Left: Professor John C. Mitani | Right: Sally Sadako Mitani & Don Kiyoshi

Inspired by his parents and his own experience, Professor John Mitani, has contributed $26,000 towards the establishment of the Don Kiyoshi & Sally Sadako Mitani Endowment fund aimed at supporting first-generation students in the Department of Anthropology. This fund will provide need-based scholarships for students pursuing an undergraduate degree.

During the early 1900s, Mitani’s grandparents immigrated to the United States, settling in California. They made their living as truck farmers, selling produce locally, like many other Japanese immigrants in the area. In time, Mitani’s paternal grandparents made enough money to return to Japan with his father while his mother and her parents stayed in the U.S. earning just enough to support their four children. His father graduated from high school, moved back to the states, and found work just before the United States declared war on Japan. His father was working and his mother was in her senior year of high school when Japanese bombs fell on Pearl Harbor.

A few weeks after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066. It led to the forced evacuation of all those of Japanese ancestry living on the west coast of the U.S. to camps scattered around the country. Due to this timing, Mitani’s mother was unable to finish her last few months of high school. She was moved to a camp located in Poston, Arizona. Mitani’s father was initially sent to Tule Lake in Northern California but was subsequently moved to a camp at Heart Mountain in Wyoming.

“My father grew up in the relatively equable climes of Hiroshima and would occasionally recall the brutal winters at Heart Mountain. My mother talked about the dry and dusty conditions at Poston and the hastily built tar paper shacks that she and others lived in. She told me about the paper-thin walls of their homes and how they provided little in the way of privacy. Both of my parents remembered the out-of-the-way and desolate conditions of their camps,” recalls Mitani. “There was an obvious reason for this. The U.S. government wasn't keen to advertise what it was doing to some of its citizens.”

Mitani’s account of the war from his parents and what they endured was brief. “[My parents] and other members of their generation, the Nisei or second generation of Japanese immigrants, were reluctant to tell us, their children, about what they experienced during the war. This is an important part of the story,” stated Mitani. “Some were probably angry. Others may have been ashamed. Virtually all were determined to forge a new and better life for themselves after being released.”

After the war, his parents worked hard to reintegrate into American society. Mitani’s interpretation is that they needed to be more American than Americans. This resulted in Mitani and his siblings not learning much about their own heritage.

“My brothers and I weren't taught much about our heritage - Japan, Japanese culture, or the Japanese language. The latter is a lasting regret, and one that I felt deeply as an adult,” said Mitani, “When I began my research on the behavior of wild chimpanzees, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work with one of the pioneers in the field, Toshisada Nishida, a Japanese primatologist.”

After the war, Mitani’s parents moved to Los Angeles where they were introduced by a mutual friend. They married in 1950.

“My parents worked hard and lived long, happy, and productive lives after the war. They taught me the value of hard work. They thrived because of their own hard work, but perhaps due to their humble beginnings, they were aware that there were others less fortunate than them. They made sure that my two brothers and I were given opportunities denied to them in youth,” said Mitani. “My father passed away a few years ago, and my mother died last fall. I was incredibly lucky to have such loving and caring parents. I miss them.”

As a former first-generation student, Mitani understands the difficulties of navigating a university for the first time and has tried to learn the problems facing first-generation students today. He stated that the Don Kiyoshi & Sally Sadako Mitani Endowment fund aims to ease the challenges of those coming to the University for the first time.

“This is a large University, and there is bound to be something for everyone. So I’d encourage first-gen students to explore UM with an open mind. I’m confident that if they do, they will be able to find something that will spark their interest, and with luck, inflame a passion as it did for me,” said Mitani. “I’ve had a long, happy, and fulfilling life as a consequence.”

Mitani has spent his entire faculty career in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Michigan. “The Department, College, and University have supported me in everything that I have done. I feel very lucky to have been a faculty member here. Our donation is a small way to pay back.”