By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor
“Trojan Students in Loyalty Pledge,” declares a headline in the Dec. 13, 1941 issue of The Rafu Shimpo. The USC students, 121 Japanese Americans, acting in the immediate aftermath of the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, presented this message of “100 percent” loyalty to Rufus Von Kleinsmid, university president.
“We unreservedly pledge our loyalty 100 percent to our country and to our president, Franklin D. Roosevelt,” the Nisei declared.
It didn’t matter.
On Feb. 19, 1942, Roosevelt would sign Executive Order 9066, and like other Japanese Americans, these young Nisei would soon be forced to leave USC, denied their chance to finish their degrees and also denied academic transcripts by the university, changing the trajectory of their lives.
Now, USC is seeking to correct this historic wrong and looking for help from the Japanese American community. On Thursday, the university announced that it would be honoring the Nisei Class of 1942 with honorary degrees at the Asian Pacific Alumni Association Gala next April.
“It has taken much from many to come to this point, and there’s still a great deal of work to be done,” said Grace Shiba, executive director of the Asian Pacific Alumni Association. “Some of our Nisei students are known through alumni and community connections. But many continued their education and their lives after the war with no ties to USC. There’s a limit to what we can find using archival materials, so we’re depending on the wider community to support us in our search.”
Shiba said they would be reaching out to organizations, including the Go For Broke National Education Center, Japanese American Citizens League, Japanese American National Museum, and Densho, for assistance.
USC President Carol Folt made the decision on this occasion, reversing a policy to allow posthumous honorary degrees. In 2012, USC conferred honorary degrees to living Japanese Americans, but pointed to a school policy prohibiting posthumous degrees.
“She’s righting a wrong, owning the fact that university did a misdeed,” said Patrick Auerbach, associate senior vice president for alumni relations. “It’s more about doing the right thing, the university has had its challenges in the last few years. President Folt in her leadership and vision is continuing the university on this trajectory that is vibrant and inclusive.”
Last year, USC removed the name of Von Kleinsmid from the Von Kleinsmid Center for International and Public Affairs. Von Kleinsmid, a proponent of eugenics, was the only university president on the West Coast to refuse to send transcripts for the Nisei students.
Joanne Kumamoto’s father, Jiro Oishi, was unable to receive his transcripts from USC, but she said despite this, he was somehow able to finish his degree at UC Riverside in the 1960s.
At the 2012 USC commencement, honorary degrees were given to Roland Y. Kamachi, Iwao George Kawakami, Yoshiteru Gary Kikawa, Yutaka Kody Kodama, George Mio, Ryo Munekata, Hitoshi Sameshima, Satsuyo Watanabe Tanaka, and Frank Takashi Tofukuji.
At that time, Kumamoto accepted an honorary alumni certificate on behalf of Oishi, who passed away 2003. This time, Oishi will be eligible for an honorary degree. He was on his way to take his last exam when he was arrested by the FBI in a case of mistaken identity. A federal judge in Montana looked at the young man and immediately sent him home, but not in time to finish his exams.
“Last time when USC was considering honorary diplomas, they gave to those who were still alive; those who passed on got honorary alumni recognition. This time they are offering an honorary degree, which my dad would be happy to have,” Kumamoto said. “Dad was always a big SC fan, even though in his lifetime never got his degree there. He would always go to the games with his SC roommate and they would do the tailgating.”
That decision to only confer degrees on the living weighed on those fortunate to be honored back in 2012.
Dr. Ryo Munekata, Class of 1942, said at the time, “We’re here today, receiving these degrees, and that is very special, but there were others who went through the same thing we did, and even though they have passed, they should get this too.”
Munekata was born and raised in Tacoma, Wash., and as an undergraduate transferred from the University of Puget Sound to USC to study dentistry. When it became clear that he would be one of the more than 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry to be removed from the West Coast following the attack on Pearl Harbor, he asked to take his final exams early in order to finish his first year at USC. He passed away in 2017 at age 96.
“I passed all my exams, but I wasn’t given credit,” Munekata said. “And when I came back, I couldn’t get my transcripts. That was the policy of the [USC] dental school at the time.”
Earlier this year, a group students at the USC Gould School of Law interviewed Jon Kaji, Kumamoto and Kody Kodama for a study of the USC Nisei. The results of their research are online.
The students, led by Mirelle Raza, concluded that the actions of Von Kleinsmid and USC Dental School Dean Ford to deny transcripts was an effort to “punish the Nisei for their Japanese heritage” that caused lasting trauma.
Kaji, former president of USC APA Alumni Association, said the decision by USC to honor all Nisei was a long time coming. In 2012, Kaji, along with his parents Bruce and Frances, staged a protest during commencement.
“Over the course of 15 years, it’s been working with three different administrations. We’re happy that Dr. Carol Folt and the Board of Trustees have now decided to issue the remaining honorary degrees and also to issue a formal apology,” said Kaji.
“I’m happy that this issue has reached a conclusion. Of course I wish it had happened sooner. I go back to the phrase ‘Better late than never.’ It’s the fulfillment of my promise to my parents, I promised to both of them that I would continue to press this matter until there is a full resolution.”
Shiba said the Nisei will also be recognized at commencement next May. The ceremony coincides with the 80th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066. USC is hopeful that with the community’s support, they will be able to find the students — it would be even more special if one of the Trojans is able to receive their degree in person.
“We need the community’s support to locate some of our Nisei students as well as our USC families,” Shiba said. “We’re that trying to be optimistic, even if we could get one, who would be in their late 90s or 100 … You just never know.”
To submit the name of a former USC student, visit: https://airtable.com/shrzY4TwdWSuzsh4I
— Rafu Shimpo photos by MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS