The University of Southern California will award honorary degrees to Japanese American former students who were interned during World War II.

President C.L. Max Nikias will confer the honorary baccalaureate and honorary master’s degrees at this year’s commencement ceremony on Friday, May 11.

Nisei who attended USC in 1942 were named honorary alumni in 2008. (Photo by Michael Hirano Culross/Rafu Shimpo)

Nisei students at USC and many other universities were forced to abandon their studies in 1942, when President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the internment of American citizens of Japanese descent and Japanese nationals living along the Pacific coast.

In recent years, several schools have presented honorary diplomas to Nisei students during commencement ceremonies. AB 37, introduced by Assemblymember Warren Furutani (D-Long Beach) and signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2009, required the California Community College and California State University systems and requested the University of California Board of Regents to confer such degrees.

Although private institutions are not covered by the legislation, many have also recognized the Nisei.

“We are privileged to honor the accomplishments and the dreams of the Nisei students who are highly deserving of receiving a college degree for the work they have done at USC,” said Nikias. “Through the years these students have been among the most passionate and dedicated members of the Trojan family. We are honored that our Nisei students have an enduring devotion to USC and we want them to know that the university is also devoted to them.”

USC Alumni Association CEO Scott M. Mory said the association was “proud and fortunate to be able to recognize our Nisei alumni” and added: “USC is especially grateful to Jonathan Kaji, past president of the USC Asian Pacific Alumni Association, who led the effort to honor our Nisei students in this manner.”

Nisei students who were forced to leave USC in 1942 can register for an honorary degree and an invitation to commencement at or by contacting Grace Shiba, senior director of alumni relations at USC, at (213) 740-4937 or Families of deceased Nisei students can receive a certificate of honorary alumni status and an invitation to commencement through the website or by contacting Shiba.

Rod Y. Nakamoto, president of the USC Asian Pacific Alumni Association, stated: “We are proud of our Nisei former students as they will forever serve as an inspiration to the Trojan family, and we acknowledge the significant recognition planned by the university at commencement to confer honorary degrees to all living Nisei former students and to reaffirm honorary alumni status to the Nisei that have since passed on.”

This marks the second time that USC has recognized its Nisei students. In 2008, the university granted honorary alumni status to Nisei students at the annual Asian Pacific Alumni Association’s Scholarship and Awards Gala.

That year the university and the association also announced the creation of an Honorary Nisei Student Scholarship, and USC honored the Nisei at a ceremony at a Trojan football home game.

“Honoring our Nisei alumni will be one of the highlights of the 2012 commencement ceremonies and will serve as an inspiration to the Class of 2012 and all members of the Trojan family,” Mory said. “We look forward to celebrating the occasion with them and their families.”

Degrees for the Deceased?

Kaji told the Rafu Shimpo on Friday that he is planning to boycott the ceremony because there will be no posthumous degrees for Nisei who have passed away, unlike the UC, CSU and California Community College ceremonies.

On his Facebook page, Kaji posted a photo of Dr. Tad Ochiai, a loyal USC fan who died on March 5 at age 97. “Will SC give him an honorary degree like the other West Coast Nisei students who were unjustly interned during World War II?” Kaji asked.

He added that under the current guidelines, a Nisei will be eligible “only if you still happen to be alive by commencement day. The vast majority of the Nisei will be awarded ‘lifetime alumni’ status … huh?!?”

Mory told the Rafu, “USC is very excited about the opportunity to award honorary degrees to Trojan Nisei. USC’s policy regarding honorary degrees limits them to living candidates. As such, only living Nisei are eligible for honorary degrees.

“However, the families of deceased Nisei may claim honorary alumni status for their family member, with all the privileges that accompany alumni status. Our hearts were touched by the enthusiasm of our Nisei for honorary alumni status when it was offered in 2008, and we hope that the families of any deceased Trojan Nisei will be in touch with us so we can proudly count them as USC alumni.”

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