LETTER TO THE EDITOR: On Nisei Degrees and USC

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Dear Editor,

Thank you for your powerful and revealing editorial (Rafu, March 21) on the blatant power politics at City Hall, and the long overdue recognition of USC’s Nikkei students who were denied their diplomas due to their alma mater’s complicity in the Nikkei World War II gulag and diaspora. Your editorial evoked a long-buried memory.

As a child after the war, I, like many other kids, worked after school and on weekends to help my father. who had turned to gardening to keep us alive. It was not easy getting started in gardening, not only because of lack of knowledge and experience, but also because of a lack of funds to purchase basic tools. I crawled on my hands and knees and manually edged lawns until my dad was able to buy an edge mower. We even exchanged equipment like lawn mowers and ladders until we were able to purchase our own.

During those hard times, I recall two middle-aged Nikkei gardeners who were extremely bitter about USC’s refusal to respond to their requests to have official transcripts sent to East Coast colleges to complete their degrees. They especially despised the so-called “German president” who refused such requests. I assume they were referring to President Rufus B. von Kleinsmid, who served during World War II and into the ’50s and ’60s — when I was an undergraduate and MA student at USC.

I recall that both men spoke English with a Japanese accent, and I assume that they were both Kibei. One left gardening to take up chick-sexing in the Midwest, and my parents lost contact with him, but others who had gone with him sent letters complaining of the unhealthy working conditions. It was widely rumored that the other man was depressed, became an alcoholic, abandoned his wife and family, and was found dead in his own vomit in a back alley near Little Tokyo.

Unfortunately, I cannot recall their names, but I never forgot those stories about USC’s cold-hearted wartime policy; and years later, as an undergrad, I saw confirmation in scholarly publications. It was not a figment of my imagination or a faulty childhood memory.

My late wife, Nadine Ishitani Hata, and I both earned our doctorates in history at USC. In the early 1970s, we co-authored a brief introductory essay, with a selected bibliography, “Japanese Americans and World War II.” The slim volume has proven to be useful and the fourth edition was recently published, with a subtitle — “Mass Removal, “Imprisonment, and Redress.” In every edition of “Japanese Americans and World War II.” we have included this statement:

“Some students were eventually aided by educators, such as [the]president of the University of California. He and organizations like the Quakers and the National Japanese Student Relocation Council contacted campuses throughout the country in an effort to get qualified Nisei out of the camps and back to their studies. Strong opposition faced the college program from such groups as the American Legion and the University of Southern California, where President Rufus B. von Kleinsmid refused to transmit transcripts on the grounds that to do so would be to aid and abet the enemy …” [4th Edition, “Japanese Americans and World War II: Mass Removal, Imprisonment, and Redress,” pp. 25-26]

I agree with your assessment that USC’s wartime policy was wrong, that USC is the only major California university that continues to deny its wartime policy, and that a straightforward apology needs to accompany the honorary degrees.

Moreover, USC claims that is has the highest international student enrollment in the nation. Until USC disavows its capitulation to mass hysteria and political expediency in its abandonment of its Nikkei students during World War II, what assurance do any of those international (and U.S) students have that it won’t happen to them in the aftermath of another terrorist attack? What USC did to its Nikkei students 70 years ago is, unfortunately, a precedent for what can happen again, to another generation of students, unless USC does the right thing, finally, and disavows its flawed wartime policy of indiscriminately lumping U.S. citizens and resident aliens with the enemy.

Nadine died in 2005, but a summary of her professional activities is at http://www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2005/0505/0505mem1.cfm. She would join me in urging our alma mater to practice what it preaches in its most recent alumni association solicitation with the slogan “the unfinished business.” Nadine would recommend that USC use this opportunity to right a long-denied wrong. It is the only honorable thing to do.
Again, thank you for your bold and timely editorial.

Donald Teruo Hata, Ph.D.
Emeritus Professor of History
California State University, Dominguez Hills

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1 Comment

  1. Dear Prof. Hata,

    Can you please provide more details regarding the, “scholarly publications” you saw as an undergrad confirming USC’s war time transcript policy? I have seen other unattributed accounts in the Rafu, but have not been able to locate any primary source material to document them.

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