Honored: 67 Years Late, UCSF Awards Nikkei with Diplomas


Three of the eight living honorees were able to attend: (L to R) Grace Aiko Amemiya, Setsuo Torigoe and Edith Oto. The graduates were given leis with blue and gold origami cranes woven between white flowers.

Three of the eight living honorees were able to attend: (L to R) Grace Aiko Amemiya, Setsuo Torigoe and Edith Oto. The graduates were given leis with blue and gold origami cranes woven between white flowers. photo by Vivien Kim Thorp

On Dec. 4, Edith Oto received a degree from the School of Nursing at the University of California San Francisco. She also turned 90. The Napa native was one of the 68 former UCSF students who was granted an honorary degree almost 68 years after Executive Order 9066 derailed her education. Diplomas were handed out during a ceremony that was dedicated to honoring the Nikkei, held in the Robertson Auditorium at the UCSF Mission Bay campus.

These honorary diplomas marked the first time in 37 years that honorary degrees have been presented by the University of California. The UC Board of Regents had voted  on July 16 to grant honorary degrees to the students of Japanese descent whose collegiate education — and lives — were disrupted during World War II. Many were incarcerated in American concentration camps. The diplomas were given regardless of whether or not the former student eventually completed a UCSF degree.

Honorees were students of dentistry, medicine, nursing or pharmacy when the order was issued in 1942, so most degrees were given to surviving family members. Only three of the eight living honorees were able to attend: Grace Aiko Amemiya,  Edith Oto and Setsuo Torigoe.

USSF' School of Pharmacy's class of 1942. photo by Vivien Kim Thorp

Torigoe, who had been a junior in the school of dentistry, was relocated during the war to Colorado. Although he eventually went on to receive his DDS from Washington University in St. Louis, the 91-year-old said his heart had always been at UCSF.

“It’s an honor,” Torigoe said before the ceremony. “I feel so happy, it makes me cry.”

Each of the three present honorees, dressed in black graduation caps and gowns, received standing ovations as they walked up to the front of the auditorium and accepted their diplomas.

Amemiya, who grew up in Vacaville, Calif., was at the School of Nursing when the order came. Her family was eventually moved to the Gila River concentration camp in Arizona. But Amemiya continued her nursing studies, caring for servicemen after the war and eventually earning a degree from St. Mary’s University in Minnesota.

“It’s just wonderful,” Amemiya said, when asked about her UCSF degree. “So exciting. And not just for all of us here but for everyone involved. There were so many supporters and family members who helped.”

Amemiya, who lives in Ames, Iowa, attended the ceremony with her son and his wife, who reside in Long Beach, Calif.

Siblings John Haratani of Merced and Kathy Kinhara of San Jose, along with a friend, wait to receive a nursing degree for their late mother, Michiko Mary Haratani. photo by Vivien Kim Thorp

Honorees, or the family members representing them, were given lei with blue-and-gold origami cranes interspersed between white flowers. Each diploma, bound in blue, bore the Latin inscription, “Inter Silvas Academi Restituere Iustitiam,” meaning “to restore justice among the groves of the academe.”

There were an estimated 819 students of Japanese ancestry attending the University of California system in the fall of 1941. After President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued the orders to relocate, very few of these seniors were able to graduate in 1942.

Some students returned after being released from the concentration camps and completed their degrees.Kathy Kirihara, an interior designer from San Jose, and her brother John Haritani of Merced came to represent their mother Michiko Mary Haritani, a student in the nursing school who passed away 11 years ago. Haritani had come back to UCSF after being released from the Granada (Amache) concentration camp in Colorado and completed her degree.

However, the majority of students never came back to the University of California, which then had four campuses — San Francisco, Berkeley, the School of Agriculture (now Davis) and Los Angeles. Instead, some completed their studies at other universities, many in the Midwest, while some never returned to school at all.

Suzi Bell, who lives in Indiana, followed in her later mother's footsteps and became a nurse. photo by Vivien Kim Thorp

After the ceremony, Suzi Bell of Indianapolis, Ind., proudly held onto the diploma of her late mother, Miyoko Ruth Miyamoto. Miyamoto was able to complete her nursing studies at St. Louis University. She and her husband, Joseph Ogura, who had already graduated from the UCSF medical school at the time of the order, spent the next several years living apart, as she finished school and he worked in Cincinnati.

