By J.K. Yamamoto
Over 67 years after they were forced to give up their studies at UC San Francisco, Nisei who attended the school in 1941-42 received honorary degrees in a ceremony full of pomp and circumstance.
The event was held Dec. 4 at UCSF’s Mission Bay Campus with several University of California administrators and faculty members taking part. Honorary degrees were also presented by UC Davis on Dec. 12 and UC Berkeley on Dec. 13; UCLA’s ceremony is scheduled for May 2010.
As a result of the passage of AB 37, legislation authored by Assemblymember Warren Furutani (D-Long Beach), the UC, California State University and California Community College systems are recognizing Japanese Americans who were unable to attend their commencement ceremonies due to the wartime internment.
Only three UCSF alumni personally accepted their degrees: Setsuo Ernest Torigoe of the School of Dentistry and Aiko Grace Obata Amemiya and Edith Kimiyo Tanita Oto of the School of Nursing. All wore the traditional cap and gown.
The rest were represented by spouses, siblings, children, grandchildren and other family members. In addition to dentistry and nursing, Nisei from the schools of medicine and pharmacy were recognized.
Oto, who celebrated her 90th birthday that day, said of the ceremony, “It was overwhelming. After all these years, UC recognizes us.”
Among those joining her was Kimi Worrell, her 19-year-old granddaughter, a student at Syracuse University. She said that her grandmother’s internment is very relevant today: “Young people need to be grounded in history so that we can use history to further better our situation today ... There’s a lot of discrimination that still goes on today, a whole bunch of hate crimes.”
Torigoe, 91, commented, “I felt honored. I was always a (University of) California man ... I belong to the alumni association. It was very nice.”
Torigoe, who went on to earn his degree in dentistry at University of Washington in St. Louis, was accompanied by his wife, Yuri, who was later honored herself at the Berkeley ceremony; two of his sons, Wayne and Eric, both medical professionals; and his daughter, Kathy.
“I know he’s really enjoying it because he was looking forward to it,” said Kathy Torigoe. “I think the real excitement for me is the fact that normally you wouldn’t get to see your parents graduate. It’s kind of like returning the favor for all the moments they’ve been there for you in your life.”
Amemiya, 89, said the ceremony was a “wonderful” experience. “It’s so nice to have my son here and his wife and my nieces. My husband passed away nine years ago, but I’m sure up there he’s so happy for me too.”
“Transformative Value of Education”
The school officials and honorees filed into the auditorium with photographers recording their every move. Ceremonial music was provided by a live orchestra.
Joseph Castro, UCSF vice provost of student academic affairs, welcomed everyone to “this momentous occasion” and introduced the speakers. “A great injustice was committed in 1942,” he stated. “We have come to acknowledge that injustice and pay tribute to those who endured it and triumphed so brilliantly over it. We do so with great resolve, that such a violation of basic civil and human rights shall never again be permitted to occur in this nation.”
UCSF Chancellor Susan Desmond-Hellmann noted that about 700 students of Japanese ancestry were enrolled at the four UC campuses in 1942, and that the UC Board of Regents voted to grant the honorary degrees last July. “The board’s unanimous decision is the first time in 37 years it has bestowed honorary degrees, authorizing the suspension of the moratorium exclusively for the interned students, living and deceased. So this is truly a special day.”
The chancellor told the stories of some UCSF students who went on to earn their professional degrees elsewhere and “dedicated their lives to improving the health of others.” One of them was interned at Heart Mountain in Wyoming, where he was an intern at the camp hospital.
After leaving camp with a one-way bus ticket, a suit and $12, he entered University of Minnesota Medical School and earned his M.D.
“After completing his surgical residency, he joined the Army, working on the front lines to help better develop treatments for severely wounded soldiers,” said Desmond-Hellmann. This Nisei, whom she did not identify by name, went on to serve as a heart surgeon at Minneapolis Veterans Medical Center for 34 years.
