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T. Scott Miyakawa–Part 1: Struggles of a Young Nisei

T. Scott Miyakawa, a sociologist and historian, was one of the most talented and successful of the first generation of Nisei academics. His early career nonetheless dramatizes the various obstacles that Nisei were forced to endure, and the compromises they made to succeed.

Born in Los Angeles on November 23, 1906, Tetsuo Scott Miyakawa was the eldest of three children of Yukio Miyakawa, a gardener, and his wife Rin. His younger brother, Tatsuo Arthur Miyakawa, was a graduate of Harvard University and Boalt Hall law school who taught economics at UCLA and Japanese at Georgetown University during the 1930s before going into government service. His sister Maxine Kikuko Miyakawa (later Kikuko Packness) was a jewelry designer and poet, whose 1940 volume Starlight was one of the earliest works of Nisei literature published by a mainstream press.

Scotty, as he was known, graduated Los Angeles High school, then attended Cornell University, where he studied industrial and mechanical engineering. He was awarded a degree in mechanical engineering in 1931, in the depths of the Great Depression. Despite his Ivy League diploma, he was unable to secure a position with an American company after graduation. Instead, like many talented Nisei of the time, he went to work for a Japanese firm. Miyakawa was hired by the New York office of the Japanese-owned (and semigovernmental) South Manchurian Railway to serve as English-speaking assistant to the office manager, and to do economic research and public relations.

Japanese cavalry entering Mukden (Shenyang) on September 18, 1931 (

His assignment also turned out to include acting as a covert propagandist for Japan, defending Tokyo’s invasion of Manchuria. In October 1931, a month after the “Mukden incident” (the sham event staged by the Japanese military to justify their intervention in Manchuria), Miyakawa published an article, “The Japanese Side,” in the New York Herald Tribune. Without identifying his employer, he praised Japan’s government, and blamed the crisis in Manchuria on “years of provocation and aggravation on the part of the Chinese,” whom he charged with perpetrating or ignoring the murder of hundreds of Japanese. Miyakawa insisted (without evidence) that Chinese authorities had called in the Japanese troops for protection. He also disclaimed any intention by Japan to separate Manchuria from China, asserting that Japanese authorities had forbidden any of their officials, civil or military, from even giving advice to anyone embarked on such an absurd scheme.

The following spring, after the Japanese had indeed separated Manchuria from China and created the puppet state of Manchukuo, Miyakawa published a letter in the New York Times, in which he insisted that, despite evidence to the contrary, Japan depended indirectly on Manchuria for much of its food. Manchuria, he explained, produced the bean cake that served as fertilizer for Japanese farmers, as well as the millet that fed the farmers in Korea who in turn produced rice for Japan (he did not explain why Koreans should be relegated to an inferior diet). While the letter made no direct comment on Japanese control over Manchuria, Miyakawa’s statements about Japan’s needs implicitly justified it. During the same period, rather incongruously (or perhaps cynically), Miyakawa served as a featured speaker at an antiwar rally at the Brooklyn Academy of Music sponsored by the Socialist Party. He claimed that Japanese imperialism was justified by American tariffs, which had reduced Japan’s export trade and dealt a blow to the “peace elements” that relied on it. In any case, he added, Japanese control of Asia was less heinous than Western imperialism. “At least, Japan has the excuse of proximity to Manchuria…What excuses have the other nations that have battleships and armaments in the Orient for being there?”

In January 1933, Miyakawa spoke about the Lytton Commission (the League of Nations investigative team in Manchuria) as part of a Foreign Policy Association round table in Elmira, New York. He was billed as a representative of the Japanese National Committee of the International Association of Commerce. He also gave a public lecture on Manchuria at Bennington College.

In February 1933, according to the New York Times, Miyakawa gave a public address in New York, during which he criticized the Lytton Commission for ignoring Japan’s “valid, vital” claims in Manchuria. He charged instead that the real aggressor in Manchuria was the Soviet Union, acting under a “secret treaty” with China.

In August 1933, responding to the invitation of the well-known popular science journal Scientific American, Miyakawa published in its pages an extended defense of Japan’s policy and its “interests” in Manchuria (about which he remained deliberately vague). He insisted that Japan had long pursued a patient and liberal policy there, and had pushed for fair negotiations, but these had failed due to repeated treaty violations by the Chinese government and threats from warlords such as Lord Chang. Due to Miyakawa’s status as an American-born citizen of Japanese ancestry, his article attracted widespread outside media attention.

