By J.K. Yamamoto
Three Nisei received honorary degrees, and a standing ovation, at San Francisco State University's annual Hall of Fame ceremony, held May 21 on campus.
Hatsune Arita Fukuchi, Helen Nitta Hori and Kaya Ruth Kitagawa Sugiyama were among 19 Japanese Americans who were attending San Francisco State College during World War II and were unable to graduate because of the internment.
Among this year's Hall of Fame inductees was poet and community leader Janice Mirikitani, who was interned as a child. She was one of six alumni honored for distinguishing themselves with extraordinary achievements in their professional and civic endeavors.
Also recognized were Grammy-winning musician/producer George Duke; John Gumas, founder and president of Gumas Advertising; Kathleen Martinez, assistant secretary for disability employment policy at the U.S. Department of Labor; and Don Nasser, president and CEO of San Francisco's Castro Theatre. The title of Alumnus of the Year went to environmentalist Randall Hayes, founder of the Rainforest Action Network.
The honorees' families and friends gathered at the Seven Hills Conference Center for the ceremony, which was hosted by journalist, author and broadcaster Ben Fong-Torres and SFSU President Robert Corrigan.
The honorary degree ceremony was one of several conducted statewide since the passage last year of legislation, introduced by Assemblyman Warren Furutani (D-Long Beach), calling on the University of California, California State University and California Community College systems to grant diplomas to Nisei students who were interned or otherwise forced to relocate in 1942.
Leroy Morishita, vice president of administration and finance at SFSU, commented, "We’ve wanted to honor them in this way, giving them the honorary degrees, but thanks to Assemblyman Furutani, we’re finally able to do this. So we’re really excited that three of the former students are alive and are able to be here." He added that it was "a real treat" that Mirikitani was being recognized at the same event.
Corrigan said that the ceremony should have been held more than a decade ago, but "the law of the state would not allow
us to give honorary baccalaureate degrees. We could give honorary doctoral degrees, but we could not give honorary baccalaureate degrees. So we thought a bit about it, brought those that we could bring back out of the 19, and we actually made them honorary alumni at that time (1998)."
In 2002, he continued, the university opened the Garden of Remembrance, which includes 10 rocks representing the internment camps, and presented an honorary doctoral degree to artist and former internee Ruth Asawa, who designed the garden. "If you haven’t been there, you really need to see it," Corrigan told the audience.
"Now we have the legislation," he said. "It’s come very late. We would like to have had it earlier. But we are now able as a university to actually award degrees ... Some went to other campuses within the California State University as part of their graduation, some will be with us tomorrow (at the commencement), and some are here this evening ...
"In the heat of World War II, there were 120,000 Japanese Americans on the West Coast who were torn from their homes, their livelihoods and their education and sent off to internment camps. There were 250 students at campuses that are now part of the California State University ... We’ve tried to reach out to as many of those 250 who are alive or whose relatives or descendants we could identify ... All three of these former students were admitted in September of 1940, they were forced to leave in 1942, and had they not been interned they would have graduated in the Class of 1944."
Corrigan introduced the Nisei alumni, presented their diplomas, and posed for pictures with them and their families. The three also received congratulatory letters from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
Fukuchi was born in Hilo, Hawaii and was the first in her family to attend college. Her studies at San Francisco States were focused on education and social sciences. During the war, she relocated to Kansas and married her college sweetheart, giving up plans to return to Hawaii. Because of Stanley Fukuchi's career as an officer in the Military Intelligence Service, the family lived at many U.S. bases around the world.
After her husband was incapacitated by a heart attack, she sought work but was hampered by the lack of a college degree. She could only qualify as a substitute teacher, receiving a fraction of the pay of a full-time teacher and minimal benefits. She worked as a substitute teacher for the Hayward Unified School District until her retirement in 1983 and has lived in San Leandro for about 30 years.
Fukuchi, who was accompanied by her son, daughter and their spouses, said she was pleasantly surprised to be invited to the ceremony. "I think it’s wonderful ... I’m really honored."
A native of Loomis, Hori studied music and recreation at San Francisco State. She re-entered the university in September 1945 and received her B.A. in liberal arts with honors in June 1946. She began graduate studies in the summer of 1951 and received her elementary school credential in 1953.
Hori, who was accompanied by her two sons, her daughter-in-law and two granddaughters, reflected on her college days, saying, "What I miss most is seeing some of my former classmates and friends."
She noted that fellow honoree Sugiyama was her roommate at the time. "I’ve kept in touch with her, one of the very few other than people from my area where I came from. We were both in teaching, but we were called one day by the dean to tell us that there was absolutely no future for Asians in the teaching field, so she was recommending that we go to a business school and find some secretarial jobs. Those were very discouraging days ...
"I remember walking out on the beach thinking, ‘Should I quit school?’ ... The war came along and I had to leave anyway.
"I came back and got my teaching credential, and I taught in San Francisco schools for 20 years until I retired ... I guess I was one of the earlier groups of Niseis who were accepted and got a job, so I was able to send my sons through the university system and have a nice family, so I’m enjoying life now."
Her son Keith is also in education, directing the Upward Bound program at UC Berkeley. Her son Kent is a lawyer with his own practice.
Kaya Ruth Sugiyama
A San Francisco native, Sugiyama was a music and education student at San Francisco State and returned to the university in the fall of 1954 to enroll in a speech class. She holds a degree from the University of Colorado with majors in education and music.
