For most of the approximately 400 students who participated in the University of California Berkeley’s Dec. 13 winter graduation ceremony, the day represented the beginning of an exciting future as college grads. However, for a select group, the day marked a bittersweet end to a painful chapter in their past. Forty-two of the approximately 500 Nikkei whose education at Cal was interrupted by their mass incarceration in American concentration camps during World War II received diplomas with the Winter class of 2009, and 78 Nikkei, who could not attend, received diplomas through family or other personal representatives.
Earlier this year, the University of California Regents voted unanimously to break their moratorium and issue honorary degrees for the first time in 73 years, a move that proved popular with the Nikkei community at a time when the state university system faces considerable controversy over tuition hikes and mandatory faculty furloughs.
“It felt wonderful, it was a great experience,” said honoree speaker and community activist Chizu Iiyama, who was a senior at Cal when the war reached the United States. “There were people I hadn’t seen in 60 years, it was like a reunion.”
She expressed appreciation to the school, but also to the Japanese American community that helped organize the event and outreach.
“It was really a labor of love on the part of so many in the community.”
Much of the ceremony, she added, felt like markers of progress. Norman Mineta, a Japanese American who has held cabinet-level positions in two presidential administrations, was the keynote speaker.
For Iiyama and many other honorary diploma recipients, the ceremony wasn’t simply a happy end to a sad story, but an opportunity to reflect on a complex past experience.
“It’s an opportunity to think about education… and our experience,” she said, explaining that the mass incarceration was the biggest, but not the only, obstacle to academic achievement for Japanese American students. She remembered being told by her college advisor that she could not become a teacher after graduation.
Frank Inami, another honorary degree recipient, recounted a similar story. When he first arrived at the school, a counselor told him to give up his dream of studying electric engineering, explaining that Westinghouse and General Electric were the primary companies that hired engineers and they would not “hire Orientals.” She advised him, instead, to take business classes so that he could take over his father’s mom-and-pop grocery store.
Acting on “blind faith,” Inami continued to pursue an engineering degree and moved into the Japanese Students Club, a house near campus on Euclid Avenue, which a group of Nikkei Cal students purchased, as they were not allowed in fraternities or sorority houses.
During the war, all Nikkei students were forcibly removed from UC campuses — despite vehement protest from then-UC President Robert Sproul and many faculty members.
Like many Nisei students, Inami was sent to a concentration camp with his family. He ended up continuing school at Illinois Tech, a private school with a higher priced tuition and lower quality education.
“I was let out of the camp on ‘educational leave,’” he explained. “But it was like being on probation, [the War RelocationAuthority] checked in on us every so often.”
At his Illinois Tech graduation, Inami wore plainclothes and his family, still incarcerated, could not attend the ceremony.
“I just got up and received a piece of paper,” the 88-year-old Livermore, Calif. resident recalled. The Berkeley graduation was “quite a contrast.”
“We wore the official Berkeley caps and gowns and walked down the aisle with the current graduates,” Inami beamed. He was surrounded by more friends than he had time to greet, including many diploma recipients, some who came from as far as Texas, that he tracked down himself to inform them of the ceremony.
Some of the former students Inami contacted elected not to come, he explained, because the diploma no longer had practical value.
“They told me, ‘Gee, it would’ve really meant something back in ‘52,’”
But for Inami the diploma holds tremendous symbolic value.
“My late friend Min Sano, even though he was evacuated to Denver, went to every Cal game, he had a Cal vanity plate on his car, but he never really felt he was truly part of Cal,” Inami said. “I was the same way… until today.”
Sano’s widow attended in his stead and was so impressed with the ceremony that she contacted Inami to plan a get-together to talk about the day’s events. She was one of many who attended to receive a degree on behalf of a deceased family member.
One of San Francisco’s Japantown community leaders, Donald K. Tamaki of Minami Tamaki LLP, accepted a degree for his late father Minoru. The elder Tamaki technically graduated in May 1942, but he could not attend the ceremony because he was incarcerated. The University mailed his diploma to the Tanforan Assembly Center.
“My father never framed his diploma,” Tamaki told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “He kept it wrapped up in its mailing tube.
“I always thought it was an interesting metaphor for the reality of their generation,” he continued. “[The diplomas] were their tickets to membership in American society, it represented their hopes for the future, but it was sent to them in prison.”
Tamaki said he believes his late father would appreciate that his alma matter had finally addressed the issue, though he added that he wished it had been done sooner.
“It was a very moving event, all the family members of the deceased graduates felt the same way,” Tamaki said. “This was something that was important on a personal level, but also on a bigger educational level, the regents needed to recognize that this was unfinished business; it’s important to make sure it never happens again.”
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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 College 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 email@example.com.