John Hiroshi Otomo, a San Joaquin Valley native, was awarded an honorary bachelor’s degree from California State University, Fresno two-thirds of a century after his college career was interrupted by his family’s internment at Gila River, Ariz.
Otomo, who is 87, received his diploma from university President John D. Welty on Thursday, Dec. 24 at City Hall in Selma, the Fresno County community where Otomo was born.
“It’s an honor,” Otomo said before the ceremony. “Having a degree after 67 years is something.”
Joining family and friends were CSU Trustees Peter Mehas, Carol Chandler and Russel Statham, Selma Mayor Dennis Lujan and Fresno County Superior Court Judge Dale Ikeda, who has served as national legal counsel, board member and district governor of the Japanese American Citizens League.
It is the first honorary degree awarded by Fresno State through the Nisei College Diploma Project, which recognizes Japanese American students at CSU campuses unable to complete college because of internment during World War II. It also is the first such award organized by a CSU campus since trustees approved the program in September.
An estimated 250 CSU students were affected by Executive Order 9066 in early 1942, when Japanese Americans were relocated to isolated internment camps. About 80 Nisei were on campus when the order was issued, said Dr. Paul Oliaro, vice president for Student Affairs, who leads the Nisei Project at Fresno State.
In awarding the honorary degree to Otomo, President Welty said, “It is a privilege to — in some small way — recognize the sacrifice of this former Fresno State student.”
Despite dropping out of college, Welty said, Otomo “returned to Selma where he distinguished himself as a husband and father, in business and through community service … to become a success by most any measure.”
The diploma, added Welty, “symbolizes that even when opportunities are taken away, some individuals succeed, becoming role models of accomplishment and service.”
Otomo enrolled at Fresno State in fall 1940, but when his father became ill, he dropped out to help take care of the family’s 60-acre strawberry, grape and vegetable farm. He re-entered Fresno State, but was forced out again because of travel restrictions on anyone of Japanese origin, and then by his family’s relocation to Arizona.
Dr. Joan Otomo-Corgel, a periodontal professor at UCLA and former CSU trustee, said she overheard her father “telling his cardiologist that when he was called out of school, he was supposed to take a botany test. He jokingly said he may have been fortunate he was forced to leave because he would have probably flunked the exam.”
Just three months after arriving at the camp, Otomo’s father died and he was sent to a National Youth Administration camp in Minnesota to become a tinsmith, but that camp closed, leaving Otomo penniless, homeless and half a continent away from Selma. He stayed at a rescue mission, built fences, found a place to live and moved to Minneapolis.
Otomo enlisted in the Army and was assigned to the Military Intelligence Language School at nearby Fort Snelling to improve his Japanese. He told the Selma Enterprise newspaper, “I wanted to show my loyalty. The Japanese were the enemy. I was as American as the next person.”
Assigned to the Army Counter Intelligence Corps, Otomo served in the Philippines and in Japan. He was honorably discharged and returned to Selma in 1946.
“He could not return to college because he had to help his family make a living by being a sharecropper,” said his daughter. Just three years later, though, there were big changes in Otomo’s life.
He eloped to Las Vegas to marry Elaine Uyemura, a Selma native whom he had met when they attended Fresno State. She had gone on to study at St. Olaf College in Minnesota and at the New York Institute of Dietetics to become a dietitian. The Otomos raised two sons, Don Otomo of Fresno and Tom Otomo of Lake Tahoe, and their daughter, Joan of Manhattan Beach.
And 1949 was when Otomo became an auto mechanic. He bought Selma Motor Sales in 1957 and operated it until 1984. He is a 50-year member of the Lions Club.
Otomo’s occupation became his avocation. He was a mechanic on racing boats and cars. Some were driven by his daughter until he decided she needed to focus on education to achieve her dream of becoming a dentist.
“There was never a question if we were going to college,” Joan Otomo-Corgel said. “The only question was ‘Where are you going to college?’ My Mom said that they wanted us to be better citizens, get better jobs and not have to struggle like they did.”
John Otomo was a charter member of Chi Beta Alpha, Fresno State’s honorary agriculture fraternity (the forerunner of Alpha Zeta). Two of his five sisters (he has a brother, too) graduated from Fresno State and became teachers. Otomo’s children and 16 nieces and nephews have college degrees (six from Fresno State) and two of his three grandchildren are in college.
“Mr. Otomo set a high academic standard for his family,” said Welty. “Although he was unable to complete his studies at Fresno State because of forces completely out of his control, Mr. Otomo knows the value of higher education and insisted his family take advantage of educational opportunities.”
“This degree and ceremony helps restore the dignity and honor of loyal Americans wrongfully removed from their schools, homes, farms, businesses and careers,” said Ikeda
“Let us each recommit ourselves to strive to form ‘a more perfect union’ with each person treated equally in the eyes of the law,” Ikeda added. “Let us work together to create a society where each person can achieve his or her highest potential as just, productive and contributing members of it.”
Welty and Oliaro said they’re hopeful that news about the honorary degree for Otomo will prompt families of other Japanese American alumni to contact Fresno State. “We are committed to honoring as many of our alumni as possible who qualify for this honor,” Oliaro said.
Information about possible candidates for the honorary degrees and questions about the project should be directed to Oliaro’s office at (559) 278-2541.