Chitoshi Akizuki was a San Jose State University freshman and a member of the basketball team when his studies and those of other Japanese American students were interrupted by World War II.
“I was just beginning,” said Akizuki, 87, a San Jose resident.
Akizuki was one of 24 former Nisei students recognized with honorary degrees at San Jose State’s university-wide commencement ceremony on May 29, where more than 8,000 graduates were honored.
The university’s research shows that about 125 Japanese Americans left San Jose State in 1942 in compliance with Executive Order 9066.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the executive order, which forced the removal of about 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast during World War II.
Commencement speaker and San Jose State alumnus Jon Iwata, a Japanese American who serves as a senior vice president of marketing and communications at IBM, said the Nisei overcame difficult obstacles.
“These individuals succeeded despite having their lives uprooted through no fault of their own,” he said.
San Jose State and California’s other universities are awarding nearly 250 honorary degrees to Nisei, the children of Japanese immigrants, whose education was interrupted when they were sent to remote concentration camps.
San Jose State President Jon Whitmore said, “Though long overdue, these honorary degrees represent a righting of a past wrong. The California State University and San Jose State University are honored to bestow them to our Nisei students or their representatives.”
Last year, the California Nisei College Diploma Project was created to honor more than 2,500 Japanese Americans enrolled in public and private colleges in the state in December 1941.
Honorees at the San Jose ceremony included five Nisei in their late 80s and early 90s. In addition, the 7-year-old and 11-year-old grandsons of Mary Agawa accepted the honorary degree on her behalf. Among those honored were Albert Mineta and the late Helen Mineta, the brother and sister of former Congressman Norman Mineta. San Jose State judo coach Yosh Uchida was also honored.
Uchida, 90, who has coached the judo program since 1946, said he felt honored to be part of the graduation.
“It’s an emotional time,” said Uchida, who was drafted into the Army in 1941 and returned to San Jose State to finish his degree in 1946.
Akizuki and his family were temporarily incarcerated at the Santa Anita Assembly Center, then transferred to the Heart Mountain, Wyo. concentration camp, for the rest of the war.
Akizuki, who was also a member of the track team at San Jose State, never returned to school. He worked for the U.S. Postal Service for 30 years.
Akizuki’s wife, Kim, said that the ceremony offered an opportunity for people to learn about the concentration camp experience.
“A lot of people don’t know about it and can learn. Our parents had to leave their homes and sell their cars,” said Kim Akizuki, who met her husband in Heart Mountain.
Chitoshi Akizuki said he was happy to take part in the ceremony and to receive an honorary degree.
“It was pretty nice,” he said, adding that he remembers traveling on a San Jose State bus with his teammates to a basketball game in Monterey shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor when suddenly U.S. troop movements interrupted the trip. The team never made it to the game.
Fumiko Uriu, 90, was an accounting major just starting out at San Jose State when her studies were interrupted by the war.
She was not incarcerated during the war, as she was a resident of Denver, Colo. Uriu eventually went on to take the Civil Service Exam and became a state auditor for the California Franchise Tax Board.
Uriu’s brother, Dale Uriu, said that he was very proud of his sister and thankful that she was able to start her education at San Jose State.
“She’s long overdue,” he said, adding that his sister was initially reluctant to attend the graduation ceremony and that it took some persuasion on the part of him and his wife to get her to attend.
“We had to twist her arm to come here. She said that she passed the [Civil Service] exam on her own,” he said.
Dale Uriu added that Fumiko Uriu raised him and his 10 siblings after their mother died in 1946.
“She fed us kids. She sacrificed her life for us. She was a mother and a protector,” he said.
Akizuki’s granddaughter, Leslie, said that she was proud to watch her grandfather receive his honorary degree.
“It was emotional and a lot of the graduates were crying,” said Leslie Akizuki, adding that she is graduating from the University of California, Irvine.
“It’s special because my grandfather and I are both graduating,” she said.