She added, “A nursing honoree had a long career as a nurse; her daughter is a doctor. The granddaughter of a pharmacy honoree now attends the UCSF School of Dentistry. There are hundreds of stories of individuals who understood the transformative value of education and let nothing deter them from their plans. They are role models for current and future generations.”
Consul General of Japan Yasumasa Nagamine extended his “heartfelt congratulations” to the former students and their families, and also credited the Nisei with playing a positive role in U.S.-Japan relations: “Japan and the United States have come all the way from the war days. Now Japan and the United States are two of the most trusted allies, partners and friends in the world ... Especially I’d like to mention that the Nisei generation of Japanese Americans, who experienced a quite extraordinary life during the war and after the war, but built a foundation for this friendship we are now enjoying between Japan and the United States.”
A photo montage of campus life in the early 1940s followed, with some photos of young Nisei students drawing murmurs of recognition from the audience.
Compassion and Courage
The keynote speaker was Dr. Patrick Hayashi, former associate president of the UC system and former UC Berkeley administrator. He spoke both to the UC community on behalf of the Japanese American community and to the Nisei on behalf of their children and grandchildren.
“During our darkest days, UC stood by us,” he said. “When others treated us harshly, you treated us with kindness ... Few people know about how UC leaders fought to protect the constitutional rights, the personal welfare, and, most important, the human dignity of Japanese Americans.
“After Pearl Harbor, racial hysteria swept the nation. President Robert Gordon Sproul, Vice President Monroe Deutsch and several other UC leaders helped establish the Committee on American Principles and Fair Play to defend the rights of Japanese Americans.
“When it became clear that Japanese Americans on the West Coast would soon be put into concentration camps, many UC faculty tried their hardest to place their students in colleges in the Midwest.”
When the Nisei students were held at Tanforan in San Bruno and other assembly centers, UC faculty “wrote letters, sent books, passed final exams through the fence,” Hayashi said. “They brought art supplies so that we could start art classes for the children.”
When Harvey Itano earned the University Medal as UC Berkeley’s outstanding graduate of the Class of ’42, Hayashi said, “President Sproul could have easily given the medal to the next student in line.
Instead, at the commencement ceremony, President Sproul said, ‘Harvey cannot be here today because his country has taken him elsewhere.’ And he arranged to have the medal presented to Harvey behind barbed wire.”
Hayashi also praised UCSF Dean of Pharmacy Troy Daniels and faculty members for “uncommon compassion, integrity and courage.” Daniels asked Gen. John DeWitt of the Western Defense Command to temporarily exempt eight Nisei students from the evacuation orders so that they could complete their pharmacy degrees. Daniels even offered to adopt one of his students, Harry Iwamoto. But the answer was no.
The students stayed and studied anyway, Hayashi said. “The faculty helped them finish their coursework in record time. And then they helped them prepare for their state boards. When the students made their way home after curfew, they had to dodge the soldiers patrolling the city. Dean Daniels arranged for them to take their state boards early.
“One of these students, Masao Yamamoto, told me that he was overcome with relief and gratitude when he learned that he had passed. Because he now had the foundation upon which he could build his life. After the Nisei students passed their exams, Dean Daniels helped them get safe passage out of San Francisco. He personally contacted law enforcement agencies and told them that UCSF students would be traveling to rejoin their families.”
UCSF’s gift to the Japanese American community was that it “protected us from the bitterness, rage and despair that could have easily poisoned our hearts,” Hayashi said. “At the worst of times, Dean Daniels and the UCSF faculty allowed us to see the very best in humankind. Today, UCSF completes the honorable work President Sproul, Dean Daniels and many, many others began 67 years ago.”
The dean’s son, Dr. Troy Daniels of the School of Dentistry, was among the UCSF representatives on the stage.
“Strength and Grace”
Hayashi paid tribute to the Nisei, who went through “a terrifying time” when World War II broke out but didn’t talk much about the experience “because you wanted to protect us.”
