Honorary Degrees For Former Internees

WESTWOOD—In May, UCLA officials plan to answer a historic grievance by giving out honorary college degrees to those Japanese Americans who were removed from UCLA during WWII and subsequently never received an undergraduate or graduate degree from the institution.

Soon after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the entry of the United States into the war, many government officials feared that Japanese Americans would be sympathetic to their ancestral homeland. The fervor reached a fever pitch by the time President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in 1942. This order effectively legalized the rounding up of Japanese Americans, and insured that the Japanese Americans would be forcibly removed from their homes and placed in internment camps, mainly in the Western region. It is estimated that just over 100,000 Japanese Americans were moved to the designated internment camps. Many of those who were forced to move from their homes were also forced to give up their studies, livelihoods and existence as they knew it; most of the young men and women forced to leave during their college years, never came back to finish school.


Japanese American Removal notice

By late 2009, both the California State University system and the University of California system chose to recognize those Japanese American students who were never able to finish their degrees, or who were at least interrupted in their academic pursuits. It was Assembly Bill 37 (authored by Representative Warren Furutani, who will also act as keynote speaker at the UCLA honorary degree granting), pushed forward in late 2008, which put the issue back on the docket; this bill asked all public California colleges, including the two-year junior colleges, the 23 California State University campuses and the 10 University of California campuses to publicly recognize those whose studies were interrupted, and to award them for their work and perseverance. The University of California leaders agreed to begin awarding degrees by late last summer, with the CSU system shortly following suit.

On September 23, the California State University Board of Trustees voted unanimously to start awarding honorary degrees to former Japanese American students or to the families or deceased former students. By early December, UC San Francisco awarded almost 70 former students from the class of 1942 who had been affected by the internment.

Continuing on in the goal of honoring those adversely affected by the Japanese American internment, UCLA is hoping to award even more internment survivors and/or their families. According to UCLA, about 700 Japanese American citizens were affected by the internment throughout the entire UC system, with more than one-quarter of those students originating at UCLA (around 200). It is the hope of UCLA officials that a May 15 ceremony, in which these survivors or their family members will collect their honorary degrees, can “right” a “historic ‘wrong.'” For many years, there was a moratorium on the granting of honorary degrees from UCLA and other UC campuses, so it is significant that UCLA will be offering up so many honorary degrees at once.

An honorary degree task force was formed to organize the event and to reach out to anyone who was either directly affected by the removal from UCLA or who have family members who were removed. Don Nakanishi, the chairman of the task force, who is also the director of UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center, stated his belief that “It’s never too late to join with others throughout the nation in recognizing that the mass removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II was wrong.”

Nnakanishi pointed to the fact that most of the Japanese American students who were torn from their studies starting in 1942 “never received degrees from these institutions.”