By GWEN MURANAKA
RAFU ENGLISH EDITOR IN CHIEF
“Hazukashii (embarrassed),” John Tomita, modestly described his feelings on Friday as one of the Nisei students who will receive honorary college diplomas through the California Nisei College Diploma Project.
“I’m 89, going to be 90 next year,” said Tomita, who was a junior at UC Berkeley in 1941 and currently resides at Teramachi Homes in Little Tokyo. “ I don’t want anything anymore, I had a good life. I’m happy I went to Cal — just happened to be there when the war broke out.”
AB37, authored by Assemblymember Warren Furutani (D-Carson), bestows honorary degrees to students like Tomita who were denied their diplomas due to Executive Order 9066 and the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. The CA Nisei Project estimates that at least 2,500 former students are eligible, including students at UC, Cal State and community colleges.
Furutani urged community leaders to spread the word so that the Nisei may be located and recognized. With the advanced age of the Nisei, the urgency is particularly great. A ceremony will be held on Dec. 4 at the UCSF Mission Bay campus, followed by ceremonies at UC Davis on Dec. 12 and Berkeley on Dec. 13, during their fall commencement ceremonies. UCLA will most likely take place during their graduation ceremony next June.
“I put it under the general heading of loose ends, unfinished business,” Furutani said. “This was a time of considerable discrimination, and while the acts may be in the past, they should not be forgotten.”
He noted that there was initial reluctance at the UC and CSU levels to move on the diplomas for the Nisei and that the community will have to be involved for the program to reach out to as many Nisei as possible. The UC system does not bestow honorary diplomas, so a one-time exception has been made for the Japanese American students.
“Candidly the undercurrent from the institutions — CSU, UC, not so much community college — there were people quietly saying are you sure you want to do this?” Furutani said. “The context was, ‘oh no, another thing that we have to do about something that took place 60 years ago.’”
But he noted with the help of Japanese Americans in higher education, the program has moved forward. In attendance at the meeting were many university and school officials, including Judy Sakaki, UC vice president of student affairs; Lisa A. Sugimoto, interim president of Pasadena City College; Audrey Yamagata-Noji, Mt. San Antonio College vice president of student services and Alan Nishio, retired associate vice president for student services at Cal State Long Beach.
“As a result of that, we’re going to be able to match up policy with practice and a lot of times that doesn’t happen,” Furutani said.
If you know someone who may be eligible to receive an honorary degree, contact Aya Ino, project coordinator, at (415) 567-5505 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.