OCHAZUKE: Why Not, USC?

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By GWEN MURANAKA

(First published in The Rafu Shimpo on May 27, 2010.)

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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.

The founding mothers of Sigma Phi Omega sorority at USC. Julia Taniguchi Uriu is standing at far right. (Courtesy of Sigma Phi Omega)

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?
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Gwen Muranaka is Rafu English editor-in-chief . Ochazuke is a staff-written column. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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9 Comments

  1. Jack de Lowe on

    I graduated from USC in 1962 in International Relations/Economics at USC. Prof. von Kleinschmidt’s anti-semitism was then common knowledge. I was totally unaware of his feelings and dealings with the Nisei during WWII (although I am not surprised).
    To make amends after so many years would cost USC nothing – in fact it would pay! Don’t delay this offensive oversight any longer USC – do the right thing now!

  2. As the Immediate Past President of USC’s Asian Pacific Alumni Association, our Board urged President Sample and the Board of Trustees to issue honorary degrees. Even in light of Assembly Bill #37 and the issuance of honorary degrees by the California public colleges and universities, USC still refuses. Why? Is USC’s mistreatment of the NIsei students just one example of institutional bigotry inflicted upon ethnic and religious minorities?

  3. Jon – It would be a nice gesture if USC issued the honorary degrees, and I wish it would, but just because the school chooses to honor the Nisei in a different way doesn’t mean they are inflicting institutional bigotry.

    I did not go to USC and I don’t know anything about Rufus Von Kleinsmid except what is written here. But I can see he was president of the school during a time when my great aunt attended and graduated before the war. Perhaps his unfair treatment of JA students was influenced by the virulent pro-Japan position of grads such as Masao Dodo who was also president of the Japanese Trojan Club at USC in the late 1920’s and a Rafu writer in the 1930’s.

    As noted in the Rafu, “Of the Rafu Shimpo journalists before World War II, Dodo seemed to be the most flamboyant pro-Japan militarist. He strongly identified with the Land of the Rising Sun, supported Japan’s expansion policy and believed in its Asian supremacy. When Japan took over Manchuria in 1931, Dodo justified the military invasion by saying that Japan would be able to direct troubled Asian countries with its strong leadership…Dodo was a propagandist. In Los Angeles, he made more than 20 speeches on the Far Eastern issues in front of American audiences. He even spoke in English on an American radio program on station KHJ, where he justified Japan’s militaristic expansion and defended the country’s rule of Manchuria…During World War II, he worked for Radio Tokyo, a Japanese war propaganda program, and criticized American participation in the Pacific war. His broadcast was transmitted even to the United States and heard by Japanese and Japanese Americans in internment camps.”

    Were there others of Dodo’s ilk at USC in 1942? I hope not. But it wouldn’t surprise me if grads like Dodo made an impression on Van Kleinsmid and caused him to make unfair generalizations.

  4. Very interesting article and comments. Especially illuminating to this Bruin. Thanks for sharing, Gwen.

    Assuming Rafu Fan’s facts are correct and further assuming Masao Dodo made an unfavorable impression of anti-Americanism to Chancellor Van Kleinsmid, that shouldn’t excuse USC from failing in 2010 to award honorary degrees to its Nisei students who were enrolled during WWII. It is not clear from Rafu Fan’s comments but I hope he or she is not
    suggesting that Dodo’s views were likely shared by Nisei Trojans during the war.

    Dodo was presumably born in Japan and apparently owed allegiance to the land of his birth. I know of no reason to think that the Nisei students enrolled at USC during the war were anything but patriotic Americans. To assume that they may have been pro-Japan merely because a student of a different generation over a decade earlier was, comes dangerously close to one of the rationales for the internment camps in the first place.

    In any event, assuming Van Kleinsmid was racist or otherwise did not favor the Japanese Americans enrolled at USC during the war, that would seem to weigh in favor of, not against, honoring those Nisei students today. Doing so would be that much more meaningful given the discrimination those students apparently faced at USC while they attended school.

  5. I am disappointed at Ms. Muranaka’s dismissal of the honoring of the USC internees as “Honorary Alumni” on April 25, 2008, fully two years before the current ceremonies being held by the state schools. I don’t think that there is a substantial difference between recognition with an honorary degree and recognition as an honorary alumni. How much is enough? Will you also chastise the U.S. Government because they did not completely compensate internees for their lost homes and businesses? Nothing can make up for the damged lives surrounding 9066, but it is petty to minimize a good faith effort on the part of USC to honor affected students, and promote healing.

  6. Dan – “Assuming Rafu Fan’s facts are correct and further assuming Masao Dodo made an unfavorable impression of anti-Americanism to Chancellor Van Kleinsmid, that shouldn’t excuse USC from failing in 2010 to award honorary degrees to its Nisei students who were enrolled during WWII. It is not clear from Rafu Fan’s comments but I hope he or she is not suggesting that Dodo’s views were likely shared by Nisei Trojans during the war.”

    We are in agreement on both points.

    “Dodo was presumably born in Japan and apparently owed allegiance to the land of his birth.”