In October 1933 Miyakawa, billed as a representative of the “Japanese Chamber of Commerce,” participated in a radio program with Chih Meng, director of the China Institute in America, on “What is Happening in the Far East?” Scotty’s brother Tatsuo A. Miyakawa, joined him in pro-Japan propaganda work. In July 1933, Tatsuo was named assistant to Torao Kawasaki, the chief of the Information Bureau of Manchukuo.

Even as he continued working for the Japanese railroad, Scotty Miyakawa enrolled in graduate work in sociology and statistics at Columbia University, studying under such professors as Robert Staughton Lynd and Robert M. MacIver, as well as working with the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr on religious studies. He remained at Columbia off and on for several years, receiving scholarships from the University in 1939-40 and 1940-41.

In 1934-35, Miyakawa travelled to Asia for several months, on what he later termed a “research trip” to study industrial development and trade. During his trip, he spent time in Japan, Korea, Manchuria, and China, where he studied production and trade practices. In March 1835, following his return, he attended a regional Conference on the Cause and Cure of War at Worcester, Massachusetts, and electrified delegates by his blunt assertion that Japan must be permitted equality of trade with the world, or war would result.

Meanwhile, in an interview with The Literary Digest, he spoke admiringly of standards of Japanese craftsmanship. While American political leaders expressed fear that Japanese competition in the textile trade would lower standards for American workers, Miyakawa retorted, American mass-production techniques produced cheap but inferior goods, and thereby threatened Japanese standards!

Miyakawa later claimed that after his Asia sojourn he tried to secure employment either in U.S. government or private industry, but was unable to find a job at a sufficient salary for him to help support his parents. He also felt a loyalty to the South Manchurian Railway, which had allowed him time to pursue his studies, yet as an American he did not wish to accept a more senior position in Asia.

In the end, he returned to New York and resumed his graduate work at Columbia and his work at the South Manchurian Railway, where in 1937 he became head of the “research department.” According to one source, when Prince Iyesato Tokugawa, descendant of the deposed Shogun and president of the Japan’s House of Peers, made a tour of the United States, Miyakawa served as his press secretary. He performed similar duties when a Japanese goodwill trade mission toured the United States in 1937.

Scotty likewise continued his expressions of support for Japan’s foreign policy. In July 1937, a week after the Japanese army launched a full-scale invasion of China, Miyakawa (billed as the New York correspondent of the Japan Times and Mail) lectured on Japan’s “perennial crisis” at a summer institute at University of Virginia. Defending Tokyo’s actions, he stated that unless countries such as Japan could have freer access to raw materials and pay for them, international peace would remain an illusion. Similarly, at a Foreign Affairs school at Radcliffe College in Summer 1938 (where he was identified as editor of the Japan Times and Mail), he presented the alternatives for Japan as “Expansion on the Asiatic mainland or international trade.”

While he was able to defend Japan’s occupation of China, as Japan and the United States moved toward confrontation at the dawn of the 1940s, Miyakawa later claimed, he felt increasingly uneasy working for a Japanese firm. He insisted that he was pressed to remain at his job by friends in U.S. intelligence services who sought sources of information. Sometime in 1941, the South Manchurian Railway closed its New York office. Miyakawa again refused to move to Asia. Instead, according to one source, he worked in marketing and public relations for a small company in New York.

Meanwhile, along with his friend Larry Tajiri, who moved to New York in mid-1940 to work for a Japanese news agency, Miyakawa faced off against the local Issei business community and its conservative pro-Tokyo orientation. Miyakawa and Tajiri joined others to form the New York Emergency Committee for Japanese Americans. After Pearl Harbor, the Committee helped displaced Issei and Nisei find lodging and employment, and advocated for their rights. Returning to his role as propagandist, this time for loyal Japanese Americans, Miyakawa issued positive public statements—for example, in January 1942 he noted that the Nisei had the largest per capita ratio among U.S. minorities of enlistments in the Army.

Miyakawa, his brother, sister, and mother (his father having died in 1940) were all living on the East Coast in 1942, and were thus free during the war years. Scotty was nonetheless deeply touched by the mass removal of West Coast Japanese Americans (he later stated that seven close relatives were confined).

Operating through Freedom House, a New York organization, he used his contacts with outside sympathizers such as novelist Pearl S. Buck to gain support for Japanese Americans. In opposition to the Japanese American Committee for Democracy, which he considered too pro-Communist, he and his brother Tatsuo founded the short-lived Townshend Harris Association as an activist organization for liberal Nisei. Tatsuo was hired soon after as an analyst by the Japan section of the OWI in Washington, DC, and ultimately went overseas to direct the OWI bureau at Hankow, China.

