By Jake Severns
FRESNO.—Nearly seven decades after their college educations were interrupted by stays in internment camps during World War II, 27 Japanese Americans finally got their degrees.
Six honorees in cap and gown were in attendance May 20 when Fresno State University hosted the Nisei Diploma Project that awarded honorary bachelors of human letters degrees. Another 21 degrees were accepted by family members on honorees’ behalf.
Fresno State president John Welty said in September 2009 the California State University Board of Trustees unanimously voted to award the degrees to CSU students whose degrees were interrupted due to their forced removal and incarceration.
“Today we recognize the unjust done to you by a nation driven by fear during World War II,” Welty said. “We recognize that you suffered but you persevered.”
Julia Goto Ohki, 88, was a sophomore working toward becoming a registered nurse in 1942 when she was moved to an internment camp in Poston, Ariz.
“It was a shock to everybody,” Ohki said. “I was really shocked and not prepared. It was all really hard.”
Ohki was born and raised in Fresno, and she acknowledged that it was hard to grasp the idea of being relocated against her will.
“After all my thoughts are very similar to any American,” Ohki said.
Although Ohki’s schooling was interrupted at Fresno State, the camp experience didn’t stop her from pursuing higher education.
After completing her time in the camp, Ohki returned to her education and received her bachelor’s degree from Colorado State, now University of Northern Colorado.
Although the forced relocation of Japanese citizens was a traumatic event that altered their everyday lives, Ohki managed to find one positive aspect.
“When you look at it in hindsight, it might have been safer for us because of the hatred and agitation,” Ohki said. “We were saved from some of that.”
Kazue Sekiya Iwatsubo, 87, was another honoree who was born and raised in Fresno.
Iwatsubo was in her sophomore year majoring in music at Fresno State when she got the news that she and her family would be relocated to an assembly center at the Fresno Fairgrounds.
“We all felt betrayed that we had no rights at all,” Iwatsubo said. “I was an American citizen and my brother was in the Army.”
Iwatsubo’s parents owned a hotel in west Fresno in an area that was known as Japan Town. With no other options, her family was forced to sell the hotel for $100.
“My father passed away in camp,” Iwatsubo said. “He was just devastated, he just gave up, after all those years working so hard to have it taken away.”
Iwatsubo remembered arriving at the camp and being frightened by the level of security.
“There were armed guards with rifles,” Iwatsubo said. “To think that we were born American citizens, and to be incarcerated, it was just like being in a concentration camp.”
While she was in the camp, Iwatsubo’s professors from Fresno State helped her get a scholarship to Drake University in Iowa.
After receiving her degree and teaching credential, Iwatsubo began teaching in the Japanese Language School at the University of Michigan.
Iwatsubo explained that the honorary degrees are not a matter of making up for what happened, but are about moving forward.
“I hope it makes a difference in the future,” Iwatsubo said. “I hope it never happens to another race in the United States.”