    Yes, per former Rafu contributor Katie Kaori Hayashi, Dodo was born in Sapporo and came to the US when he was four.

  7. This column piqued my interest so I tried to find out a little more about former USC president and chancellor Rufus Von Kleinsmid. I have to say the allegation about him being prejudiced seems to be pretty thin.

    Per Gwen – “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.”

    I queried this book and the reference to Von Kleinsmid being hostile was not written by the author but by Roger Daniels who wrote the Forward to the book: “While a few academic leaders, such as Rufus B. von Kleinsmid of the University of Southern California, were openly hostile to Japanese American students, most of those who had to be persuaded to accept the students were afraid of public, alumni, and trustee reaction.” But I do not see that the author pursued this comment nor could I find references to support Daniels’ statement. What is the basis for the allegation? Gwen’s source is silent. Correct me if I missed something but I don’t think so.

    Per Gwen – “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.”

    According to Gwen’s own reference, this is not an accurate statement. The book says: “After repeated and sharp letters to Ford and President Rufus B. von Kleinsmid, the transcripts were finally issued in November.”

    Per Gwen – “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.”

    I found an article in the Jewish Journal from 2003 but none from 2004. The 2003 article repeats the same allegations. But really. Saying Von Kleinsmid was prejudiced against Jews based on a RUMOR is weak. Very weak. It seems like it would be pretty easy to check how many Jews were enrolled in the law and medical schools during his tenure, but apparently no one has bothered to do so. And saying Von Kleinsmid was prejudiced because a cross was burned during his tenure is also very weak. Since when do acts of campus vandalism get attributed to the prejudice of the president?

    Maybe Von Kleinsmid was as prejudiced as people say. But this column was not well researched and fails to make the case.

  8. Why even worry about u$¢? Their general arrogance is beyond redemption. UCLA on the other hand went to a great deal of compassionate effort to bestow honorary degrees on the Bruins who were yanked out of their classes and shipped off to internment camps back in the 40s. Details at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Bi-xKZwnAQ .

  9. Bill Baldwin, Jr. on

    Both the beauty and danger of the Internet is reflected in your comments about former USC President Rufus B. Von KleinSmid.

    The BEAUTY of the net is clearly reflected in the access afforded all of us, almost instantly, to an incredible array of information – and well reflected in what I learned about your mother and her brief time at USC.

    The DANGER of the net is shown by your casual character assassination of Von KleinSmid by including the following observation on him from The Jewish Journal 2004:

    “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.”

    Your assertion based on nothing more than a rumor circulated in another blog entry is without proof or basis in fact. Yet, because it appears within your article, anyone who is Googling Von KleinSmid’s name will be referenced to your article at some time and if they don’t know any better will take your written material as truth.

    Unless you have specific information Von KleinSmid, I would suggest you publish a retraction or at least a clarification and context for that assertion.

    For instance, what I found in 10 minutes of searching was an article from the LA Times “Day of the Jewish Trojan” from 2002: http://articles.latimes.com/2002/dec/11/local/me-jews11/3 In it, writer Stuart Silverstein observes that VonKleinSmid was suspected of being a Nazi sympathizer because of his “imperious, autocratic style and Germanic name…”but then quotes someone who was at USC at the time, Frances Lomas Feldman “, the 90-year-old historian of USC’s faculty senate and an emeritus professor of social work, who said she had cordial conversations with Von KleinSmid dating back to the 1930s, when she was a student at USC. She doubts that he harbored anti-Semitic hostilities. Silverstein then went on to write, “Feldman, who is Jewish, said Von KleinSmid presided at a time when various deans on campus, including some at the medical and dental schools, rejected students simply because they were Jewish or members of other minority groups.” Admissions practices, she said, “really depended on the dean of the school. I don’t think Von KleinSmid cared one way or another.”

    My former physician of 30 years standing and Jewish reflected on that consideration when he said being a jew prevented him from entering USC Med school, yet he later became the head of the school. Go figure.

    However, when you repeat rumors and innuendo as fact, what you write becomes fact for many and that carries with it an even greater responsibility to do your best to be accurate. For me, reading in the article I just quoted that because of his Germanic name and his so called “autocratic” style that many considered Von KleinSmid had to be a Nazi sympathizer was so out of touch with reality since I actually met Dr. VonKleinSmid and talked to him for almost 20 minutes my first week at USC in Sept. 1963. I remember walking past Tommy Trojan and Bovard Auditorium on campus and coming directly at me was this white haired man looking very much like my vision of actor Robert Donat’s portrayal of Mr. Chips from the 1939 classic film “Goodbye Mr. Chips”, as VonKleinSmid was wearing a black robe and cap in the British tradition. My impression was not autocratic, but friendly, engaging and concerned that one of the “new boys” at school was welcomed warmly. It was Dr. Von KleinSmid who asked all the questions of me. And It was because of this conversation that I chose to major in International Relations, the school Dr. Von KleinSmid founded at USC, the first of its kind in North America.

    Bill Baldwin, Jr.
    USC Class of 1967
    Los Angeles

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