WWII internees honored by SF State
October 14, 2009 6:00 PM
The California State University board of trustees has unanimously voted to grant honorary bachelor's degrees to former CSU students of Japanese American ancestry forced to relocate to internment camps during World War II.
Nineteen SF State students were unable to complete their bachelor's degrees when they were sent to internment camps.
The first honorary degree was presented to Vivian Uwate Nelson, daughter of Aiko Nishi Uwate. Uwate was an SF State student sent to Gila River Relocation Camp in Arizona.
"I was so, so sad that my mother wasn't the one to receive it. It broke my heart so much," Nelson said. "She was just the greatest person ever, she would have been so excited to receive this award, she was very modest."
California Assemblyman Warren T. Furutami, author of the bill, addressed the board of trustees the morning of the vote, Sept. 23. He introduced the bill last December.
"AB 37 is an opportunity for our state to honor Americans of Japanese descent who suffered a significant injustice," Furutami said in a statement released from his office. "This legislation reflects our state's commitment to correcting this unfinished business for a waning population of deserving students."
The bill requires the CSU, University of California and California Community College systems "to confer an honorary degree upon each person, living or deceased, who was forced to leave his or her postsecondary studies as a result of federal Executive Order 9066."
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the bill into law on Oct. 10.
Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942, removed 120,000 Japanese Americans from their homes and sent them to camps throughout the country "as a security precaution against sabotage and espionage."
In 1998, on the 10th anniversary of the passing of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, SF State held a commencement recognizing the 19 students who were forced to abandon their studies and live in camps under U.S. government orders. The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 provided a congressional apology, to individuals who were interned and created a public education fund to finance efforts to inform the public about the internment.
Of the 19, George Magotaka Hirose and Helen Nitta Hori of San Francisco, Sue Yusa of Oakland, and Aiko Nishi Uwate of Los Angeles attended the commencement ceremony. Seven had died by this time, four were unable to attend and the four had not been located.
"I had just been accepted in the choral group called the 'Treble Clefs,'" Yusa told the campus newspaper in 1998.
"I had to tell everyone that I wouldn't be able to come to rehearsals anymore because I had to leave school and go to the camp."
Hori remembered her last piano lesson at SF State. She cried on her professor's shoulder when it was over.
"He said he was sorry he couldn't do anything," she said.
The Garden of Remembrance, the memorial honoring those 19 former SF State students, was dedicated four years after the commencement in 2002. Located between Burk Hall and the Fine Arts building, the garden was designed by San Francisco-based artist Ruth Asawa, who was sent to an internment camp as a 16-year-old.
"It provides a reminder of a historical wrong, specifically one of racial injustice that should not be repeated with any other group," said Prof. Ben Kobashigawa, who teaches a course on the history of Japanese Americans in the United States. "It is a valuable teaching tool regarding the state of race relations now, compared to the past."
Though pleased to have received the award, Nelson believes there is more that can be done to make further amends.
"Continue the education of what happened during the war," she said. "It should be a mandatory history lesson. So many things went wrong, it's really too late to punish those responsible for taking away civil liberties, and why (Japanese Americans) were singled out in the first place. There were other countries involved in the war."
The CSU public affairs Web site says nearly 250 Americans of Japanese descent were attending CSUs when they were forcibly relocated to internment camps.
The public is invited to help identify individuals who qualify for the honorary degree by calling (562) 951-4723, or e-mailing Nisei@calstate.edu.
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