By GWEN MURANAKA
RAFU ENGLISH EDITOR
“She remembered it fondly, she loved being there,” said Vivian Nelson of her late mother Aiko Nishi Uwate, who attended San Francisco State College before World War II.
Uwate, who passed away in 1998, was honored posthumously on Wednesday as the Cal State Board of Trustees voted unanimously to confer honorary degrees on Japanese Americans whose education was disrupted by Executive Order 9066 and their incarceration during World War II. The UC Board of Regents passed a similar motion in July.
Before the vote, Assemblymember Warren Furutani, author of AB 37 which would extend degrees to the state’s colleges, said the degrees offer a teaching moment to today’s students. The bill is currently on the governor’s desk
“I don’t think with this honorary degree, that someone who is the average age of about 85 right now, is gonna go out and beat out some of your graduates for a job. I don’t think that’s going to be a problem,” said Furutani. “But I think of the kind of healing it will provide, the kind of teaching moment it will provide on our campuses, about not only a historical event, but an event that clearly has impact and consideration during modern times.”
School officials estimate that there were at least 250 Nisei attending CSU schools at the time, but there could be more. At the time there were CSU campuses established at Chico, Fresno, Humboldt, Pomona, San Diego, San Francisco, San Luis Obispo, San Jose and California Maritime Academy.
“Hundreds of students were removed from colleges and universities, forced to delay or abandon their dreams based solely on their ancestry,” said CSU Chancellor Charles B. Reed. “The internment of Japanese Americans and Japanese nationals during WWII represents the worst of a nation driven by fear and prejudice.”
Uwate was a music major at San Francisco State College, now San Francisco State University, when she was forced to leave school and join her family at the Gila River concentration camp. She was able to transfer to Capital University to complete her education with a degree in biology in 1946.
Uwate married Matao Uwate in 1948 and the couple moved to Los Angeles in 1949 where they raised three children. Matao was the host of the popular radio show Radio Little Tokyo and Aiko went on to write “Japanese Names for Babies.” Before she passed away in 1998, Uwate was able to return to SFSU to be honored by the school. Her name is among the 19 Japanese American students memorialized in the Garden of Remembrance, designed by artist Ruth Asawa.
“I think to myself she could have graduated a lot earlier if she didn’t go to camp,” said Nelson. “Then you think about everybody else who didn’t have the things that she had: the gumption, the courage, the perseverance and the good health that made her be able to finish.”
After the vote, the board gave a standing ovation to recognize the Japanese American students. All former CSU students whose studies were interrupted by the internment will be eligible for an honorary degree. Surviving family members may also receive the degree in honor of the deceased student.
“The records are incomplete. We want to make sure that we include everyone who was in school at the time,” said Mitch Maki, dean of the College of Professional Studies at Cal State Dominguez Hills.
Nelson said her mother would have been thrilled at the honor.
“It’s a symbolic gesture, but it’s important to recognize this amongst our generation, to know how hard they struggled and what they went through and how many more students would be here on your campuses today if they had been able to complete their education,” said Nelson.
For more information on the Cal State honorary degree program, contact Colleen Bentley at (562) 951-4801 or Nisei@calstate.edu.