Michi Nishiura Weglyn (1926-1999) wrote the landmark 1976 book, Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America’s Concentration Camps. A former costume designer for the popular Perry Como Show in the 1950s, she was herself incarcerated at age 16 in a camp at Gila River, Arizona, a fact that lent authority and emotional power to this highly regarded work. After the book was published, she became a well known activist in the Japanese American community.
Prewar Farm Life
Michiko Nishiura Weglyn was born in Stockton, California, on November 29, 1926, the eldest of two daughters of Tomojiro and Misao Nishiura. Her father had immigrated from Japan in 1916, and his picture bride wife, Misao Yuwasa Nishiura, came to the US in 1922. They lived alongside Misao’s family members and worked as tenant farmers in Brentwood, California. They leased land to raise fruits and vegetables, including cantaloupes, tomatoes, cucumbers, and apricots, in the San Joaquin Valley, and Tomojiro worked as a truck farmer from 1931 to 1942.
When war broke out in 1942, the Nishiura family was forcibly removed from their home in Brentwood, as set forth by Executive Order 9066, first to the Turlock Assembly Center, and then several months later on May 12, to the Gila River Relocation Center , (both centers officially and euphemistically labeled by the War Relocation Authority, or WRA). Michi was 15 years old at the time. She remembers traveling two days and nights to reach the isolated desert enclave in Arizona, where they were assigned an end room in Block 66, Barrack 12, among roughly 13,000 other inmates, and where the family spent the next 3 years.
At the desert camp, her father worked as a farm laborer, and her mother became a kitchen helper, both earning $16 a month. Michi and her sister Tomi attended Butte High School, where Michi became an excellent student and leader. She organized a Girl Scout troop for which she became president. She won essay and oratorical contests and was president of the Forensics League. As Girls League President, she led the effort to sponsor a day-long Girls League Convention at the camp, drawing more than five hundred girls from throughout Arizona.
With the encouragement of a committed English teacher, Mabel Sheldon, Michi was accepted to Mt. Holyoke College in Massachusetts in 1944. Thanks to the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council, headed by the Quakers to help send deserving students to college during the war, she received a full scholarship. While at Mt. Holyoke where she majored in biology, she won a prize for a set design she created for a college stage production, which started her interest in set and costume design. In December 1945, a bout with tuberculosis forced her into treatment at the Glen Gardner Sanatarium in New Jersey. She had to withdraw from college without a diploma.
In January 1945, Michi’s parents and sister resettled at Seabrook Farms, a frozen food plant in Bridgton, New Jersey, that recruited and employed Japanese Americans from camp. Michi eventually joined them there and worked as a disc jockey during the summers while she continued her education in New York City at Barnard College in 1947 and the Fashion Academy in 1948. In 1949, she was treated again for tuberculosis and had a brief stay at the Mt. Kipp Sanatarium in Saranac Lake, New York.
While living as a student at the International House in New York City, Michi met Walter Matthys Weglyn, who had been visiting a Dutch friend who also lived there. They were married on March 5, 1950, in Washington, D.C., at the home of the Dutch ambassador, Dr. A.H. Philipse, who had sheltered Walter at the end of the war. During World War II, Walter had been living in hiding in Holland from ages 12 to age 17, having been sent there by his parents on a kindertransport train to escape Nazi Germany. Walter’s parents were subsequently sent to the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp, where they miraculously escaped extermination, and were reunited with their two sons after the war. Walter ultimately left after the war for New York to work as a perfume chemist for a Dutch company, International Flavors and Fragrances.
Show Business Career
During the first years of their marriage, Michi struggled to find a job in the entertainment business, but her big break into show business came in 1952 when she was asked to design costumes for the gala opening of the new ice-colorama stage show at the Roxy Theater. This led to jobs designing for additional Roxy ice shows, as well as for nightclubs, such as the Copacabana and La Vie en Rose. She began designing for television with the Kraft Television Theater in 1954, followed by other musical variety shows with Tony Bennett, Patti Page, Dinah Shore, Julius La Rosa, Bob Crosby, and others. In 1957, she became the costume designer for the Perry Como Show, where she remained until 1966, when the show moved to Los Angeles.
