Pride of Westwood


Japanese American Nisei UCLA graduates and family pose for a group photo prior to the awarding of honorary degrees on Saturday. Forty-eight degrees were given to honorees who were present or to family members of honorees who are unable to attend or are deceased. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)



Herbert and Yuriko Murayama never met each other while they were students at UCLA. But the married couple received honorary degrees together on Saturday, as UCLA recognized Japanese American students who were unable to complete their education due to Executive Order 9066 and the mandatory evacuation of all Japanese Americans from the West Coast during World War II.

Chancellor Gene Block awards an honorary degree to Sally Kusuyanagi Okabe. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

“This is a wonderful thing,” said Herbert, one of 19 Nisei who participated in the ceremony that was held as part of the university’s Alumni Day. “She was a freshman and I was a sophomore. We got married three generations later in 2005.”

The couple now reside in Little Tokyo, but during their college days, Herbert studied English semantics with S.I. Hayakawa; while Yuri pursued dietetics. Their stories of scholastic achievement and personal hardship were among the many honored in a moving and bittersweet ceremony.

The Nisei wore traditional black cap and gowns, with blue and gold ribbon leis created by UCLA students. The degree that they received reads, Inter Silvas Academi Restituere Iustitiam — “to restore justice within the groves of academe.”

UCLA’s ceremony was the final UC Nisei graduation, following similar ceremonies at UC San Francisco, UC Davis and UC Berkeley last December. This week, Cal State Fresno, San Diego State University and Cal State Dominguez Hills will also confer degrees on Nisei graduates.

Misao Natsumeda proudly holds her degree and a portrait created by her granddaughter for the event. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

On Friday evening, Bakersfield College honored 29 Nisei students, including Mary Higashi, 87, of San Pedro, who was recognized during the school’s annual graduation ceremony.

UCLA Chancellor Gene Block in his remarks paid tribute to the Bruin Band of Brothers: Yoshiharu Aoyama, Kei Tanahashi and Hitoshi “Moe” Yonemura, who were killed in combat fighting with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. He said the determination of the students who were receiving their degrees was an uplifting story of perseverance.

“Only what you could carry, you can imagine what that meant for you students, you who had more of life ahead of you than behind you. We now know you carry determination, dignity and the hopes and dreams of an entire community that said with a powerful voice: I am an American,” said Chancellor Block.

The ceremony was emceed by Tritia Toyota; remarks were given by Assemblymember Warren Furutani, author of AB 37, and Edward Kobayashi, president of UCLA Nikkei Student Union.

“Today we are here with fellow Bruins who have endured the internment experience, lived through prejudice and past injustices, and are now back at UCLA to be properly honored,” said Kobayashi.

“So more than anything, I want to thank all of the honorary graduates, because to my generation, you are all heroes.”

Bob Naka, who traveled from Concord, Mass. spoke on behalf of the graduating students. Unable to receive his degree from UCLA, he completed his electrical engineering degree at the University of Missouri in 1945 and went on to receive a master’s degree from the University of Minnesota in 1947 and a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1951.

The seal of the University of California, foreground, is visible during the graduation ceremony. Approximately 700 UC students at four campuses were among more than 110,000 Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans forcibly relocated to camps in the wake of Japan’s 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

Naka, who worked on U2 spy plane technology, recounted a comment made by his boss John McLucas of the National Reconnaissance Office.

“You went from being an untrusted American to become one of the most trusted we have. And, he added, only in America,” Naka said.

As the names on the diplomas were read, the audience cheered and the chancellor handed the diplomas to the new graduates, some standing, others seated in wheelchairs.

“I’m kind of surprised by all this, I see some of the old friends but I don’t recognize them, it was 60 years ago,” said Kei Yamaguchi, who was drafted into the Army from UCLA in 1941.