LOS ANGELES The University of Southern California announced in October that it hopes to atone in the spring of 2022 for the discriminatory actions it took against its Japanese American students who had their college careers disrupted by the university after they and their families were expelled from the West Coast and imprisoned in concentration camps during World War II.
President Carol Folt announced that USC will award posthumous degrees and apologize to the Nisei whose chances to complete their college careers during the war were undermined as the university refused to release transcripts for students who wanted to transfer to other schools. USC is now trying to identify the families of about 121 students who were affected during the 1941-42 academic year.
On Feb. 19, 1942, after President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which paved the way for the United States government to forcibly remove and imprison 120,000 West Coast residents of Japanese descent, many college students careers were left in limbo.
All West Coast colleges, except USC, provided transcripts for removed students so they could continue their education at other schools. USC President Rufus B. von KleinSmid’s policy resulted in some students being unable to continue and complete their education.
Susan H. Kamei, a lecturer at USC’s Department of History, said in an e-mail, There are many first-hand accounts of Nisei high school and college students who after the Pearl Harbor bombing decided not to continue being in school rather than deal with the intense hostility directed at them. In other accounts, they talked about being shunned by classmates and others whom they thought were their friends and their parents advising them not to go out, fearful that they would be attacked.
The Nisei students distress motivated various organizations, including Quaker religious groups, to form the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council, which encouraged schools in other parts of the country to accept the Nisei. The Council’s efforts enabled many of those students to continue their education and graduate from other schools.
Two students experiences
Most Nisei students didn’t talk about their experiences during the war, leaving their families unaware of their USC connection and making them difficult to locate nearly 80 years later. Family members of two Nisei students, Hitoshi Sameshima and Dr. John Fujioka, told of their Nisei relatives experiences.
Sameshima, born in 1921 in Pasadena, Calif., was a junior at USC. He and his family were shipped to Tulare Assembly Center before being incarcerated at Gila River concentration camp in Arizona. His family would remain there for three-and-a-half years.
Sameshima was allowed to leave camp to attend the University of Denver in Colorado, where he earned his college degree just before being drafted into the Army in 1944. Sameshima served in the Military Intelligence Service and became a translator and interpreter in the Philippines and in Tokyo as part of the occupation forces
“My uncle never said much about having to leave USC during the war or that the president of the university had basically kicked them out,” Sameshima’s nephew Tim Yuge said in a telephone interview. “I think he was like Nisei or Issei who feel like, shikata ga-nai (it can’t be helped).”
His uncle wanted to attend USC because they offered a degree in foreign trade, his nephew revealed. He had never been to Japan, but yet he was proud of learning about Japanese things, hearing about his relatives in Japan. He had an interest in going to Japan since he was young.
Sameshima, who worked for Los Angeles County for 38 years before retiring in 1985, “was not one to harbor any ill will,” his nephew recalled. “He relished being of Japanese heritage. You know you’re American, but you respect the culture of Japan. That’s one of the things for the Nisei to be proud of their heritage, but they wanted to be looked upon as Americans.”
“My uncle thought being sent to camps was unconstitutional,” Yuge said. “In his mind, he always wanted to tell his story, so he volunteered at JANM (the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles), and because he was fluent in Japanese, he could also explain the camp experience to visitors from Japan.”
Sameshima was among a group of Nisei veterans who received the Congressional Gold Medal in Washington, D.C., in 2011, and was also honored in a Congressional Gold Medal ceremony in Little Tokyo the following year. “That was a big deal for him,” Yuge said.
Sameshima also received an honorary bachelor’s degree from USC in May 2012, along with eight other Nisei former Trojans whose education was interrupted by USC policy, Yuge recalled. “I had the pleasure of walking with him on stage when he got the award. It felt great, quite an honor that my uncle got an apology and an honorary degree from USC.”
Avoided Long Camp Stay
Hawai’i-born John Masato Fujioka was in his first year of dental school at USC when Executive Order 9066 was issued and he was sent to the Santa Anita Racetrack in Arcadia, where the horse stables were converted into a camp to hold 17,000 people.
Allowed to leave Santa Anita after a few months to enroll at Drake University while applying to dental schools in the Midwest,
Fujioka was accepted to St. Louis University School of Dentistry where he received his DDS in 1946. Fujioka returned to Hawai’i in 1946 to practice dentistry.
In 1979, his son, Dr. Larry Fujioka, joined him in practice to form the Fujioka Dental Group, Inc. In 1998, when Larry was installed as president of the Hawaii Dental Association, the Fujiokas became the first father-son presidents in the 100-year history of that organization.
“Even though my dad wasn’t one to go on and on, recounting his days at USC, he did convey to us a sense of enjoyment of his time there, especially of the friendships he forged among the other student residents dorming at the Gakuseikai (sort of a Japanese fraternity house),” his son stated via e-mail. “I assume that up until he was forced to leave the school, he really enjoyed college life as a Trojan. He was always proud to wear his USC sweatshirt around the house when we were growing up.”
The elder Fujioka “never expressed his feelings” about the action taken by President Rufus von KleinSmid to withhold the release of transcripts, and other than acknowledging that he was sent to Santa Anita, his father did not talk about the experience, his son related.
