While his Japanese-American family was interned during World War II, Gyo Obata found a welcoming place to learn and thrive at Washington University.
In 1942, approximately 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry — two-thirds of them American born — were forced from their homes and into internment camps.
Gyo Obata’s family was ordered to the Tanofran detention center in San Bruno, California. But as they prepared to leave, Gyo received word that he’d been admitted to the architecture program at Washington University in St. Louis. He boarded a train that evening.
“If you got an acceptance from a university away from the West Coast, then you could leave California,” Obata says. “I was able to leave the night before my family was moved into camp.”
Obata, who graduated in 1945, would emerge as one of the most influential architects of his generation, founding global architectural firm HOK with fellow Washington University alumni George Hellmuth and George Kassabaum.
Today, HOK employs more than 1,700 people in 23 offices worldwide, placing it among the world’s largest firms. Obata’s design credits range from the Saint Louis Science Center’s James S. McDonnell Planetarium to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.
Obata shares his story in words and video at the Source, with additional commentary by Washington University professors Rebecca Copeland, chair of the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures in Arts & Sciences, and John Inazu, the Sally D. Danforth Distinguished Professor of Law & Religion.