"A Wonderful Gesture"
Former Student to Receive Honorary Degree
Monday, December 8, 1941 was a day Carl Yoshimine has never forgotten. It isn’t so much the details he recalls as the strange feeling he couldn’t seem to shake.
“Emotionally, it was awkward,” he remembers.
The day before, he had been as shocked as everyone by news that the Japanese navy had attacked Pearl Harbor. This was the first day of classes since the attack and much of the country was still coming to grips with the stunning developments that would plunge America into World War II. When he arrived on campus from his family’s home in Ocean Beach, the first semester freshman encountered a subdued student body.
“Everybody was in small groups. All the students were kind of shocked and they were talking with each other,” Yoshimine recalls. “And I guess because of my ancestry – I’m of Japanese ancestry – I just felt kind of awkward. I wasn’t responsible for any of it and I didn’t feel guilty, but it was just an awkward day for me.”
As Yoshimine remembers it, none of his classmates were hostile or accusatory. He has no memory of a negative incident at San Diego State.
“Not on campus,” he insists. “There were other incidents after that when we were in public places. There were some remarks that were not very pleasant, but never on campus.”
As months passed, Yoshimine fell back into the routine of studying business and economics; classes the teenager thought would provide the best background for a solid career. But he came to discover a new favorite subject.
“I enjoyed history,” he recalls. “At the time there was Dr. (A.P.) Nasatir and I thought he was someone with a very good grasp of the South American culture and I really enjoyed his classes.”
Before Yoshimine could change educational directions, however, a government decree would alter the course of his life. Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, authorized the U.S. military to relocate Japanese Americans, including Yoshimine and his family, from along the Pacific coast to inland internment camps.
“AND SO WE GOT ON THE TRAIN”
Word came suddenly in April, 1942. “We received that order and so we had to move. We had to leave our homes,” the San Diego native and Point Loma High School graduate remembers. He and his family were told to report to the downtown train station.
“According to the order, you were only to take what you could carry, so we each packed a suitcase and then we packed a duffel bag because it was too difficult to carry two suitcases. It was just the basic things that we would need - mostly clothing and necessities. We heard that we may go to some area that, weather-wise, was not like San Diego. It seems strange now because nowadays everyone is wearing jeans and Levis and things like that, but in those days I hadn’t even seen what Levis were like, but we went and bought Levis to be equipped for a harsher climate.
“We couldn’t take furniture. It was so limited we just left everything. We didn’t have that much time. We would just take out our furniture in front of our house and have people buy it or just give it away. My older brother, Masao, turned in our personal car to the Dodge dealer, which was about two or three blocks from the Santa Fe Station in San Diego and then he walked back to the station. And so we got on the train.”
“WE HAD TO DO WHAT WE HAD TO DO”
Just like that. Was there any thought of organizing a protest or at least laying plans to someday return and claim their property?
“I think things in that era were such that when certain laws were put in place you just were obedient and did it,” Yoshimine explains. “I don’t think the frame of mind of people was thinking ahead. They just were so intense at the time. I didn’t feel that anyone said, ‘We’ll come back’ or anything like that. It didn’t enter my mind. We had to do what we had to do. It wasn’t fatalistic. It’s just the way it was then and what else could you do?”
Yoshimine, his brother and parents ended up in a camp in the desert called Poston III, one of a trio of camps at the Poston Relocation Center near Parker, Arizona. There, his father, who had driven a produce route in San Diego, was director of food and eventually became camp director of Poston III. Yoshimine and his brother, both with some college education, became teachers of the camp’s younger students.
After about a year in the camp and before the war was over, Yoshimine relocated to Wilmore, Kentucky where his San Diego State credits transferred to Asbury College. It was what many of his friends in the camps were doing as they could not return to the coast.
On the train trip from Cincinnati down through Kentucky, The young man from California had his first experience with the American South.
“The train was full and I was naïve, so I went to another car,” Yoshimine recounts. “They told me I had to move out of that car because it was a segregated car and I had gone into the wrong section. It was a Jim Crow car and so I learned about that in an uncomfortable way.”
Despite the discriminatory challenges they encountered, the Yoshimines went on with their lives. Brother Masao volunteered for the counterintelligence corps and served with the U.S. Army in Japan. Yoshimine graduated with a degree in history. Wanting to share his Christian faith, he then went on to Asbury Theological Seminary for his master’s degree in religious education. He later attended divinity school in Berkeley and got another degree.
Yoshimine married, had three sons, and became a pastor in the Pacific Coast Free Methodist Conference. For 43 years he preached on Sundays to congregations throughout his native California before retiring in 1994. He and his wife, Miko, now live in Anaheim.
A few weeks ago, Carl Yoshimine received a letter from San Diego State University. His was one of 43 names of former San Diego State students who may qualify for honorary degrees under the California Nisei College Diploma Project. The project, approved by state lawmakers, seeks to bestow honorary degrees to American college students of Japanese descent who, like Yoshimine, were sent to internment camps during World War II.
After an extensive search to locate them, Yoshimine is one of three diploma-eligible students to contact SDSU along with the family members of some of the others. Their input is sought to plan a May ceremony on campus for awarding the degrees.
“I thought it was just a wonderful gesture and I really appreciated that move,” Yoshimine says of the honorary degree. He’s looking forward to returning to the campus he hasn’t seen since the day he left in 1942.
“I’m sorry I haven’t (visited),” he says. “I follow the basketball and the football teams in the newspaper and I still know the fight song.”
He begins to sing the words familiar to Aztecs everywhere:
‘Fight on, and on, ye Aztec men. Sons of Montezuma we will win again.’ See? I know the song!” he proudly proves.
When he finally returns to campus in May, Yoshimine says he will gladly accept his honorary degree from SDSU.
“I feel it’s an important event because it’s not only honoring a particular group of people, but it’s honoring what education in the United States stands for and the integrity of what an education should be and the fulfillment of a person as an individual seeking to fulfill their dreams,” he says. Later this month, Yoshimine will celebrate his 86th birthday. Looking back, does he feel cheated by having his education interrupted and his life and his family’s lives turned upside down? On the contrary.
“To me, every circumstance molds a person’s character,” he explains. “Going to the relocation center, for me, helped me find a stronger faith, which has put me in a more positive outlook rather than a discouraging or negative approach.
“I think carrying excess baggage or bitterness narrows your perspective of life. It doesn’t expand you as a person. To carry something with bitterness and hurt scars you as an individual for not being able to overcome it. And to live in that state is something that is unhealthy as far as I’m concerned.”
Spoken like the Aztec Carl Yoshimine once was and soon again will be.
SDSU is just one of many California State University institutions participating in the Nisei College Diploma Project. If you know someone who may qualify for an honorary degree, please contact SDSU’s Kristina Moller at (619) 594-8274 or firstname.lastname@example.org.