UCSF Awards Honorary Degrees to Former WWII Internees

From left, Setsuo “Ernest” Torigoe, Aiko “Grace” Obata Amemiya and Edith Oto, who also celebrated her 90th birthday on Dec. 4, received their honorary degrees from UCSF nearly seven decades after they were sent to internment camps during World War II.

UC restored some justice on Friday when former students of Japanese ancestry received honorary degrees after being forced to leave college to enter internment camps during World War II.

Aiko “Grace” Obata Amemiya returned to UCSF on Friday to receive an honorary degree 67 years after her studies were cut short as result of her internment as a Japanese American during World War II.

“This is just so exciting,” Amemiya said, beaming, as she adjusted her cap and gown and prepared to join the graduation processional. “I was there in July and spoke to the Board of Regents, and when they voted yes [on the honorary degrees], I was just floating. I still am.”

UC’s actions to make amends to former students came as the result of a request from UCSF to honor Amemiya, a former nursing student who was among 700 UC students of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast sent to internment campus in 1942 after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. The UC students were among more the 120,000 Japanese national and Japanese Americans forcibly relocated to interment campus following Japan’s 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.

On Friday, UCSF Chancellor Sue Desmond-Hellmann, MD, MPH, welcomed back Amemiya, who is among the former students at UCSF to receive honorary degrees. The diplomas bear the Latin inscription Inter Silvas Academi Restituere Iustitiam, which means “to restore justice among the groves of the academe.”

UCSF is the first public university in California to provide such degrees to former students, many of whom will be honored posthumously. Three other UC ceremonies will follow during annual commencement ceremonies on the Davis, Berkeley, and Los Angeles campuses.

Zina Mirsky, associate dean of administration for the UCSF School of Nursing, first raised the issue of granting degrees to interned students in 2004 after meeting Amemiya.

“Grace recounted all the courses she had taken at UC Berkeley, how she was inappropriately advised and so had to wait a year to be admitted to nursing school, and how, as a result, she was unable to finish her degree because of the executive order to go to an internment camp, ” Mirsky recalled.

Mirsky promised to do what she could to get Amemiya a degree. After a couple of setbacks, Mirsky in 2008 took her inquiry to Joseph Castro, UCSF vice provost for student academic affairs, to see if the UC Office of the President might be willing to take on this issue—not only for Amemiya, but for all the students of Japanese descent who had been unable to finish UC degrees.

“Today is a very special day at UCSF for our newest graduates, their families, the Japanese American community and all of us,” Castro said before the ceremony. “The honorary degrees we confer upon these graduates are a well deserved recognition of their past accomplishments and the incredible legacies they have built for their families. It is our great honor to welcome back to UCSF the graduates, their families and the community for this momentous occasion.”

‘Small Measure of Justice’

When the UC Regents in July voted to grant the special honorary degrees – suspending this one time the 37-year-old UC moratorium on giving honorary degrees – UC President Mark Yudof praised the decision.

“This action is long overdue and addresses an historical tragedy,” Yudof said. “To the surviving students themselves, and to their families, I want to say, ‘This is one way to apologize to you.’ It will never be possible to erase what happened, but we hope we can provide you a small measure of justice.’”

All of those students, whether living or deceased, will be awarded honorary degrees, as recommended by a UC task force co-chaired by Judy Sakaki, UC vice president of student affairs, and UC Davis Professor of Law Daniel Simmons.

For Sakaki, the issue is personal since both her parents and grandparents were interned. On her office wall hangs the hand-carved wooden sign bearing her father’s name and ID number which once hung outside his internment camp barracks. The sign is a reminder of the past and the opportunities she enjoys today.

“This honorary degree program and policy is really important for the University of California because it’s one small way that we can really respect the students that we serve and to right a wrong,” she said.

At the time, UC faculty and administrators protested the inclusion of students in the executive order, arranged for some students to complete the semester’s course work from internment camps and helped arrange for others to enroll in universities outside the exclusion zone. After the war, some students eventually completed their studies and earned degrees at UC, but the majority did not.

In 1988, Congress passed and President Ronald Reagan signed legislation which apologized for the internment on behalf of the US government. The legislation stated that government actions were based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” About $1.6 billion in reparations were later disbursed by the US government to every surviving internee.

Photo by Susan Merrell

Editor’s note: This story was filed before the ceremony to meet the Friday deadline. An updated story will be posted in UCSF Today on Monday, Dec. 7.

Related Links:

UC Honorary Degrees website

UC Employees Make Honorary Degrees Their Mission
UC News Release, Sept. 1, 2009

WWII internees to receive honorary degrees
UC News Release, July 16, 2009