A Degree, At Long Last

July 17, 2009

Aiko (Grace) Obata Amemiya, 88, started working at a hospital in the mid-1940s, fulfilling her dream of becoming a nurse. As of Thursday, she’s on her way to fulfilling another lifelong dream: obtaining a degree from the University of California at Berkeley.

That dream was destroyed after Pearl Harbor, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, sending 110,000 Japanese-American citizens to internment camps to protect the nation “against espionage and against sabotage.” Born in the United States to parents from Akita, Japan, Amemiya was one of roughly 700 University of California students who spent those “stolen years,” as some call them, in wooden barracks with no running water or air conditioning, far away from their relatives, homes and colleges.

Now, nearly 70 years after Pearl Harbor, she and many others will get degrees from the university. The Board of Regents voted Thursday to award honorary degrees to the students who were interned, following in the footsteps of universities in Washington State and Oregon. “I’m elated for all the students that were here at Cal at that time,” said Amemiya in a phone interview. “I think it’s such an honor for all of us to be considered for an honorary degree.”

Mark Yudof, the university system president, said in a statement: “This action is long overdue and addresses an historical tragedy. To the surviving students themselves, and to their families, I want to say, ‘This is one way to apologize to you. It will never be possible to erase what happened, but we hope we can provide you a small measure of justice.’ ”

Of the 700 students enrolled at the Berkeley, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Davis campuses in the spring of 1942, about 400 were unable to graduate due to internment. Some faculty members and administrators fought to allow their students to continue their education, arranging for some to complete coursework while in the camps and enroll in universities outside the exclusion area.

Now that the Board of Regents has voted to award honorary degrees, university officials will attempt to contact the former students. As for the many who have already died, their remaining family members will receive the honorary degrees. The regents’ decision yesterday suspends a moratorium that, since 1972, has prevented the University of California from awarding honorary degrees.

The university’s actions are “quite a bit historically delayed,” revealing how slow-moving the enormous system can be, said Ingrid Seyer-Ochi, an assistant professor of education at Berkeley whose in-laws were interned while attending high school in San Francisco. “I think the UC system here is trying to symbolically acknowledge its participation, albeit a very indirect one,” she said. She added that the university's fame should attract attention to what happened during World War II -- and to the desire to reach out to those who were victims so many years ago.

Thursday's decision follows similar actions over the past year by several colleges in the Pacific Northwest -- the University of Washington, the University of Oregon, Oregon State University and, in April, the University of Puget Sound.

Tetsuden Kashima, a professor of American ethnic studies at the University of Washington, was a member of the faculty committee that pushed to honor 449 of the university’s interned students in May 2008. Every February 19 -- the day Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in 1942 -- Kashima’s department hosts a day of remembrance of those who were interned.

This event grew into the faculty’s desire to award those former students honorary degrees, he said, and while it may not be a perfect solution, it’s a step toward healing. “It wasn’t meant to make up for lost time,” said Kashima, who himself is a nisei, or second-generation Japanese-American, and spent the first year of his life in the camp at Topaz, Calif. “It really was to honor these people who had gone on even though their academic career was terminated here at that time, and showed through their integrity, their honesty and their goodness that they would still remain great citizens of the United States of America. It made mistakes in the past, but at least the University of Washington can say, ‘We’re very sorry for that and here’s our way of trying to make some amends.’ ”

Bruce Embrey, co-chair of the Manzanar Committee, said he hopes the University of California’s decision will preserve the memory of what happened in 1942 for a new generation. His group – named for the internment camp in Manzanar, Calif., the setting of the famous memoir Farewell to Manzanar -- is dedicated to raising public awareness of the internment experience. “There’s not so much anger and bitterness as there is a desire to right the wrongs of the past and a desire to not let this go unnoticed or go unaddressed,” he said.

Amemiya won’t forget those years as long as she lives. She left the Arizona camp in 1943, going on to study at St. Mary’s School of Nursing in Minnesota, to work for an Army hospital and to settle in Iowa. She said she has learned to look back “without any bitterness.” “This is something they admitted they had done wrong, something we had no control over the time that it happened,” she said. “My husband and I always felt it would be ruining our own selves by being bitter, so we just forgave the government and went on to positive feelings, live our lives as best we could and see that it never happens again to American citizens of the United States.”

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