UW News

February 28, 2008

World War II era Japanese American students get honorary degrees

News and Information

The UW Board of Regents on Feb. 21 approved the awarding of honorary bachelor’s degrees to Japanese American students who were enrolled at the time of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Feb. 19, 1942, Executive Order 9066, which led to the mass exclusion and incarceration of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans, including those at the UW.

The Regents’ action culminated efforts that were begun a number of years ago involving many different individuals and organizations. It is estimated that at the time of the executive order, more than 440 Japanese American students were enrolled at the UW.

“Every year, we have a Day of Remembrance commemorating the incarceration,” says Tetsuden Kashima, professor of American ethnic studies. Kashima presented the proposed action at the Regents meeting, along with Associate Professor Gail Nomura.

“In the winter of 2005, editor Tom Griffin wrote a two part series for Columns, the UW alumni magazine, titled ‘The Stolen Years.’ It chronicled the lives of some of the students who were forced out of the University, as well as efforts by the University to support them. A number of us began talking at the Day of Remembrance in February 2006, saying that something formal needed to be done. We had no idea how long it would take.”

Nomura, who came to the UW in 1999, recalls a conversation she had with a Japanese American who had come to her office after viewing a UWTV telecast of Gordon Hirabayashi’s Day of Remembrance talk in 2000. Hirabayashi, who was in his senior year at the UW in 1942, challenged the constitutionality of the exclusion order by refusing to get on the bus to be sent away to the detention camp at Puyallup.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against his constitutional challenge in 1943, four decades later Hirabayashi’s case was re-opened when evidence of governmental misconduct in the original trial was uncovered and in 1987 a federal appeals court vacated his wartime conviction.

Nomura says, “In my conversation with that Japanese American who had come to talk with me, I discovered that he was a former student who was forced to leave the UW in spring quarter of 1942 just one course shy of graduation. When I tried to look into procedures to review his case, it proved to be extremely difficult to find the necessary information in order to file the appeal to get this person the degree he should have received if he had not been forced to leave UW.” She and Kashima realized that trying to remedy the situation person by person was unworkable.

Many units of the University were involved in the efforts to identify the students and propose a remedy. Theresa Mudrock, history librarian, has had a longtime interest in Japanese American history and has mined material in the possession of UW Libraries to create Web sites dealing with the fate of local Japanese Americans during World War II. Her research concerning the UW’s response to President Roosevelt’s executive order actually provided the springboard for the Columns articles.

She discovered a forgotten history of the UW at a time when the University came to the aid of its Japanese American students. UW president during the war, Lee Paul Sieg, wrote to colleagues around the country, inquiring “whether your institution would be in a position to open its doors to a few well-qualified American students of Japanese ancestry” and encouraged UW faculty to show students “friendliness at this difficult time.” University faculty such as Robert O’Brien, Jesse Steiner and Floyd Schmoe assisted and advised students, wrote testimonials in the local Japanese newspaper, and testified in congressional hearings in support of Japanese Americans. Still other faculty raised money for scholarships for these “brilliant, loyal students.”

Mudrock’s work can be seen in an exhibit, Interrupted Lives, on display in 102 Suzzallo through Feb. 29, and on the Web here. It contains information from primary sources on how people in the region, and on campus, responded after Pearl Harbor.

Mudrock has worked with the UW Nikkei Alumni Association, which used its social networks to help fill out the details of what happened to each UW student. Irene Mano, Beth Kawahara, Ken Sato and other members have worked tirelessly over the last two years contacting people and compiling this information. With the help of an American Ethnic Studies graduate, Jillian Yoshimoto, this information will be published in a booklet in May. Additional assistance in the ongoing research is being provided by the UW Alumni Association under the leadership of Kyle Funakoshi, associate director for volunteer programs.

The Registrar’s Office under Todd Mildon was particularly supportive and helped in gathering academic information on the 440 students. Marc Leavitt, an office assistant, and Tina Peterson, graduation specialist, went through the filing cabinets of student records from that era, all hand-written, and helped answer the questions posed by the UW Nikkei Alumni Association — basically, the enrollment history of each student, credits allowed at the time of evacuation, information about the evacuation itself, and whether the student re-enrolled at the end of the war.

A longtime UW student, Yuki Sato, also helped with the research. Sato had worked slowly but doggedly on a UW degree, taking just one course a quarter for 19 years, beginning when she retired. She received a bachelor’s degree in American ethnic studies in 2001, at the age of 82. Her senior thesis project was an examination of the fate of some of the Nisei students of 1941-2, who were in fact her contemporaries. Sato continues to volunteer, doing archival research on her contemporaries, and continues to take UW classes through the Access program.

As the project to award honorary degrees reached fruition, the response from the community, Kashima says, was two words: At last. “There are strong positive feelings among many about the UW,” he says, “not just for doing this, but for the compassion that University leadership showed at the time of the incarceration, and the efforts of many faculty members and administrators to welcome these students back to campus when the war ended.”

“A growing body of community organizations and people are helping,” Nomura says. “It is a pleasure to be a part of such a group. It is also a pleasure to be working with such wonderful University colleagues as Theresa Mudrock who did such excellent research, and the many units and individuals on campus that have been so supportive.”

An exhibit, ‘Our Japanese’ to ‘Enemy Aliens’: Incarceration and the Role of the Local Press, curated by Glenda Pearson, head of Microforms and Newspaper Collections, is on the ground floor of Suzzallo, in the Microform area.

The ceremony awarding the honorary bachelor degrees to the UW Japanese American students of 1941-42 will be held at 1:45 p.m. Sunday, May 18, in 120 Kane.