The period immediately after Pearl Harbor “was a terrifying time,” he said. “Community leaders were picked up by the FBI. My mother’s cousin was arrested because he taught kendo. A week later, the FBI told his wife where she could claim his body. No word was heard about many others who had been arrested — sometimes for weeks, months and even years ...
“You were given just seven days to prepare to go into the camps. You sold your family’s possessions for just pennies on the dollar. You desperately tried to find homes for your pets. Many of your parents were already quite old. My grandfather was 75 at the time. So much of the burden fell to you.
“You were told that you could take only what you could carry. In your hearts, you understood that all you could really carry were your aging parents and your little sisters and brothers. You carried us with strength and grace and shielded us from pain.”
He noted that many Nisei only talked about the pleasant aspects of camp life — dances, baseball games, festivals — and rarely spoke of the suicides, the shooting of an internee by a guard, or the bitter arguments over the government’s loyalty questionnaire.
Hayashi talked about acts of kindness both within the community and from outside: “At Gila River, 15-year-old Ruth Mix lied about her age so she could help out in the camp hospital. There, she and the other workers smuggled in medical supplies, sanitary napkins, clothing, shoes, anything to help ...
“One UC grad, Lillian Matsumoto, worked at an orphanage for Japanese American children. When the evacuation order was given, Lillian could have gone to the camp with her family. Instead, she, along with all the other orphanage workers, chose to stay with their orphans.
Together, they all went to Manzanar and started the Children’s Village, a place where these children who had nobody else could grow up protected and loved.”
Regarding the loyalty questionnaire that the government imposed on internees, Hayashi stressed that it took courage to respond either way — to volunteer for the military and risk life and limb, or to refuse to serve until Japanese Americans’ constitutional rights were restored, and face jail time.
Hayashi, whose father and uncle were resisters, paid special tribute to soldiers who never returned, such as some of the Nisei who broke through the Gothic Line in Italy. “One night, for eight hours, they climbed up a 4,000-foot cliff face to get behind the Germans and break the Gothic Line. They climbed quietly ... Every once in a while they felt a gust of wind, and they knew that one of their friends had lost his grip and was falling. The men who fell knew that if they cried out everyone would be slaughtered, so they fell to their deaths silently.”
Of the postwar resettlement, Hayashi said the former internees encountered both prejudice and generosity. “One of the Nisei we are honoring today, Grace Amemiya, pursued her nursing career and served in an Army hospital in Iowa, caring for wounded GIs. The hospital director worried about her safety, because former POWs would be returning from Japan for treatment at the hospital, and said that he would provide her with escorts. But the GIs she cared for, those who could walk, said, ‘No, we will escort Grace wherever she wishes to go.’ ”
Addressing the Nisei in the audience, he said, “With incredible forbearance and fortitude you rebuilt our homes and our communities ... You taught us, by example, the importance of hard work, sacrifice and service. You helped us build our lives upon your lives. Everything we have accomplished, all the happiness we have felt, was made possible by your sacrifices, by your strength and resolve.”
Conferring the Degrees
The degrees were inscribed in Latin, “Inter Silvas Academi Restituere Iustitiam” (To Restore Justice Among the Groves of the Academy). Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Gene Washington said to the 68 honorees, “The university is very proud of you, and as a UCSF graduate myself, I want to personally welcome you to the family of alums on behalf of all in the UCSF family. We want you to know that conferral of these degrees is long, long overdue, but welcome.”
As the names were read by Donald Kishi, the School of Pharmacy’s associate dean of student and curricular affairs, and Zina Mirsky, the School of Nursing’s associate dean of administration, the recipients or their representatives accepted the degrees. The loudest applause and cheers were for the three alumni.
Speaking for the UC system was Vice President for Student Affairs Judy Sakaki, who co-chaired a university task force that made the honorary diplomas a reality. “Participating in commencement ceremonies always gives me goosebumps,” she said. “It’s the music, the academic regalia, and the people — families, students, parents and grandparents ... But today’s ceremony tops them all because ... it is a time for reflection and celebration, and it is also about our history, our journey, our stories, our perseverance and our success as a people and community.