Bell, a nurse like her mother, learned of the degree just a week before the ceremony from a cousin she hadn’t seen in 45 years.

“It’s just unreal,” said Bell, who attended with her husband. “I was so excited to tell my co-workers, who are also nurses, that I was coming to California to accept an honorary degree. They all got goose pimples when I told them my mother’s story.”

Adam Walloch and his cousin Ali Namura also flew to California for the ceremony. The two Colorado residents accepted an honorary degree for their grandfather, Emory Namura, who passed away in 2003. Namura, who had been a first-year student at the UCSF School of Dentistry, was sent to the Granada concentration camp. He became an army medic, eventually settling in Colorado where he worked at a Veterans Affairs hospital.

Yukiko Retzick of San Francisco and Ali Namura and Adam Walloch from Colorado accepted a degree from the School of Dentistry from their late grandfather, Emory Namura. photo by Vivien Kim Thorp

“He’d be very honored,” said Walloch, who was close to his grandfather. “It would be awesome if he could be here.”

The ceremony included addresses from Yasumasa Nagamine, the consul general of Japan in San Francisco, as well as UCSF Chancellor Susan Desmond-Hellman and Judy Sakaki, the vice president of student affairs in the Office of the President. Sakaki, along with UC Davis law professor Daniel Simmons, co-chaired the task force that persuaded the Board of Regents to implement the degrees.

Patrick Hayashi, the former University of California associate president and a UC Berkeley graduate, gave the keynote speech. UCSF stood by the Japanese American students, he told the audience. “Others persecuted us,” he said. “You protected us.” Hayashi spoke of faculty and administrators who helped students finish coursework and prepare for early board exams. He also gave praise to the honorees, “those with us today and those with us in spirit,“ and their experiences during World War II. “When you spoke of the harshness,” he said, “you also made sure we knew there was kindness.”

Siblings John Haratani of Merced and Kathy Kinhara of San Jose, along with a friend, wait to receive a nursing degree for their late mother, Michiko Mary Haratani. photo by Vivien Kim Thorp

The University of California is not the first university to honor students whose studies were derailed by EO 9066. The University of Washington, the University of Oregon and Oregon State University have given former students honorary degrees. A decade ago, San Francisco State University also honored students who were uprooted from their classes during World War II.

Before the ceremony, a UCSF staff member passed out tissues to family members of honorees. An air of pride and nostalgia was present throughout the ceremony, which ended with the orchestra playing Glen Miller’s lively big-band-era hit, “In the Mood.” But there was also a little sadness.

“My classmates aren’t here,” Torigoe said, as he scrolled down the names of honorees from the School of Dentistry. “Fujimoto, Inouye … Hikoyeda. Tom Hiura, he practiced with me. Hongo practiced with me too. I used to know Isamu … They would be very happy.”

There will be three additional UC ceremonies granting honorary degrees to Japanese American college students. UC Davis will be at 10 a.m. on Dec. 12 at the ARC Pavilion. UC Berkeley’s ceremony is at 3 p.m. on Dec. 13 at the Haas Pavilion. The UCLA ceremony will be held at a to-be-determined date during the spring of 2010. For more information, visit http://honorary.universityofcalifornia.edu.

Honoree Grace Aiko Amemiya, photo by Vivien Kim Thorp

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Nisei Diploma Project

Assembly Bill 37, authored by California state Assemblymember Warren Furutani (D-Long Beach), bestows honorary degrees to Japanese Americans, living or deceased, who were forced to leave their college studies and were incarcerated in America’s concentration camps during World War II. In support of the bill, the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California’s California Nisei Diploma Project is currently seeking Nikkei honorees. The project is charged with, among other things, assisting with outreach to aid students in receiving their honorary degrees. For more information about the California Nisei College Diploma Project, contact the JCCCNC at (415) 567-5505 or caniseiproject@jcccnc.org.

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