizations from religious, academic, and civic institutions joined to form the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council (NJASRC, see Council’s history below). The organization’s sole purpose was to assist the Nisei to leave the camps so they could complete their college education. Between 1942 and 1945, the NJASRC worked with 5,000 Nisei, successfully helping nearly 4,000 of them leave the camps for college.
Many of the Nisei students went on to rewarding careers in areas ranging from architecture and fines arts to science and education. But they never forgot their experience during World War II and the compassion and generosity of the NJASRC.
In 1980, a small group of these former students who were living in New England decided it was time to repay the kindness they experienced nearly 39 years before. Their goal was to pay tribute to the Student Relocation Council and to individuals who extended “a helping hand” to them during a difficult time. They wanted to continue the tradition of giving that they had experienced. In the early 1980s there were many news stories about the plight of the Vietnamese refugees and those stories reminded the Nisei of their own situation during World War II. They decided that the scholarship recipients would come from Southeast Asian communities throughout the United States.
Since 1983, the Nisei Student Relocation Commemorative Fund (NSRCF) scholarship program has been the only source of scholarship aid specifically aimed at Southeast Asians in America. Each year the NSRCF Board of Directors designates a different city or region in which the scholarships are awarded. Scholarships have been given to Vietnamese, Cambodian, Hmong, and Laotian students in Chicago, Houston, Denver, Seattle, Sacramento, New York , and other areas of the United States.
When asked why they continue these efforts, NSRCF board members and supporters often speak of the need they feel to recognize the help Japanese Americans received during the war. In Japanese, this strong sense of obligation is referred to as ongaeshi. On is an obligation one incurs to another person who gives generous, unselfish assistance in a time of one’s need. On binds the giver and the receiver in an unbreakable relationship that is not to be forgotten. The feeling of on compels a receiver to return what has been received. Ongaeshi is the repayment of on. It is experienced as a moral imperative, and when linked to a sense of gratitude, is also a source of joy. The Nisei Student Relocation Commemorative Fund was created and continues as an act of ongaeshi. For its founders and supporters, it is a concrete expression of gratitude and a source of satisfaction and joy.