Coalition wants to award Japanese honorary degrees

During World War II, an estimated 120 Japanese American students attended USC. But in the wake of Pearl Harbor, thousands of Japanese Americans were forcefully relocated to Japanese internment camps across the country.

Recognition · USC Nisei Alumni were honored before a crowd of thousands at the Trojan football game against Arizona in the Coliseum on Oct. 11, 2008. They were awarded “alumni status” at halftime of the game. - Daily Trojan file photo

Like all other colleges and universities on the West coast, USC withdrew its Nisei, Japanese American, students from the university and sent them to internment camps, according to From Concentration Camp to Campus: Japanese American Students and World War II by Allan W. Austin, a book written about Japanese students experiences during World War II.

Today, eight USC students have come together in hopes of making up for this injustice.

Starting last year, an entirely student-run coalition was formed to complete the Nisei Diploma Project at USC.

“It is long overdue to give recognition to students affected from Nisei camps,” said Tracy Yen, a sophomore majoring in international relations and one of the project’s organizers.

The project’s goal is to have USC issue honorary degrees to Japanese Americans who were forced to terminate their education at USC and relocate to internment camps.

In 2008, Assemblyman Warren Furutani (D-South Los Angeles County) passed Assembly Bill 37, calling for public institutions to issue degrees to those Japanese American students who were forced to abandon their college education in 1942.

Many University of Californias, California State Universities and community colleges have already issued these honorary diplomas, but USC is yet to do so.

“By issuing these honorary degrees, USC can take the final step in recognizing our fellow Trojans’ education,” said Sally Kikuchi, a first year master student studying public administration and a project organizer.

Yen said she believes this is her opportunity to aid former Trojans.

“These people were college students like us who saw the importance of education,” Yen said. “Taking it from them was wrong and I feel that as a student that can be involved in this, I should help out as much as I can.”

The student group is currently asking members of the USC community to sign a petition stating they “support the initiative to grant honorary degrees to our fellow Trojans.” The petition started in late February and is expected to remain open until midnight Thursday, March 24.

As of March 21, more than 1,136 USC alumni, students, faculty and staff had already signed the petition.

The organization is not searching for a specific number of signatures, but instead hopes to obtain as many signatures as possible, according to Kikuchi.

The petition was established mainly to show that diverse groups within the USC community support the effort proposed by the student group.

“The petition is taking place to show President C. L. Max Nikias and the Board of Trustees that there is a heavy desire to want to recognize students who were unable to receive their education during World War II,” said Kevin Cheung, a senior majoring in business administration, who is in charge of the Nisei Diploma Project. “It shows that as members of the Trojan family we take of each other.”

The student group plans to deliver the petition, a personal letter expressing the importance of providing these diplomas and several letters from on campus organizations supporting the cause, to Nikias’ʼ office Friday.

The project’s organizers have not spoken to President Nikias directly, but Cheung says the group is willing to speak with him on the matter if he allows it.

“There have been previous attempts, but with our current depth of knowledge about the issue, the new bill and a fresh start with newly inaugurated President Nikias, it is the perfect time to start the project,” Cheung said.

If the project is successful, more than 120 Japanese American USC students who were affected will receive their honorary diplomas.

“The success of this project will demonstrate USC’s commitment to validating every student’s education,” Kikuchi said. “It will demonstrate to those outside of USC that our school truly takes the steps to address important issues that have a lasting impact on past, current and future generations.”

It has been nearly 70 years since the Japanese American internment camps, but the projects’ organizers feel the issue is as important now as it was then.

“We can show that even if it takes this long we will do the right thing and support each other,” Cheung said.

4 replies
  1. ViewFromThePit
    ViewFromThePit says:

    So VKC is a hall of shame rather than an “international” building. They were Japanese-AMERICANS and were not treated like Americans. One has to even recall at that time anything west of the Harbor Freeway was off limits to non-white people as far as residing. The country has changed but looks like USC has not. Shame on Sample. Living in San Marino seems the old bugger is probably looking out his windows wondering where all the Chinese people are doing around his ‘hood.

  2. Katie T.
    Katie T. says:

    They all deserve an honorary diploma. These are JA’s who were forced to leave school because of Executive Order 9066, even those who were close to graduating from school. There are SO MANY university and high schools giving honorary degrees and USC should follow in their footsteps. It’s something they deserve and we need to stand up!!!!! It’s the RIGHT thing to do…..

  3. Jon Kaji
    Jon Kaji says:

    Dear DT:

    As the former President of the USC Asian Pacific Alumni Association, our Board first raised the issue and brought it to the attention of then-President Steven Sample.
    For the record, USC President Rufus Von Kleinsmid and the Board of Trustees refused to release the academic transcripts of the Nisei USC students, who hoped to continue their university studies at schools outside of the West Coast.
    For this reason, USC’s punitive actions set it apart from all of the other West Coast universities. USC remains unapologetic for the academic, professional and emotional damage inflicted upon the students. The Nisei students who paid the tuition, took the classes, and sat for examinations discovered that USC erased their academic records based soley upon racial discrimination and wartime hysteria.
    Following President Sample’s rejection of issuing honorary degrees, I presented the issue to Assemblymember Warren Furutani, who introduced Assembly Bill 37.
    I wrote a personal letter to President Nikias, asking him to reconsider the University’s position. On March 9, 2011, Provost Elizabeth Garrett responded by stating that, “President Nikias and I agree, therefore, that awarding Honorary Degree Status to our former Japanese-American Nisei students was an appropriate and significant way for USC to acknowledge the injustice they sustained.”
    I applaud the students for their efforts in speaking up for their fellow students. “Justice delayed is justice denied.” It’s time for USC to fully-acknowledge the wrong that was committed and to stop covering-up and denying the past, no matter how much time has elapsed.

    • Edward
      Edward says:

      Kudos to you. We all need to write letters to President Nikias about this issue. Stand up for what’s right, stand up for justice.

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