For UCLA Nisei, ‘a dream deferred has now been achieved’


AT LAST — Fumio Robert “Bob” Naka (left), pictured with UCLA Chancellor Gene Block, gave the commencement address at UCLA’s graduation ceremony on May 15. Naka was one of 48 Japanese American students who attended the ceremony and received their honorary degrees. photo by Todd Cheney for UCLA

LOS ANGELES — For 48 Japanese American students whose dream of acquiring an education at UCLA was cut short in February 1942, more than two months after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, their dream was finally achieved when they received honorary degrees in a traditional graduation ceremony May 15 on the UCLA campus.

Nineteen of those 48 former students, most now in their 80s and 90s, attended the ceremony, coming from as far away as Massachusetts and Florida, although most were from California.

Another 29 degrees were given to family members of deceased honorees and those unable to attend. An additional 26 degrees will be mailed to former students who were unable to attend or to family members of deceased students.

Following President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066, approximately 700 University of California students at four campuses were among more than 110,000 Japanese nationals and American citizens of Japanese ancestry forcibly relocated to American concentration camps. About 200 of them were UCLA students. Some graduated from other universities and others never returned to college.

The UC Board of Regents voted in July 2009 to suspend its moratorium on honorary degrees in order to recognize them.

California Assemblyman Warren Furutani (D-Long Beach) spearheaded efforts to pass the legislation that was signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in October 2009, calling on California’s colleges and universities to extend honorary degrees to former students who were incarcerated during World War II.

“What we have here is history coming around 360 degrees,” Furutani proclaimed. “A dream deferred has now been achieved.”

Lane Hirabayashi, chair of UCLA’s Department of Asian American Studies, related how so many Nikkei — including his uncle Gordon Hirabayashi, who was convicted and imprisoned for defying government curfew and relocation orders — suffered setbacks and lost years because of the evacuation and incarceration. “The diplomas offered today are a long time coming … Today’s ceremony is one more step toward reconciliation and healing.”

‘Most Trusted American’

Fumio Robert Naka, 86, who was sent to the Manzanar concentration camp in the eastern California desert, left to earn his bachelor’s degree from the University of Missouri, his master’s from the University of Minnesota, and his Ph.D. from Harvard in electrical engineering.

The Massachusetts resident, who went on to become one of the nation’s foremost engineers and worked on developing the U-2 spy plane as well as secret radar technology, remembered that his former supervisor once told him, “You’ve gone from being a distrusted American to one of the most trusted Americans.”

Unaware of Civil Rights

When the Nisei students left school to be evacuated, “we didn’t have any choice,” explained Yuriko Ito Takenaka, who attended UCLA during her freshman year before ending up at Heart Mountain, Wyo., in 1942. “It wasn’t right, but you couldn’t fight it because there was no leadership. The Nisei were too young and weren’t really aware of civil rights.”

Allowed to leave Heart Mountain after two years, Los Angeles-born Takenaka attended Oberlin College in Ohio until the war ended in 1945. Returning to California, she studied nursing at Stanford University, worked at Stanford University Hospital in San Francisco until 1959, and then returned to UCLA for one year to earn a certificate in public health.

She is not bitter about what happened, stated Takenaka, a resident of Laguna Niguel in Orange County, Calif. since 1972. “Most of us were young and single, and we took it in stride. I think it was harder for people with small children.”

Heart Mountain Was ‘Terrible’

Although she was spat on by a train conductor while traveling to the Midwest, the discrimination she faced on the outside was nothing compared to what the Nikkei internees had to endure in camp, declared Masaye Nagao Nakamura, a UCLA freshman permitted to leave Santa Anita Assembly Center in April 1942 to enroll at Park College in Missouri while the rest of her family went to Heart Mountain.

“The spitting was shocking,” revealed the Hawai‘i-born Nisei, who grew up in Seattle and Los Angeles. “The college president warned that … some of the townspeople of Parkville had threatened to lynch the Japanese students. Gradually, the people found out we spoke English and we were Americans. It took a while, but they finally came around and accepted us.”

“A terrible place” was how Nakamura described Heart Mountain, which she visited during Christmas break in her junior year. “I cried because it was so desolate and bleak … and my family was living in a black tarpaper barrack, hovering around a coal stove to keep warm. I felt guilty that they had to live in such conditions and I was out of there going to school.”

Nakamura graduated with an undergraduate degree in English, earned a master’s degree from Columbia University, and after the war ended, obtained her teaching credential from UC Berkeley. She taught middle school and served as a school administrator in Oakland until her retirement in 1987. Nakamura and her husband Noboru, live in Orinda, Calif.

Herb Murayama, a prewar resident of what is now Los Angeles’ Koreatown, told the Nichi Bei Weekly, “The ceremony was very impressive and brings back memories of the good old UCLA days when I was a sophomore. I enjoyed my life there for three semesters.”

Disappointed at being taken out of UCLA and sent with his family to a concentration camp at Jerome, Ark., Murayama eventually gained his release to attend Illinois Tech in Chicago.

Following service in the Army’s Military Intelligence Service, he returned to Los Angeles in 1946 and joined his brother in business.

“I continued my education at USC to get my degree,” he said. “I enjoyed UCLA much more than USC.”

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