Her family has the dubious distinction of being housed in Seabiscuit's horse stall while interned at the Tanforan Racetrack in San Bruno. Sugiyama and her brother George were able to avoid internment because their father arranged for them to attend the University of Colorado, the only school west of Chicago that would accept them. Their father was later able to leave the Topaz camp and join them in Boulder as a Japanese instructor at the Navy's language school.
An educator for 40 years, Sugiyama ran her own arts school in San Francisco, where young Japanese Americans and kids of various ethnicities studied such subjects as music and dance. She wrote all the curriculums herself and opened her doors to all students regardless of economic background.
Sugiyama, who was accompanied by her godson, his spouse and close friends, said before the ceremony, "I am so excited." A recent stroke did not prevent her from attending or dampen her enthusiasm.
Her entourage included Sally Matsuishi, president/CEO, and Beverly Matsuishi, clinical director, from Next Generation Scholars in San Rafael. Both cited her as a role model.
Sugiyama also attended a ceremony at UC San Francisco last December to accept a degree on behalf of her late husband, Masao.
Fong-Torres introduced Mirikitani, the founding president of the Glide Foundation at Glide Memorial Church and the author of four books of poetry, as "one of the living treasures of San Francisco." She studied humanities and creative writing at SFSU.
"As a high school teacher, she counseled abused and troubled students and found that she related to the most rebellious students, identifying with their frustration and anger at life’s injustices," said Fong-Torres. "At Glide, she developed numerous programs serving the poor and homeless, particularly women struggling with substance abuse, domestic violence, rape, incest, single parenting and other challenges. Affordable housing and the safety and well-being of those living on the edge in the Tenderloin is another emphasis of Janice’s work."
Among other honors, Mirikitani was named one of the "100 Most Influential Women in Business" by the San Francisco Business Times, received the Minerva Award from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and First Lady Maria Shriver, and was named San Francisco's second poet laureate in 2000.
"It is truly an honor," she said. "I also want to congratulate the three Nisei that have received their honorary bachelor’s degrees. It’s well deserved and justice deserved. As my Nisei mother would say, ‘It’s about damn time.’ ”
Although she received her bachelor’s degree and teaching credential from the UC system, Mirikitani was heavily influenced by her experiences as a graduate student in creative writing at SFSU with professors like poet John Logan and "the grande dame of writing," Kay Boyle.
She regaled the audience with an anecdote about Boyle. "I made the mistake of choosing two authors for my thesis whom she knew personally, and John Keats ... I was doing this thing on existentialism and metaphor or something like that. She said, ‘I happen to dine frequently with William (Carlos Williams) and I’ve shared wine in cafes in Madrid with Ernest (Hemingway), and they would not have agreed with your presumptions.’ I was just lucky that she didn’t know John Keats.
"She passed me somehow and we did later become friends, and she did do a great review of my first book of poetry. I’m eternally grateful for that friendship."
The political unrest on campus prompted her to become a poet, Mirikitani recalled. "It was because of the rebellion and the radical movement for our voice, for justice, for our rights — for civil and human rights for all people, especially people of color and communities of color who did not feel their fair representation in our history, in academia, in the books of learning here. And San Francisco State provided that wonderful, fertile ground on which we could run and speak and scream and yell and be eloquent in expressing ... who we really are.
"It was a time of wonderful upheaval and revolution, it was a time when we as artists and activists of color discovered one another and discovered our own voices and created our own pages of history and legacy and pride in our ancestry. We discovered the absolute necessity of interdependence of all the communities, and of celebrating our diversity. "
She started to work at Glide around the same time. "It was kind of a perfect storm, where organizing and radical creativity and empowerment of the margins rushed together in this sea of rebellion and self-determination and empowerment. Truly the margins were coming to the center. It was just a great time for academia and the campus and community to come together ... for all of that which was chaotic and which was institutionalized to come together and clash and to become partners, truly, in creating a different world ...
"I feel incredibly blessed because I’ve been at Glide for 43 years, and I’ve been with (Rev.) Cecil Williams, who’s a pretty extraordinary individual."
Despite numerous challenges, she and her husband "managed to grow 87 programs, three buildings for affordable housing for the homeless, and also all of these holistic services to break the cycles of dependency and poverty," Mirikitani said. "I'm so privileged to work with the people who every day remind me that creativity and respect, diversity and dignity for everyone is the life breath of community because we continue to bring the margins to center and transform ourselves first."
She thanked Williams, "with whom the journey at Glide has been ‘Amazing Grace,’ fried chicken and unconditional love," and their daughter, Tianne. "She’s not only given me a grandson but she’s been the source of my challenges, my love and my pride."
Mirikitani closed on a bittersweet note, reading some lines from "a poem that I wrote for my Nisei mother, whose voice still rings in my ears. She broke her silence about the concentration camps 40 years after our incarceration."
Past inductees into the Hall of Fame, which was established in 1994, include Kent Nagano of the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra in 1995 and Oscar-winning filmmaker Steven Okazaki in 2009.
At commencement the following day, two families attended on behalf of Nisei students. Ken and Greg Miyake accepted for their mother, Yoshiko Miya, and George Magotaro Hirose was represented by his wife Toshi, brother Bill, daughter Elizabeth, and son Peter. Dr. Jim Hirabayashi, professor emeritus of anthropology and ethnic studies at SFSU, also attended on behalf of the CSU Nisei College Diploma Project Honorary Committee.