By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS, Rafu Staff Writer
PASADENA.–The ballroom was packed with guests and the stage filled with honorees, but for an intimate instant, it was just Audrey Yamamoto and her late grandfather.
Clutching a diploma and pointing toward the sky, Yamamoto’s tribute to Roy Hideo Yamamoto was among many poignant moments at the USC Asian Pacific Alumni Association’s 2022 Scholarship and Awards Gala on Friday night, at the Langham Huntington hotel.
The emotional highlight of the evening was a moment many have said was long overdue: the conferring of degrees for Japanese American students who were forced out of school and into internment camps shortly after the United States’ entry into World War II.
The signing of Executive Order 9066 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in February 1942 meant the education of the students was halted, and the lives of 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast were totally upended.
The drive to make amends and have honorary degrees awarded to those Nisei USC students began at what had been a planning session for a gameday football tailgate party in 2007.
“We began talking about it, and decided to send a resolution to [then-USC president Steven] Sample,” explained Jon Kaji, who was president of the Asian Pacific Alumni Association at the time. “He offered to give them ‘honored alumni status,’ but we felt that wasn’t enough.”
When news of the idea reached USC’s director of athletics, Mike Garrett – who was on hand for Friday’s gala – his response was a gesture of solidarity, inviting several of the former students to be introduced on the Coliseum field during halftime at a USC game in 2008.
“When I saw the overwhelming reaction of the crowd, I knew we needed an apology and degrees for everyone who was affected, living or dead,” Kaji said.
At its 2012 commencement, the university awarded honorary degrees to nine Nisei former students who were still living at the time – 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.
However, the push to offer the same recognition to those who suffered the same indignity but had already passed was stalled until coming to the attention of current USC President Carol Folt.
Bypassing the standard university policy prohibiting posthumous degrees, Folt, Kaji and others directed efforts to provide degrees to all of USC’s Nisei students whose education had been unfairly interrupted, and launching a search for those former students, living or otherwise.
Speaking at Friday’s event, Folt said the university’s previous stance – including a refusal by Rufus Von Kleinsmid, USC’s president during and after the war, to provide academic transcripts for the Nisei students – was immoral and inexcusable.
“That’s a violation and a betrayal, to have their personal identity and citizenship denied,” Folt said.
Folt relayed the story of current USC dental student Niki Kawakami, who will graduate this spring, and how both of her grandfathers – Tadashi Ochiai and George Kawakami – were students forced to leave USC.
The president also told of her conferring a degree last year upon 104-year-old Frank Chuman, done via video conference as he is now living in Thailand. The event program for Friday’s gala included a quote from Chuman that read in part, “You must be like the bamboo. You must not permit yourself to break under the buffeting you will face in your life.”
Folt thanked the graduates and their families for trusting the university with their legacies, in spite of the wrongs they had endured.
“Our promise in receiving these gifts of your stories is that we will remember and cherish them,” she vowed.
Joanne Kumamoto was one of the night’s recipients, accepting on behalf of her father, Jiro Oishi, who was intercepted on his way to take the final exam for his last class at USC before graduating in 1942.
“I’m glad USC is doing this, but the main thing is that they are addressing all the policies they had that barred these students for no reason other than race,” she said. “Hopefully, these kinds of policies and attitudes won’t be applied to anyone else. That’s the important thing.”
Also bestowed with posthumous degrees on Friday were:
John Masao Fujioka
Floyd Kaoru Fujiu
George John Ryoichi Furutani
Toru Thomas Haga
Victor Nobuyuki Ito
Sidney Isao Kashiwabara
Wayne Masato Kato
Nelson Yuji Kitsuse
Alice Yemiko Kurata
Raymond Kaname Nimura
Fred Fukuki Nishi
George Teruo Nishida
Kenneth Shoichi Ozaki
James Shigeo Sasaki
Francis Sueo Sugiyama
Isami Sam Yamashita
On the bus headed back to the hotel at USC after the gala, Audrey Yamamoto was still holding her grandfather’s diploma close to her heart.
“There was so much emotion that came to me on stage,” she explained. “My grandfather sacrificed a lot, and never complained. He turned his hardships into love – that’s what brought us here today.”
Rock Garden on Campus
On Friday morning, Folt oversaw the dedication of a Japanese rock garden on the USC campus, constructed as a place for reflection and remembrance. She approved the construction of the site, situated at the northeast corner of the campus, shortly after moving to award honorary degrees for the former Nisei students last year.
The garden was designed by landscape architect Calvin Abe, who spoke during the dedication ceremony on Friday.
“The Nisei students are a part of USC, and the garden is a place to relax and reconsider what happened in the past, an expression of perseverance and hope,” Abe said.
Boulders rise from layers of stone, with the garden facing toward the campus, aligning with the historic Alumni Memorial Pylon that was erected in the early 1930s. Abe said the orientation is symbolic of a return.
Abe is a renowned architect and the son of Nisei parents who owned a farm near Sacramento. They were sent with their extended families to detention centers in Arizona, Arkansas and California.
Additional information for this story was provided by USC University Communications.