Long-delayed prize

Long-delayed prize now a certainty

Published Sunday, Dec. 27, 2009

One in an ongoing series about new state laws that take effect Jan. 1.
Kiyo Sato doesn't need any more honors to prove how much she's accomplished over her resilient 86 years.

The Sacramento resident has been beating the odds her entire life, starting when she earned a nursing degree as a young woman despite policies barring Japanese Americans from attending college.

She went on to become a captain in the U.S. Air Force Nurse Corps and, more than five decades later, won the 2008 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing for a memoir about her family. It was the first book she'd ever written.

Despite that success, Sato said she will especially cherish her latest prize – an honorary degree from Sacramento City College.

Photo: Kiyo Sato.

Like some 2,500 Japanese Americans in the state, Sato was forced to cut short her college education during World War II when she was interned, in her case, at Poston camp in the broiling Arizona desert.

Now she and others are taking advantage of a new law written by Assemblyman Warren Furutani, D-Gardena, that requires state university and community college officials to work with their campuses to confer honorary degrees on former students who were interned.

For Sato, the degree isn't about her achievements as much as it's an acknowledgment of the pain and heartbreak she and hundreds of other Japanese Americans experienced. She recalled how FBI investigations into her family and other Japanese American families during World War II sent fear throughout the community about what would come next. The father of one family in the region killed himself after he was questioned.

"What will I do with an honorary degree?" Sato asked. "The important thing to me is that people are beginning to see, understand what went on."

Furutani said pushing through the new law, Assembly Bill 37, was his contribution to resolving the "unfinished business" of the internments.

Furutani is a product of that history; his parents met at an internment camp in Rohwer, Ark., shortly after graduating from high school.

All Japanese American internees have already received an official apology from the U.S. government; also, surviving internees received $20,000 in reparations in the late 1980s and 1990s.

On top of that, many of the state's universities, including the University of California, have already launched their own initiatives to give internees degrees.

Nonetheless, Furutani said he wanted to make sure all internees received the honor.
"It's a symbolic gesture," he said. "It's not going to help (the internees) get a job. They're 80-something years old."

Some internees such as Foster City resident Kimi Yamaguma never resumed their education after returning from the camps.

Yamaguma had been a business major at San Francisco City College when she and her family were sent to the Topaz internment camp in central Utah.

She was allowed to return to the West Coast four years later, but she didn't go back to school due to "family and financial circumstances," the now 85-year-old woman said.

Instead, Yamaguma took a secretarial job at a federal agency and later worked for 23 years as a secretary at the city manager's office in Redwood City.

"It ruined our whole life, more or less," Yamaguma said of the internment. "Had we not gone to camp, who knew what our life would have been like?"

"I always wanted to finish college, but I couldn't. I didn't have the means. I'd been an A student in all those years in grade school and high school, and it was important to me. I always had it in the back of my mind."

Yamaguma received some solace in May when she received an honorary degree from San Francisco City College and participated in its commencement ceremony.

A few weeks later, Yamaguma testified before the state Senate's education committee, which was considering Furutani's bill, about her experiences.

The task of finding internees such as Yamaguma has fallen to Paul Osaki and his Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California in San Francisco.

Three full-time staff members, paid by the California State Library's Civil Liberties Public Education Program, have been calling community groups, churches and other organizations to locate people on a list of detainees provided by the schools, Osaki said.

"Back in '42 the communities were pretty close and someone knows someone," Osaki said. "There's probably one degree of separation once you make a phone call or an inquiry."

He estimated that about half the internees had already died, meaning they'll receive the degrees posthumously.

The biggest group of internees, 485 of them, attended the University of California, Berkeley, followed by 265 from the Los Angeles Community College District, 244 from the University of California, Los Angeles, and 224 from what then was known as Sacramento Junior College. About 20 Japanese Americans attended the University of California, Davis. California State University, Sacramento, was created after World War II.

Osaki said the internees were glad to have been found, and honored to receive the degrees. Many of them ended up finishing their college education after World War II, while others were later drafted or enlisted into the military.

"Some of them are kind of shocked that 60 or 70 years later (the schools) are finally getting around to doing this," Osaki said. "Some have been thinking about this since they were forced to leave the universities."



Happy Holidays

The Poston Restoration Project is under the Poston Community Alliance, Inc, a 501(c)(3)non-profit organization.
As the 2009 year comes to a close, we would like to make one last request for your support.

Send your tax-deductible donations to:

The Poston Restoration Project
c/o Marlene Shigekawa, Treasurer
956 Hawthorne Drive
Lafayette, CA 94549


State Center Community College

Help us honor former Japanese-American students!