Scotty Miyakawa receiving a ruby-studded JACL pin. (Photo: The Pacific Citizen, June 18, 1949)

In 1942-3, Scotty began work with the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), although he did not become an official member. He used his outside contacts as an unofficial liaison to assist the JACL in securing national sponsors. In mid-1943, he took on the assignment of organizing a JACL coherence in New York on resettlement and postwar needs. He remained in frequent contact with Alan Cranston, head of the Foreign Language Division of the Office of War Information, and Roger Baldwin, director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Despite his many contacts, Scotty Miyakawa had difficulty securing employment. He worked for a few months as a reports officer for the Coordinator of Information and for the Office of War Information, but was left behind when their Japan divisions moved to the West Coast.

In summer 1942 he worked on a short-term assignment for U.S. Army Intelligence, heading a team of Nisei compiling reports on Japan. Twice during these months, he was offered a position as economic analyst with the War Production Board (WPB), but both times his employment was vetoed without clear explanation by the WPB personnel department.

According to one source, his previous work for the South Manchurian Railway led him to be placed on an FBI blacklist. Miyakawa himself stated that he was not only cleared by the FBI, but subjected to a rigorous check by Army intelligence, and suggested that racism towards Japanese Americans by personnel officers was responsible for his rejection. Whatever the case, after Miyakawa had waited several months, friends inside and outside government petitioned the Fair Employment Practices Commission on his behalf to inquire into the matter, and the FEPC offered him a public hearing. However, he was unable to afford an attorney to represent him in such a hearing, and could not find free counsel.

In mid-1943, Miyakawa was finally able to secure a position as physics instructor to Air Force cadets at University of Missouri, and he moved to Columbia, Missouri. Although Miyakawa admitted that physics was far removed from his regular fields of study, he enjoyed teaching.

A year later, he moved to University of Michigan, where he assisted the Counsellor in Religious Education on a survey of religious education in California universities. Once arrived in Ann Arbor, he contacted the American Civil Liberties Union to protest the University administration’s secret (and duplicitous) exclusion of Nisei students.

Miyakawa charged that while University of Michigan employed over two hundred Nisei resettlers from camp in menial jobs, and dozens more served as Japanese instructors and students at the Army Language School on campus, the Administration used national security as a pretext to exclude all but a handful of Nisei students.

Even after the war ended, and the university’s ban on Nisei students was lifted, there were incidents of anti-Nisei prejudice in town. Miyakawa helped organize a local JACL chapter to assist resettlers adjust to life in the area and encourage positive media coverage.

In June 1946, Scotty Miyakawa was invited by Army headquarters in Tokyo to take a job as a statistician. However, as with the WPB, the clearance process was protracted, and he finally lost patience and withdrew his agreement to take the job. In the end, he accepted a position at Boston University. He would continue at BU for 25 years, and it would remain the center of his life.

Part 2 >>


*Editor's note: On Dec 5, 2018, the text was expanded from the original post on Nov. 29, 2018, following discovery of further documents.


© 2018 Greg Robinson

generations historians Japan Japanese Americans Nisei propaganda sociologists T. Scott Miyakawa war World War II
About the Author

Greg Robinson, a native New Yorker, is Professor of History at l'Université du Québec À Montréal, a French-language institution in Montreal, Canada. He is the author of the books By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans (Harvard University Press, 2001), A Tragedy of Democracy; Japanese Confinement in North America (Columbia University Press, 2009), After Camp: Portraits in Postwar Japanese Life and Politics (University of California Press, 2012), Pacific Citizens: Larry and Guyo Tajiri and Japanese American Journalism in the World War II Era (University of Illinois Press, 2012), and The Great Unknown: Japanese American Sketches (University Press of Colorado, 2016), as well as coeditor of the anthology Miné Okubo: Following Her Own Road (University of Washington Press, 2008). Robinson is also coeditor of the volume John Okada - The Life & Rediscovered Work of the Author of No-No Boy (University of Washington Press, 2018).

His historical column “The Great Unknown and the Unknown Great,” is a well-known feature of the Nichi Bei Weekly newspaper. Robinson’s latest book is an anthology of his Nichi Bei columns and stories published on Discover Nikkei, The Unsung Great: Portraits of Extraordinary Japanese Americans (University of Washington Press, 2020). It was recognized with an Association for Asian American Studies Book Award for Outstanding Achievement in History Honorable Mention in 2022. He can be reached at

Updated March 2022

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