“As a Sansei ... whose parents and grandparents were interned at Topaz and Tule Lake, it has been an incredible honor for me to work on this.
But this was truly a team effort, a collaboration between UC faculty and administration. As you can imagine, getting the UC Board of Regents to vote unanimously to suspend the 37-year-old moratorium on awarding honorary degrees was no minor feat. It was accomplished because of the efforts, the care and the hard work of many.”
She told the honorees, “You have allowed us to stand on your shoulders. Your perseverance, your strength, your courage and wisdom ... have enabled us to be here. Today we recognize, celebrate and honor you.”
Desmond-Hellmann announced that the honorees also received a certificate of commendation from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), which read, in part, “I am proud to join the University of California in recognizing these extraordinary individuals who have waited more than 65 years to receive their degrees.”
The chancellor welcomed the “full-fledged alumni” of UCSF to attend a reception in their honor after the ceremony.
‘We’ve Finally Arrived’
The family of Nobuo Renge came from Fresno to receive his honorary degree from the UCSF School of Pharmacy.
His son Mel, also a pharmacist, commented, “It’s really symbolic, I think, and it’s of real importance to a lot of family members ... He talked about coming to UC and he was proud to come here. When the war broke out and he went to Arkansas ... he ended up at St. Louis College of Pharmacy, and that’s where he got his degree. He was fortunate to get his degree from St. Louis, but I know it meant a lot to him to come to UC. It’s probably still the premier college of pharmacy in the country.”
Although his father “always felt that it was a little bit unfortunate that he didn’t get his degree here,” he didn’t dwell on it, Renge said. “It was just part of life to him.”
When Renge decided to follow in his father’s footsteps, “I think he was proud of the fact. The reason I know how he felt about this was because he wanted me to go to UC. But I never wanted to go. I had no inclination to come up here to the Bay Area or go to Southern Cal, where tuition was so high, so I ended up at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, which is a tremendous program in itself.
“My dad knew somebody who graduated from there and he goes,‘Okay, if you’re not going to stay in California, I’d like you to go out there,’ and I did. That was a good experience as well.”
Nobuo Renge died on Veterans Day in 2004. “Too bad he couldn’t see this, but it’s a good thing,” his son said. “We’re well represented and it’s a good thing.”
The honoree’s wife, Nancy, and daughter, Beth, president and CEO of the Renge Resources Group, also attended the ceremony.
Another posthumous recipient, Thomas Asao Hiura, attended Washington University, finished his degree in dentistry and practiced in St. Louis. He also served as a second lieutenant in the Korean War. He passed his California state boards and practiced in San Jose for more than 30 years until his passing in 1987.
Accepting the degree were his son, Jerry, a dentist in San Jose Japantown, and his daughter, Barbara. His wife, Dorothy, was unable to attend.
“I think it was very, very moving,” remarked Jerry Hiura. “I think if my father were here he would probably say how remarkable (it was) and how much faith he had in America ... I think everyone here is fulfilled now to a certain degree.”
Barbara Hiura, office manager at Wesley United Methodist Church, said she learned a lot from UCSF Chancellor Susan Desmond-Hellman’s speech.
“One thing I didn’t know was how the university system helped these Nisei once the orders came down that they were going to be kicked off the West Coast, how they helped them find other schools. I really believe my dad was one of those doctors and dentists who were able to get off the West Coast because of that.
“He got accepted at Washington University ... We didn’t know how, but I think it’s because they solicited other schools to see if they would take these students. I think ... that was one of the reasons why my dad finished his education. Otherwise, we don’t know what would have happened to a lot of these young people whose careers may have ended. From what I hear, most of them finished and continued on.”
Jerry Hiura added, “What was fun was to see the three (honorees) that were still alive. They have so much spunk and energy, and you could see on their face they were just glowing. I just wish the other 65 or 70 recipients could have at least seen their colleagues come forward like that and say, ‘Right on. We’ve finally arrived.’ ”