The State Center Community College District (SCCCD) will present honorary degrees to all Japanese-Americans who were students during World War II and had their education disrupted by incarceration in internment camps.

Nisei students attending Reedley College or Fresno City College in 1941/1942 are eligible to receive the honorary degree.

Families of deceased former students may apply on behalf of their relatives to accept the honorary degree for them.

The colleges need your assistance in indentifying potential honorees.

If you know of any potential recipients, contact Deborah Ikeda at (559) 325-5214 or email deborah.ikeda@sccd.edu.

The colleges will validate the honoree's attendance and contact the family regarding the ceremony.

Please provide the potential honoree's first and last name, date of birth and any other names that may have been used (i.e. maiden name).
In addition, please provide contact information including your name, telephone number with area code, street address and email.

For more information about the SCCCD Japanese-American honorary degrees, please contact Deborah Ikeda by phone at (559) 325-5214 or by email at deborah.ikeda@scccd.edu


UC Berkeley

Japanese Americans receive honorary degrees, 67 years after WWII internment cut short their studies at Berkeley

By Cathy Cockrell, NewsCenter
16 December 2009

BERKELEY — Forty-two former UC Berkeley students now in their eighties and nineties have finally received the campus degrees they had been working toward nearly seven decades ago, when Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps in the midst of World War II.

In a special ceremony during the traditional December convocation Sunday, Dec. 13, the elderly Japanese Americans accepted their honorary diplomas. Mounting the stage in Haas Pavilion's cavernous basketball arena, some with the help of canes, they sat in two long rows of chairs, wearing mortar boards, gowns, and blue-and-gold leis of origami cranes fashioned by local school children. For 78 additional Japanese Americans now deceased or too infirm to attend, family members accepted diplomas in their honor.

"I'm just glad to see my grandma and my dad be able to be represented in graduating, after what happened. I'm happy," declared 12-year-old Nathan Tokuno at an honorary luncheon preceding the formal ceremony.

The Honorable Norman Mineta — who was interned as a child, earned a Cal degree in 1953, and went on to become a U.S. congressman, U.S. commerce secretary, and then secretary of transportation — gave the convocation keynote address. "The journey from 1941 to 2009 has been a long one for our community," Mineta told close to 7,000 graduating seniors (young and old) and their supporters. "We struggled to rebuild our lives after the internment. We struggled to build a new place for ourselves in the American family."

Under Executive Order 9066, issued by President Franklin Roosevelt in early 1942, people of Japanese ancestry were forcibly removed from the West Coast. Mineta and his family were sent first to a Southern California racetrack and then to a relocation camp in rural Wyoming. "For me, as an 11-year-old, it was the first time I ever saw my father cry," he said of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that precipitated and helped justify the internment. "He couldn't understand why the land of his birth was now attacking the land of his heart." Mineta was instrumental in the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which led to formal apologies for the wrong done to citizens of Japanese ancestry by the internment, as well as financial compensation.

Associate Professor Duncan Ryuken Williams, chair of the campus's Center for Japanese Studies, spoke at the luncheon of the "courage and perseverance in the face of adversity" of those one-time UC students "whose educations and lives were disrupted in 1942 by war, war hysteria, and the abrogation of civil rights."

With the internment order, some 120,000 individuals — more than 2,500 of whom were students at California public colleges and universities — were forced to leave their homes, farms, and businesses on short notice for fairgrounds, migrant quarters, warehouses, racetracks, and stables in the interior. UC estimates that close to 700 Japanese American students on four of its campuses, some 500 of them at Berkeley, were impacted by the internment.

Williams referred to lesser-known acts of heroism and integrity associated with the internment. Honoree George Ichiro Nakamura, he noted, was killed in action in the Philippines even as members of his family were incarcerated behind barbed wire "by the same U.S. government he so loyally served." UC President Robert Gordon Sproul, he said, led a group of faculty from Berkeley opposed to the internment, forming the Committee on American Principles and Fair Play.

"This acknowledgement and ceremony comes a little bit too late," Williams acknowledged with irony — primarily because "so many of our honorees have passed on. But we are here today to right a wrong.”

Each honorary diploma bestowed Sunday bore the name of its Japanese-American recipient, along with the Latin inscription Honoris causa inter silbas academi restituere justitiam — "to restore justice among the groves of the academy."

View the video located at:

      Photo:  Joe Ikemiya (Poston 13-6-B) receives his honorary degree


Reedley College students

I received a phone call from Reedley Community College. They need help with locating former internees or a family member of a former internee who had their education at Reedley College interrupted due to the evacuation & relocation during WW II, and was unable to complete their education.

They are planning to have an honorary ceremony during their next graduation ceremony in May 2010.

Please ask your relatives during this holiday season.