On May 11, 2012, in Los Angeles, 70 years after John Fujioka had to leave USC, his eldest grandson, Jonathan Fujioka, accepted the honorary alumni certificate, on behalf of his late grandfather, from USC President C.L. Max Nikias. This certificate recognizes Nisei students enrolled in USC who were forced to abandon their studies in 1942, thus denying them the opportunity to complete their degrees at USC.
“At first, I thought that it was a nice gesture by USC to bestow the honorary certificate posthumously to my father in 2012 until I later learned of the school’s role in not releasing transcripts and refusing to offer a formal apology to all the students affected by that decision,” his son said. “I really commend USC President Folt for being so forthright in overriding a policy on awarding posthumous honorary degrees, and for issuing a formal apology to the Nisei students.”
USC had previously given honorary degrees to nine surviving students in 2012 after a 2009 law required California public universities to do so. But the school wouldn’t give the same honor to those who had died, citing a policy against awarding posthumous degrees. But Folt decided to make an exception, according to NBC Asian America.
She said the plan was set in motion after she got a letter from Jonathan Kaji, the president of the school’s Asian Pacific Alumni Association, which had been pushing for such action since 2007. Folt said it was Kaji, who laid bare the injustices to her. Folt said the university is working with several Japanese American community organizations to find the families of former USC students and is calling on the public to help.
Brings Closure to Families
“On behalf of the families of the USC Nisei students, I am very happy that the USC Board of Trustees and President have decided to issue an official apology and honorary degrees to the family members,” Kaji stated in an e-mail to Nichi Bei Weekly. “This decision now brings closure to the families whose futures were impacted.”
Kaji said he got involved in the push for justice for those Nisei students when he became president of the USC APAA in late 2007, citing actions taken in Washington state to offer honorary degrees to Nisei students impacted by Executive Order 9066. Out of curiosity, he asked USC Professor of History Dr. Lon Kurashige: What, if any action, did USC take following Pearl Harbor and Executive Order 9066? Dr. Kurashige then found reports that USC was the only West Coast university that refused to release the academic transcripts of its Nisei students.
Following that discovery, the USC APAA board of directors passed a resolution in October 2007 urging the USC board of trustees and the administration to issue an apology and honorary degrees to the USC Nisei. USC APAA’s best estimate is that there were at least 121 Nisei who were members of the USC Trojan Japanese Club in 1942 that could have been hurt by USC’s actions, Kaji stated. “To the best of our knowledge, all of the Nisei have since passed away.”
The official apology and honorary degree give the Nisei families “some measure of justice and finality,” stated Kaji. “However, we can never know what the total impact was on each individual Nisei and how USC’s punitive actions altered the trajectory of their careers. Some individuals may have never returned to college and, as a result, earned less income over the course of their adult lives. The trauma of the evacuation plus the repudiation by USC of the Nisei’s academic record likely resulted in mental and emotional distress that rippled to the succeeding generations.”
“I think what USC did back in those days was absolutely not in alignment with our values as an institution today,” USC Associate Senior Vice President for Alumni Relations Patrick Auerbach said in a telephone interview. “It’s something the institution regrets, and now that we have taken this opportunity to right this historical wrong, we acknowledge that everything this university did was unjust, and that’s why we’re doing what we’re doing today.”
Grace Shiba, executive director of the USC APAA, who had one relative in Hawai’i, a dental student who was affected by USC’s actions, added over the telephone that it was “an unfortunate decision made by the leadership of the university at that time, and we now have new leadership under Carol Folt’s presidency. The instant she heard about it, she realized that we needed to correct what was done wrong.”
USC’s actions against the Nisei students in 1942, as well as postwar treatment of former Trojans who wanted to resume their studies, were “shameful,” declared Auerbach. “Unfortunately, we can’t turn the clock back, but what we can do is offer an apology for our actions and assure that we’re going to make an exception to our long-standing policy of not awarding honorary degrees posthumously, by actually awarding posthumous degrees to these Nisei students.”
This conferring of honorary degrees will also bring closure to families, Shiba believes. “So many of the students, and families are trying to find out as much as they can about their loved ones that were here at USC, and even providing a photo brings such a joy to many of the families because, in many cases, that’s going to be the first and probably the only photo they’re going to see of their loved ones while they were attending college.”
Shiba announced that Folt will confer degrees to the families on April 1, 2022, which will be the Asian Pacific Alumni Association’s Scholarship and Awards Gala. In her presidential remarks at commencement in May 2022, Folt will also address the Nisei students topic, and a list of the Nisei students will be included in the commencement booklet.
“It’s something that’s long overdue from the institution and we are grateful for everyone calling in and asking for more information about it,” stated Auerbach. “It’s something that the university really looks forward to doing, so that we can move on as an institution and bring closure to the families and do what we can to right a historical wrong.”
Richard Watanabe, professor of population and public health sciences, Keck School of Medicine of USC, posted a request in the JACL Weekly Digest that USC is seeking all Nisei students whose educations were disrupted by World War II and the racist policies of then-University President von KleinSmid by bestowing honorary degrees to them or their descendants. Individuals who know of anyone who should be honored are asked to contact him at email@example.com. “Please help us ensure all who deserve this extremely belated, but important, acknowledgment is properly honored.”