Nisei war veteran donates Congressional Gold Medal to UC Berkeley

Kenji Sayama. photo by Jon Kawamoto

BERKELEY, Calif. — Dr. Kenji Sayama is one of University of California, Berkeley’s staunchest supporters. He is forever grateful to the university for taking the extra step in sending his diploma in 1942 to the Santa Anita Assembly Center — despite being a few weeks shy of graduating as a senior.

That action, under the leadership of then-UC Berkeley President Robert G. Sproul and Provost Monroe E. Deutsch, was exceptional at the time — when widespread discrimination against Japanese Americans was commonplace. The university granted the diploma based on Sayama’s mid-term grades. And with the diploma, he was able to continue his education, later becoming a successful chief laboratory technologist and a director of laboratory operations.

So, it’s hardly surprising that Sayama thought of his alma mater when he received the Congressional Gold Medal during a Nov. 2, 2011 ceremony at the U.S. Capitol. Sayama, 91, of Downey, Calif., a former Military Intelligence Service member, was awarded the medal along with hundreds of other former members of the 100th Infantry Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team and Military Intelligence Service.

“Right after that (the Washington, D.C., ceremony), he wanted to donate it to the Bancroft Library,” said Sayama’s daughter, Jo Sakai.

“He’s a very practical man,” she said. “He didn’t always need to have the object to be near him. Cal has always been important to him. He has a lot of fond memories of Cal and is grateful to the university.

“It’s sort of nice — the medal will live on here forever.”

Sayama said: “It’s the logical place for it (the award) to be located in Berkeley.”

Sayama was the subject of an oral interview in 1999 that’s included among the materials on Japanese Americans in the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley. In 2011, the Bancroft Library was awarded two grants from the National Park Service to finance the digitization of materials recounting the experiences of Japanese Americans during World War II and the creation of a series of oral histories focused on the U.S. wartime concentration camps.

With the grants, the Bancroft Library is creating an interactive virtual archive of its extensive materials on the Japanese American incarceration experience — which include documents, oral histories, wartime photographs and camp drawings by former inmates. In doing so, it is making its collection more accessible to students, researchers and the public.

More than 99,000 documents, five hours of film, 21 hours of audio and video oral history interviews and 185,250 records kept in the National Archives and Records Administration’s holdings of the War Relocation Authority will be digitized as part of the project.

Congressional Gold Medal. photo by Jon Kawamoto

In a casual April 20 ceremony at the Bancroft Library, Sayama, who sported a Cal cap, his wife Hatsuko (Sue), and daughters Jo Sakai and Dorothy Sayama, joined Bancroft Library officials and Dan Cheatham, who conducted the oral history interview with Sayama in 1999. Sayama presented his Congressional Gold Medal to Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau, who gratefully accepted the gift. In addition, the Sayamas gave a check to the Bancroft Library.

“We’re just very excited to host this event,” said Bancroft Library Director Elaine Tennant. “It’s a happy conclusion to a chapter of California history that began sorrowfully and it’s absolutely memorable to have the Sayama family here to share it with.”

Tennant said, because of budget cuts, only 10 percent of the library’s acquisitions come from the state and she said the Japanese American materials make up a “very heavily used part” of the collection.

“We’re so thrilled about this,” she said of the award presentation. “I don’t think that anyone ever thought that the medal would come to the Bancroft Library.”

The Congressional Medal of Honor is bestowed by the U.S. Congress and is, along with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States. It is awarded to an individual who performs an outstanding deed or act of service to the security, prosperity and national interest of the United States. The first recipient was George Washington — and now, those Nisei veterans who served in World War II.

Sayama grew up in the Nikkei enclave of Boyle Heights in East Los Angeles and moved up to Berkeley, where he was a student at the University of California. His roommate was the late William C. Rockwell, the founder of Oski — the beloved Cal bear mascot.

After the uncertainty of the period after the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7, 1941, Sayama left the university on March 27, 1942 to return to his home in Los Angeles. He was shy several weeks of completing his senior year but the university, on the basis of his mid-term grades, granted Sayama his diploma dated May 27, 1942.

“Even though the United States government was not able to determine my loyalty to the United States at that time, the university under the leadership of President (Robert Gordon) Sproul and Provost (Monroe E.) Deutsch had complete faith and trust in the Japanese Americans and did all they could to help us,” Sayama said in his oral history. “My receiving the diploma in such a timely manner was one example of their concern. Having possession of this document turned out to be a godsend because as soon as I was discharged from the Army, I was able to continue on with my education without a hitch.”

Sayama received the diploma at the Santa Anita Assembly Center, where the Sayama family was sent. They were later transferred to the permanent wartime camp in Rohwer, Ark., where he taught eighth-grade science.

A few months later, he recalled, a team of Army personnel visited Rohwer and talked to the young Nisei about enlisting.

“At that time, our draft classification was 4C, Enemy Aliens, so they weren’t able to draft us,” Sayama said in his oral history. “But, if anyone was interested in doing so, we could volunteer to enter the Army. There were 12 volunteers from our camp, including myself, who decided to enlist in the Army. Some of our neighbors criticized my mother for having a son who was foolish enough to enlist in the Army after the government evicted us from our home and placed us in an internment camp, but my mother was proud of what I did.”

After receiving his security clearance and being inducted into the MIS, Sayama underwent training, including a Japanese language class in Minnesota, basic training in Alabama and officer training in Georgia. By this time, the war in Europe and the South Pacific had ended and Sayama’s commission called for duty with the Occupation Force. Just before his two-year duty in Japan was to begin, he and Sue were married in Minneapolis.

He served as an interpreter for a study of the Japanese police system established by Gen. Douglas MacArthur and visited several Japanese police stations in various prefectures. He was discharged in 1947.

Using the GI Bill, he earned a master’s degree in zoology in 1950 and a doctorate in philosophy in 1953 from Cal. In 1957, he was appointed chief laboratory technologist in a lab owned by the Gallatin Medical Group in Downey, where he worked for the next 39 years.

In addition, he and former Cal classmate Leonard Yamasaki formed a partnership and began the Centro Analytical Medical Laboratory in Downey in 1969. He served as its director of laboratory operations until he retired in 1997.

In 1992, a special convocation was held at UC Berkeley to honor the Nisei members of the class of 1942. Sayama was among the 18 alumni in attendance, donning the cap and gown he should have worn 50 years before.

At the medal presentation ceremony, Sayama was appreciative and honored by the attention he received.

“I didn’t really think it was going to be this extensive,” he said.

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