Dr. Kenji Murase, Social Work Professor, Dies

June 5, 2009 @ 4:00 am

June 5, 2009

Our condolences go to the family of Dr. Kenji Murase, Professor Emeritus of Social Work Education at San Francisco State University, who died in his sleep at his home in San Francisco on June 2.  He had been suffering from cancer and was 89 years of age.

Enrolled at UC Berkeley in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, Dr. Murase was unable to continue his studies there because of the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans. He was about to enroll at Wayne State University in 1942 when the Detroit City Council adopted a resolution naming him “unwanted” in the city. Rounded up like other Japanese Americans, he headed with his family to the Wartime Relocation Authority prison camp in Poston, Arizona, where California’s Japanese Americans from the central valley were sent.

Through the efforts of the National Japanese American Relocation Council, formed by a small group of university administrators, staffed by the American Friends Service Committee, and championed by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, about 5,000 Japanese American college students were permitted to leave the internment camps and continue their studies in the Midwest and East Coast. With this reprieve, Dr. Murase pursued and received a BA from Temple University.

He then pursued graduate studies at Columbia University, earning a Master’s of Social Work in 1947. As a psychiatric social worker for the New York City Department of Hospitals, he worked in the notorious flophouses of the Bowery District at a time when the idea of an upscale grocery store such as Whole Foods locating there would have seemed absurd.

In 1952, he became the first American Fulbright Scholar to Japan, spending a year at Osaka University, examining the needs of wartime orphans and providing social work training to programs throughout Japan. Later, as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty in the early 1960s, the Columbia University School of Social Work designed the Mobilization for Youth, an experimental anti-poverty program that used community organization as a method. Dr. Murase served as the project’s field director for 1,000 low-income, heavily African American and Puerto Rican households in Manhattan’s Lower East side.  He received his DSW from Columbia in 1961.

In 1967, he became one of the first faculty members recruited to the new Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research at San Francisco State University, where he devoted his 33-year tenure to making the practice of social work more inclusive of diverse populations. Dr. Murase authored dozens of publications on the mental health and social service needs of Asian Pacific Americans, examining, for example, the mental health needs of Guam natives in California, and the help-seeking patterns of Southeast Asian refugees in San Francisco. In 1988, he founded the Institute for Multicultural Research and Social Work Practice at San Francisco State University and served as its first Director. The Institute recently celebrated its 20th anniversary.

Dr. Murase also served on the Council on Social Work Education’s Commission on Minority Affairs, as well as the National Association of Social Worker’s National Task Force on Minority Research, and consulted for the National Institute of Mental Health, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and the President’s Commission on Mental Health.

Throughout his career, he never forgot the work of the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council that enabled him to pursue his education. During the war years, Council members worked tirelessly negotiating admissions, scholarships, release from the internment camps, even FBI clearances for students who were accompanied by armed military police upon release from the camps in which they were held.  In 1980, the Nisei Student Relocation Commemorative Fund was created by students helped by the National Student Relocation Council. Dr. Murase served on the Board of Directors along with others who felt a profound obligation to return the tremendous generosity they received from people they never met. Each year, the volunteer-run Fund awards college scholarships to Southeast Asian students, many of whom arrived as refugees and are among the first in their families to attend college. To date, the Fund has awarded over $500,000 to nearly 600 students.

His survivors include his children Emily (Neal), Miriam (Greg), and Geoffrey (Christine), and grandchildren Junko, Izumi, Kenji, Noah, and Sakura. He is preceded in death by Seiko, his wife of 42 years. The family has asked that donations be made in his name to the Nisei Student Relocation Commemorative Fund, www.nsrcfund.org. Memorial services will be held on June 28th from 4:30 to 6 p.m. at the Japanese Cultural & Community Center of Northern California, 1840 Sutter, in San Francisco Japantown.

The foregoing information was extracted from an obituary written by the Murase family.