Nisei Receives Honorary Degree from LACC

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Los Angeles Community College District Chancellor Francisco Rodriguez and LACC President Renee Martinez congratulate Kimiko Umemoto Kishi for her honorary degree on Feb. 8 at East Los Angeles Community College. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

Rafu Staff Report

The Los Angeles Community College Board of Trustees awarded an honorary associate of arts degree in liberal studies to former student Kimiko Umemoto Kishi, 95, on Feb. 8 as her family, students, staff, faculty and administrators gave her a standing ovation.

LACC’s authority to grant this degree originated with Assembly Bill 27, authored by former Assemblymember Warren Furutani when he discovered that over 2,500 Japanese American students were prevented from graduating from California colleges due to Executive Order 9066, issued on Feb. 19, 1942. Furutani’s legislation allowed state colleges and universities to belatedly grant the degrees that were denied to those students.

“In 1942, Kimiko Umemoto was a typical student at the downtown Los Angeles City College, studying to get her associate of arts degree and ready to embark on her young career in a world full of unlimited opportunity,” said LACC Trustee Mike Eng. “But in February, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which resulted in the forcible removal and incarceration of 120,000 mainly persons of Japanese ancestry notwithstanding U.S. citizenship status.

“Kimiko’s college career was immediately severed from her as she was shipped off to one of America’s concentration camps, never to return to the college that once held the promise of the American dream.

“Who knows what would have happened had she remained? Would she have become as accomplished as architect Frank Gehry, who designed the iconic downtown Disney Concert Hall and many other structures, or Clint Eastwood, the actor turned director and producer, both graduates of L.A. City College?

“We’ll never know the answer to that question because we can’t control the past. But we can at least attempt to right a wrong.”

LACC President Renee Martinez was among the officials participating in the ceremony.

Born to Japanese immigrant parents in January 1922 in Los Angeles, Kishi graduated from John Marshall High School in 1940 and began her studies at nearby LACC in the fall of 1940. She studied business, secretarial classes and planned to work as a secretary.

“After Pearl Harbor there was a great deal of concern because of all the anti-Japanese sentiment, but she thought since she was born in the U.S. and was a citizen she would not have anything to fear,” her daughter Susan said. “Her parents both worked and had been in this country over 20 years; they all considered Los Angeles their home. They had no allegiance to Japan.

“When Executive Order 9066 came out, her life changed. She didn’t continue her final semester at LACC because Japanese Americans were to be evicted from the West Coast. In May, her parents, an older brother, a younger sister and younger brother were forcibly removed and sent to live in a temporary detention center with 5,000 others behind barbed wire in barracks at the Pomona Fair Grounds. Others in L.A. were sent to Santa Anita Race Track. Her husband’s family lived on a farm in Merced County and were sent to the Merced County Fair Grounds and lived in stables.”

In August 1942, Kishi and her family were sent to the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming, where she used her secretarial skills in her job as the assistant to the block manager. She was able to leave Heart Mountain before the end of the war to go to work as a church secretary in Minneapolis, where she met her future husband, Fred.

“He had been at an internment camp in Colorado and had been helped to leave to continue his college education at the University of Maryland,” the daughter explained. “The American Friends Service Committee and the Japanese American Student Relocation Council helped more than 4,000 students continue their college education. While in college he was drafted — yes, while his parents were interned — and was sent to Fort Snelling, St. Paul, Minn., for Military Intelligence Language training.

“They married in Minnesota. Fred was sent to Japan to be part of the U.S. military occupation forces. Kimi returned to L.A. when her parents were released from Heart Mountain. In 1946, upon Fred’s return, they moved to Livingston, Calif., where he and his brother were successful farmers and community leaders. Kimi raised four daughters and was also active in the community. She moved to the Bay Area 10 years after Fred died, to be closer to three of her daughters …

“Kimi and Fred felt very strongly that the injustices of the incarceration of the Japanese Americans should not be forgotten.”

Kimiko Kishi is joined by (from left) LACCD Trustee Mike Fong, Los Angeles City College President Renee Martinez, and Trustee Mike Eng. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

After her children were grown, Kishi took courses at Merced Community College, but not to obtain a degree.

The family was unaware of the Nisei diploma bill, which was signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2009. But the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor last December brought back a lot of memories for Kishi, and her daughters thought that an honorary AA degree would be a great birthday present (she turned 95 in January). She initially said she didn’t think she needed the diploma because it all happened so long ago, but she changed her mind and looked forward to receiving it. The trip to Los Angeles was also an opportunity to see her two sisters, also in their 90s.

Susan Kishi said it is fitting that the ceremony took place during the current debate over President Trump’s executive orders. “In 1980, under [President] Jimmy Carter, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians was formed, and concluded the incarceration was a product of racism, unjustified fears. Today, we see the same unjustified fear of immigrants. Most immigrants and refugees are hoping to come to the U.S. because of conditions in their home country; they are coming for a better life for themselves and their families. This is a country of immigrants; we should be embracing them, not banning them …

“Our family feels strongly people need to be reminded of the mass forced incarceration that happened 75 years ago and not allow it to happen again. The political climate now makes us concerned our country has not learned from its past mistakes. The hateful language and acts against immigrants, talk of a Muslim registry, an executive order banning Muslims from entering this country are all actions which run counter to what we believe our country stands for, civil liberties and human rights for all.

“Throughout the state there will be Day of Remembrance activities during the month of February. Please educate yourselves about what happened 75 years ago.”

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