From 1964 to 1967, she established Michi Associates, Ltd., which was involved in the manufacturing and rental of costumes. She later designed sportswear for Tweka, then one of the largest sportswear manufacturing firms in Europe. She also completed a book called Beauty Secrets, for which she had difficulty getting published.
Research and Publication of Years of Infamy
During the 1960s, Michi Weglyn began work on the book that was to become one of the most important and influential books on the wartime incarceration, and the first one to be written on the subject by a Japanese American. Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America’s Concentration Camps, with an introduction by James Michener, was the result of seven years of her meticulous research based on primary documents culled from the National Archives, the Franklin Roosevelt Library, and the New York City Library.
Published to critical acclaim in 1975, the book represented a major breakthrough in its exposure of governmental misconduct aimed at Japanese Americans, citizens and aliens alike, after the attack on Pearl Harbor . It recounted in detail the findings of the Munson Report , which found that there was no problem among the Japanese living in the U.S. With over ten years of research done by the FBI and Navy intelligence, the report was a staunch rebuttal of the military necessity argument for incarceration. It was commissioned by Franklin Roosevelt himself and compiled by a special investigator for the White House, Curtis B. Munson.
Years of Infamy also detailed little known facts about the incarceration, including the U.S. government’s plan to use Japanese Latin Americans in a prisoner barter exchange with Japan. Weglyn also discussed the protest movements within various camps, and added photos and files from attorney Wayne M. Collins, who represented Japanese Americans who had been sent to the Tule Lake camp after being forced to fill out a loyalty questionnaire. Collins represented many of those who subsequently renounced their U.S. citizenship.
Impact on the Redress Movement
During the writing of the book, Michi developed a strong relationship with Edison Uno, the Japanese American Citizen League president who was the first to call for redress in the early 1970s. Uno not only promoted the book, he also used her research in his lone call for redress. Upon publication of her book, Michi received the JACL’s Japanese American of the Biennium Award at their 1976 convention, which also saw the adoption of a resolution calling for mandatory reparations. Edison Uno died shortly after in December, years before redress would become a reality.
In 1980, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) was created by a public law of Congress and signed by President Jimmy Carter to investigate matters surrounding the incarceration. Fellow New Yorker Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga was appointed a researcher for the Commission. Herzig recalls exchanging information with Michi as to research sources and archival material pertaining to the camps. After intensive research and public hearings in 1981 in several major cities, at one of which Michi testified, the CWRIC issued formal recommendations to Congress that included the incarceration was not related to military necessity, but was racially motivated. These findings became the bases upon which redress legislation was formulated. H.R. 442, which provided individual reparations of $20,00 and a formal apology, was signed into law on August 10, 1988 (Civil Liberties Act of 1988). For her work, Weglyn was later to become known as the “mother of redress.”
Despite the fact that Michi herself never believed that her book had any real impact on the redress movement, she became a strong advocate for those denied redress under the 1988 legislation. Railroad and mining employees who lived outside the military exclusion zone and fired from their jobs were initially denied redress. Only after an intense lobbying campaign (including a letter writing campaign started by a March 15, 1996 letter from Michi herself) did they become eligible on February 27, 1998.
Michi also actively supported the cause of the more than 2,000 Japanese Peruvians (from twelve Latin American countries) who were taken from their homes by the U.S. government and used in a hostage exchange program with Japan. She continued her research on this topic and corresponded regularly with members of the Campaign for Justice, an activist organization that continues to lobby on behalf of this neglected group.
Another group to which Michi felt a special kinship was the group of more than 300 wartime draft resisters, particularly the organized group of men at the Heart Mountain camp. The Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee began in 1944 as a group of seven men (only three of which were eligible for the draft) who encouraged nearly ninety others to join them in resisting the draft. They spent years in federal penitentiaries before finally being officially pardoned.
After Walter Weglyn died in August 1995, Michi worked to complete the updated edition of Years of Infamy, which was released by the University of Washington Press in 1995. She also continued late night phone calls and letter writing lobbying on behalf of Campaign for Justice’s continued fight for redress for Latin Peruvians, a cause that continued to ignite her passion.
