Icing on the Cake


Honorary degree recipient Taro Kobara faces the audience as Cal Poly President Warren Baker and Dr. Joan Otomo-Corgel applaud in the background at the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo Nisei Honorary Baccalaureate Degree Conferral Ceremony on Monday in San Luis Obispo. (Photos by JORDAN IKEDA/Rafu Shimpo)

Rafu Staff Writer

Beginning last month, the California State University followed through its undertaking of issuing honorary degrees to Japanese Americans who were enrolled during the spring of 1942 before being forcefully removed from the west coast due to Executive Order 9066, thus terminating their education.

The Nisei Diploma Project was unanimously approved back in September of last year by the CSU Board of Trustees and was a result of Assemblymember Warren Furutani’s Assembly Bill 37.

The last of six CSU Nisei graduation ceremonies took place at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo Monday morning. While only four of the 31 former students were able to accept their degrees in person, seven others had family members who accepted on their behalf and nearly 75 people were in attendance.

For Kazunori Katayama, Frank Suzuki, Nelson Akagi and Taro Kobara, it has been nearly 70 years since they have set foot on the Cal Poly campus. During that span, they have lived lifetimes, fought wars, found love, endured hardship, watched their children and grandchildren grow, gone on to bigger and greater things.

Robert Sakamoto, accepting an honorary degree on behalf of his brother, Frank Sakamoto.

“I was doing so well at Cal Poly when I had to evacuate,” said Akagi who was majoring in electrical engineering. “I was pretty sad because I couldn’t even finish up my education. In those days, a degree meant a job. It was practically guaranteed. I thought the evacuation was going to cut short my education.”

But like many of the Nisei generation,  Akagi found a way to succeed. He volunteered for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the most highly decorated regiment in U.S. Armed Forces history. Adversity followed, as he suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that cost him his first marriage and the ability to finish his education at the University of Utah.

His time with the Army also provided opportunity. He was able to secure a machine shop job at a missile factory where he worked for 26 years.

“I was very lucky in that way,” he said. “It was a blessing in disguise.”

Cal Poly President Warren Baker, who handed out the degrees, had a decidedly more negative view of what took place during World War II. He said that the honorary degrees were a small way in acknowledging a “huge mistake” while stressing the point that the incarceration was based upon “racism.”

“Some of it was good, some of it was terrible,” said Suzuki about his experiences during World War II. “I was insulted. Called a damn Jap. But, I ask the Sanseis, Yonseis if they had ever been called Jap, and they’d never heard of it. I’m grateful that they haven’t been insulted like that.”

“So it turned out to be for the good,” he said. “Especially for my kids.”

For some, the good came almost immediately. Katayama had come to Cal Poly in 1941 on a basketball scholarship, studied ornamental horticulture and worked on the landscaping of the school. When Executive Oder 9066 was signed, his family chose to voluntarily evacuate to Salt Lake City. There, he met and soon married his wife, Fumi, who was, in his own words, the “Belle of Ogden.” This year marks their 67th anniversary.

“I know the years I spent here made a big difference in my life,” the 91-year-old said. “I know this because it gave me confidence to go ahead and follow the course that I learned at this school for the rest of my life.”

His studies, though cut short, allowed him to open up a successful nursery in Beverly Hills. In Salt Lake, he got a job working for the U.S. government building houses, an experience that allowed him to later start up his own building company. He managed a hotel in Little Tokyo that acted as a home base for internees returning to Los Angeles and he even co-owned a bowling alley.

“I think it turned out pretty good at the end,” he said.

These three men are stories of tragedy and triumph. Of overcoming racism and injustice.

Most would look at what the Nisei generation has accomplished, from all that was taken away from them including their education, and see, without doubt, that they have thrived.

As for the honorary degrees?

“It’s icing on the cake,” said Akagi. “As far as my education is concerned. I’m deeply honored that I was able to get an honorary degree. I’ll treasure this as my education being completed now.”

Cal Poly President Warren Baker, left, stands with honorary degree recipients Taro Kobara, Frank Suzuki, Kazunori Katayama, and Nelson Akagi. (Photo courtesy of Chris Leschinsky/Cal Poly SLO)