(First published in The Rafu Shimpo on May 27, 2010.)
This graduation season has been truly inspiring with the awarding of hundreds of honorary degrees to the Nisei whose educations were interrupted in 1942 by Executive Order 9066.
Stories like these are so special and personal — even if it isn’t your auntie or grandpa, their individual stories are a part of our community, and we all can celebrate and feel pride at their accomplishments. However attending the Cal State Dominguez Hills reception for the Nisei graduates last week, I wasn’t expecting to see an image that was for me, so haunting and personal.
In a video produced by CSUDH for the Nisei graduation program, is a photo of my mom, Julia Taniguchi Uriu, in a small gathering of well-dressed young women. While the photo was part of a montage on Nisei students, in fact, mom did not attend college before World War II and would not have qualified for an honorary degree.
An inmate at Gila River, she went to USC after the war and the photo is of the founders of the Sigma Phi Omega sorority, circa 1949. It brought me to tears the first time I saw it, here at the Rafu office, while randomly Googling her name. She was just 55 when she died, as I was starting my freshman year at UCLA. In many ways, I never really knew her and seeing that photo was the first time I had heard that she had been a member of a sorority, let alone a founder.
Sigma Phi Omega, a sorority that has nine chapters from UC Berkeley to Texas A&M, initiated a historical research project and uncovered the names of what they call their founding mothers with the help of Ham and Aki Miyamoto, two of mom’s best friends. It’s moving and a wonderful tribute that these sorority sisters of today would do so much to honor their history. As a daughter I am grateful — they’ve given me a part of my mom I would never have otherwise known.
As part of their research, they discovered that Sigma Phi Omega, the oldest Asian American sorority at USC, was founded in an atmosphere of anti-Japanese American sentiment.
Sigma Phi Omega states, “Our founding mothers decided to start their own organization. The Greek letters were chosen at random and were not used by any other existing fraternities or sororities at that time. Although we did not originate as a sorority, one could speculate that the choosing of Greek letters was a public way of voicing a dissatisfactory opinion about the treatment of Asian American, specifically Japanese Americans, by the campus.”
According to Allan W. Austin, who wrote “From Concentration Camp to Campus: Japanese American Students and World War II” (2004, University of Illinois Press), USC Chancellor Rufus Von Kleinsmid was indeed openly hostile to Japanese Americans.
USC stands out as the only West Coast school to refuse to release transcripts for the young Nisei students who were forced to leave their lives behind, simply because they looked like the enemy. Their academic transcripts, representing the sum of their lives at USC, were denied in one final, petty gesture.
Von Kleinsmid’s prejudice also extended to Jews on campus. The Jewish Journal reported in 2004 that during the Von Kleinsmid era, it was rumored that there was an informal quota of only one Jewish student per year in the university’s law and medical schools. In 1946, while he was president, a cross was burned on the lawn of the Jewish fraternity house. Von Kleinsmid was president from 1921 to 1947 and remained chancellor until his death in 1964.
Given all of that, I do sense in the origins of Sigma Phi Omega, some of the passion of my mom, who had a strong sense of right and wrong. The sorority sisters united to form their own social group, a group that still thrives more than 60 years later.
Atonement can be a tricky thing. Despite this history, the Nisei Trojans loved their campus and remained loyal Cardinal and Gold supporters. I remember going to many USC football games as a kid.
It would seem that as this year of Nisei graduations continues, that USC would also take this opportunity to correct an injustice. In fact USC did honor the wartime Nisei in 2008 at the USC Asian Pacific American Alumni gala in the spring and later during halftime at an SC football game. But even as Cal State, UC and community colleges have done so, USC has conspicuously decided not to give degrees to the 130 Nisei students who had to leave in 1942. For outgoing President Steve Sample it would have been a learning opportunity for the entire university and a chance to atone for the school’s poor treatment of the Nisei.
The JACL National Board adopted a resolution calling for USC Board of Trustees to reconsider and issue degrees. Taking up the call, the campus newspaper the Daily Trojan pointed out sarcastically that Kermit the Frog and comedian Stephen Colbert were worthy of honorary degrees, but alas, not the Nisei.
Come on USC. Now is the time, even if it is 70 years too late. If not now, when?
Gwen Muranaka is Rafu English editor-in-chief . Ochazuke is a staff-written column. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.