By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS and GWEN MURANAKA
Rafu Staff Writers
It is entirely possible that the events involved with USC’s awarding honorary degrees to Nisei former students of Friday transpired even more smoothly than the university had hoped.
As graduates and guests entered the campus near the intersection of Figueroa Street and Exposition Boulevard, they were greeted by a small group of demonstrators protesting USC’s refusal to offer degrees to former students who are now deceased, as well as what many characterize as the administration’s willful denial of transcripts to those who attempted to continue their education during World War II at colleges outside of the West Coast exclusion zone.
In the end, officials from USC’s alumni relations — who in the days leading up to Friday’s commencement were acutely aware of the rancor over the honorary degree policy and were doing their best to orchestrate a smooth series of events — may have been caught a bit off guard by the outpouring of emotion that arose from the honorees and just about every one of the more than 40,000 in attendance.
As the Nisei students were announced and walked from the landmark Bovard Auditorium toward the commencement stage, a roar of applause filled the center of campus with a standing ovation lasting several minutes. That scene was repeated when university president C.L. Max Nikias acknowledged the nine Nisei in attendance, and the sea of guests and grads again rose to their feet.
Afterwards, Nikias personally gave the Nisei their honorary degrees during a reception held at the Ronald Tutor Campus Center.
“It’s very special, it’s a very moving moment for me that we award the honorary degrees to the Nisei students from USC. I’m truly honored that I’m the president to do it,” said Nikias in comments to The Rafu Shimpo. “They are Trojans like the rest of us, and they’ve been Trojans all their lives.”
Honorary degrees were given to Roland Y. Kamachi, Iwao George Kawakami, Yoshiteru Gary Kikawa, Yutaka Kody Kodama, George Mio, Ryo Munekata, Hitoshi Sameshima, Satsuyo Watanabe Tanaka, and Frank Takashi Tofukuji.
Honorary alumni certificates were given to the families of John Masato Fujioka, Iwao Allen Harada, Tadashi Ochiai, Jiro Oishi, Richard Otagaki, Takako Saito, Tommy Minoru Tanaka and Roy Hideo Yamamoto.
George Kakehashi, a graduate in 1942 who was unable to attend his graduation after being drafted, also attended the ceremony.
For the Nisei, most in their 90s, it was a moment of celebration and bittersweet reflection.
Hitoshi Sameshima wore a tie given to him by his late daughter under his black robes. He said the ceremony made him think of those who have passed on.
“Henry Kondo, we grew up together and went to school together and chose to go to USC. He was majoring in pharmacy, I was majoring in foreign trade,” said Sameshima, who served in the Military Intelligence Service during World War II. “He was so hurt by the evacuation so he volunteered for the 100th/442. He was killed in France. I know he would have been so proud.”
“I know there has been a good amount of conflict about this,” said Ryo Munekata, 91, who was forced to leave his studies in May of 1942. He said the school’s history and the current unwillingness grant posthumous honorary degrees cast a cloud over the otherwise joyous occasion. “We’re here today, receiving these degrees, and that is very special, but there were others who went through the same thing we did, and even though they have passed, they should get this, too.”
Munekata was born and raised in Tacoma, Wash., and as an undergraduate transferred from the University of Puget Sound to USC to study dentistry. When it became clear that he would be one of the more than 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry to be removed from the West Coast following the attack on Pearl Harbor, he asked to take his final exams early in order to finish his first year at USC.
“I passed all my exams, but I wasn’t given credit,” Munekata said, still exhibiting a fair degree of confusion as to why. “And when I came back, I couldn’t get my transcripts. That was the policy of the [USC] dental school at the time.”
For 90-year-old degree recipient Satsuyo Watanabe Tanaka, Friday’s ceremonies were a reminder that dwelling over past injustices for too long is often a waste of time.
“We were very young at the time, and at that age, I think you don’t really have the ability to get too angry,” said Tanaka, who was a junior in 1942 when she was uprooted and eventually confined for some seven months at Rohwer, Ark.
“There was one girl who was good friend of mine, we were both in pre-med,” she recalled. “She died quite young, and I wish she were here now, but that was so long ago, a long, long time ago. Lots of things happen and you move on.”
At the private reception following the main commencement, Joanne Kumamoto represented her father, Oishi, in accepting a certificate of honorary alumni status, the distinction USC has offered for those Nisei former students who have died in the 70 years since their educational upheaval.
Kumamoto’s husband, Alan, was the first president of the Asian Pacific American Support Group at USC, more than 20 years ago. He said the participation of the former students Friday, despite shortcomings in the university’s policy, can in part be attributed to the concept of gaman in Japanese culture, a trait that has continued through the generations.
“Some say that there is a glass ceiling here, but I think it’s more a matter of the university seeing things through Western eyes,” Alan Kumamoto said. “They simply don’t fully understand the cultural aspects and the suffering of those who they are honoring here today, and of those who should be honored.”
Scott Mory, head of USC’s alumni relations, warmly welcomed all the honorees and their families. He said the standing ovation given to the Nisei brought him to tears. He also acknowledged the call for USC to award posthumous degrees.
“For myself, I respect the opinion of those who would like to express that opinion, but this is what USC has done and we’re thrilled at the reception of our alumni who received these degrees today. We’re very satisfied with today,” said Mory.
He said the decision to award degrees came about due to a change in leadership.
“Last year with a new president and a new provost and new group of students who raised the issue again, the university had an opportunity to revisit it and that’s it,” said Mory.
Sally Kikuchi, who was among the students to raise the Nisei degree issue with the university, said it was rewarding to see the Nisei finally receive their diplomas. “To meet the family members and see how much it means to them, I feel really privileged and honored to be part of the process.”
Outside of campus, the small gathering of protesters, led by Jon Kaji, held signs pointing to the issues that remain unresolved.
“We made our point. I think the university understands how important this is. Now the greater issue is removing the glass ceiling at the university, so this issue is only going to enlarge,” said Kaji.
Hideki Obayashi, carrying a sign that read, “End USC’s Glass Ceiling,” said he was there to protest USC withholding transcripts during World War II. He graduated from USC with a master’s in engineering and revealed a personal connection to former USC President Rufus B. von Kleinsmid, who used to buy strawberries at the family’s stand in Downey and became friends with his grandfather, Daisaku Murata.
“I was in awe of him. When I found out what he did, that he refused to forward the transcripts to other schools because he said it was aiding and abetting the enemy. And here we were U.S. citizens, Japanese Americans. I would really like somebody to do an investigation of USC’s policies. I’m really mad,” said Obayashi.