After a protracted illness from stomach cancer, during which time she attempted alternative medicine treatment, she died in her New York City apartment on April 25, 1999. She asked for no funeral, but memorial services in San Francisco and Los Angeles were held in her honor. Literary executor Philip Tajitsu Nash wrote her obituary. An obituary also appeared in the New York Times and the Rafu Shimpo. Her childhood friend from camp Sachi Seko also wrote a remembrance of her in the Rafu Shimpo .
Honors and Awards
Despite the fact that Michi never graduated from college, she was awarded several honorary doctorates. They include the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters from Hunter College on February 19, 1992, the Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from California State University on June 12, 1993, and the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters from Mount Holyoke College on May 22, 1994.
She was given an official proclamation by the City of New York on May 7, 1993. That same year, the Michi and Walter Weglyn Endowed Chair for Multicultural Studies was established at Cal Poly Pomona. On February 21, 1998, she was given the Fighting Spirit Award by the National Coalition for Redress/Reparations in Los Angeles.
The full collection of Michi Nishiura Weglyn’s papers can be found at the Japanese American National Museum, 321 East First Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012. In addition to papers, photographs, and original costume designs, the National Museum’s collection includes the original manuscript of Years of Infamy, several trophies and plaques awarded Michi Weglyn, the typewriter Weglyn used to write her book, and several of Weglyn’s Butte High School yearbooks.
An interview with Michi Weglyn in 2000 conducted by filmmaker Frank Abe for the film, Conscience and the Constitution, can be found at the Densho Digital Archive (Frank Abe Collection).
Kay Gardella, “NBC’s Designing Woman Talks About Herself.” Daily News. December 11, 1957.
Lee Mortimer, “She Did Not Choose to Dance.” Sunday Mirror Magazine, June 13, 1954.
Takeshi Nakayama, “Weglyn Wrote Book to Make Nisei Angry.” Rafu Shimpo. February 25, 1998.
Takeshi Nakayama, “Michi Weglyn Was Noted Activist Who Wrote Redress ‘Bible’.” Rafu Shimpo. April 27, 1999.
Phil Tajitsu Nash, “In Memorium: Michi Nishiura Weglyn 1926-1999.” Amerasia Journal 25.1 (1999): iv-viii.
Judith Putterman, ed. Gnomes and Knots. New York: Harper & Row, 1978.
Josephine Sakurai, “Evolution: Biology to Stage Costume Design.” The Hokubei Shimpo. April 2, 1953.
Sachi Seko, “Remembering Michi Weglyn,” Rafu Shimpo, April 28, 1999.
Susan Ware, ed. Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary.
Japanese American National Museum
Densho (Michi Weglyn interview can be found on the Densho Archive)
Michi & Walter Weglyn Endowed Chair of Multicultural Studies at Cal Poly Pomona
“From Designer to Detective,” The Rafu Shimpo (February 10, 2009)
“2009: The Year of Michi Weglyn,” Cal Poly Pomona C.L.A.S.S. Newsletter
Press release, Cal Poly Pomona, Office of Public Affairs, Division of University Advancement (PDF)
Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards
Jeffrey F. Burton, Mary M. Farrell, Florence B. Lord and Richard W. Lord. Confinement and Ethnicity: An Overview of World War II Japanese American Relocation Sites. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002.
Jeffrey Paul Chan, Frank Chin, Lawson Fusao Inada and Shawn Wong, eds. The Big Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Chinese American and Japanese American Literature. New York: Meridian, 1991.
Emma Gee, ed. Counterpoint: Perspectives on Asian America. Los Angeles: Asian American Studies Center, University of California, 1976. 27-30 and “Revisions in Japanese American History: Review of Books Published in 1976,” Journal of Ethic Studies 5.3 (Fall 1977): 112-115.
Mitch Maki, ed. Achieving the Impossible Dream: How Japanese Americans Obtained Redress. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999.
Harvey Shapiro, What Evils Men Do.
Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on the Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, University of Washington Press, 1997.
Contemporary Authors. Volumes 85-88. Gale Research Company. Detroit, Michigan. c. 1980.