Detailed examination and analysis of Japanese history and culture began at the University of Michigan early in the 20th century and was followed in 1935 by the first Japanese language courses offered at Michigan. Shortly thereafter, the University of Michigan boasted more native-born Asians in its class lists than any other institution in the United States, which led to the creation of an Oriental Civilizations Program (now the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures). There was little interest in this program prior to World War II, but the prominence of Japan-related topics in the program led the U.S. Army to establish an Intensive Japanese Language School at Michigan in 1942. Subsequently, hundreds of American soldiers could be seen traversing the streets of Ann Arbor constantly writing invisible Japanese characters in the air—often to the befuddled stares of passing pedestrians. With local interest piqued, in January 1943, Major General George V. Strong, an assistant to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, felt it necessary to dictate the following telegram to the University:
"IT IS THE DESIRE OF THE WAR DEPARTMENT THAT NO REPEAT NO PUBLICITY OF ANY KIND BE GIVEN THE ARMY LANGUAGE SCHOOL AT THE UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN YOUR COOPERATION WILL BE APPRECIATED."
The army, it seems, regarded the Japanese Language School's presence in Ann Arbor as a military secret. Nevertheless, the Michigan Daily and the Ann Arbor News both found the program too good to ignore and ran frequent stories about it. Student life in the language school was intense. Students were housed in the East Quadrangle and were expected to be dressed and present at 6:08 each morning. Classes were from 8:00 to 10:30am, then resumed at 1:00pm each day except Fridays, when Japanese films were shown. Study hall at 8:00pm was mandatory in the Law Library for all students with lower than B averages; lights out at 10:30. Rumors ran on with stories of tunnels in the basement of East Quad or skillful escapes over gates to avoid bed checks.
But it wasn't all hard work; in 1943, students of the first and second classes put on a musical to packed houses at the Michigan Theater, earning around $750,000 in war bonds. The play won the National Theater Conference playwriting contest for members of the armed forces with a prize of $100.
Many of the Japanese instructors were Japanese-Americans who were brought from internment camps in the western United States to Ann Arbor by Joseph K. Yamagiwa to teach Japanese. The teachers were from a variety of professions, which included an insurance salesman and a florist. Most teachers had no prior teaching experience before joining the staff, and they did not always have an easy time in the hostile climate of World War II, as Yamagiwa noted:
“ONE HAS, OF COURSE, TO REALIZE THAT THE INSTRUCTORS HAD COME TO ANN ARBOR TO TEACH AN EMEMY LANGUAGE, TALKED, WRITTEN, AND READ BY AN ENEMY PEOPLE WITH WHOM THE INSTRUCTORS WERE RACIALLY CONNECTED. AT FIRST, SOME DID NOT DARE EVEN TO GO TO CHURCH, LET ALONE A MOVIE THEATER.”
Yamagiwa had done his graduate work at the University of Michigan. As a faculty member, he helped to develop the Oriental Civilizations Program, and he eventually became the head and designer of the program. Through the end of the war, Professor Yamagiwa and his associates trained more than 1,500 American soldiers in the Japanese language. An invaluable addition to the Allied war effort in the Pacific, the contribution of the Japanese linguists did not go unnoticed in the United States either.
Professor Robert B. Hall of the Department of Geography was, in 1946, preparing a recommendation on area studies for the Social Science Research Council. Hall had already been studying Asia for 30 years and would eventually be made a member of both the Order of the Rising Sun and the Order of the Sacred Treasure, the highest awards given to foreigners by Japan. Professor Hall had a vision for an institutionalized approach to area studies that would build on language studies. He called for an interdisciplinary site of academic endeavor that would unite the humanities disciplines, which he felt were developing in increasing isolation from one another. This approach would also demystify the ivory tower studies and inform American citizens. Emphasis placed on an informed citizenry that would help safeguard American interests in the aftermath of a global war—and in the anticipation of future ones—was key in helping to attract needed Center funding.