Over 65 years after they were forced out of their studies to live in internment camps, 47 former UC Davis students of Japanese ancestry received honorary degrees at the fall convocation ceremony on Dec. 12, 2009.
The UC Board of Regents voted in July 2009 to grant special degrees to the 700 UC Davis, Berkeley, Los Angeles and San Francisco students who were ousted by President Roosevelt’s executive order to relocate people of Japanese ancestry to internment camps during World War II. Order 9066 led to the three-year exclusion of 110,000 Japanese people from California, Oregon and Washington from 1942 to 1945 in response to the attack on Pearl Harbor.
“This action is long overdue and addresses an historical tragedy,” said UC President Mark Yudof in a press release.
During the war, UC faculty and administrators protested the students’ removal and helped arrange for them to continue their studies from within the internment camps, or helped them enroll in universities outside of the west coast. Many students never returned to California.
Despite being pulled out of the university to live in internment camps, a few former students received degrees from other universities or served the army in the 442 Regimental Combat Team, a unit famous for its mostly Japanese composition.
Though some declined honorary degrees because they attended UCD for a short time prior to their internment, most were happy with the recognition, said Louise Uota, director of ceremonies and special events.
Honorees wore traditional caps and gowns and received diplomas that read “inter silvas academi restituere lustitiam” or “to restore justice among the groves of the academy.”
Uota organized the ceremony with the help of the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California, which helped find previous students. Now in their 80s and 90s, the previous agriculture students were located in California, Texas and Illinois.
Friends or family represented students who were unable to attend or who are deceased.
Arlene Lawrence represented her uncle, Gus Ikemoto. After being held in an internment camp for three years, Ikemoto voluntarily joined the army and was deployed to Europe to aid in rebuilding. Ikemoto later graduated from the University of Denver and moved to Chicago.
Though high school and knitting classes were offered in some camps, internment life was bleak. Most internees spent the days making camouflage army nets and spent the nights sleeping on straw mattresses.
“Most Japanese Americans are stoic about their experiences in internment camps,” Lawrence said. “My parents wanted to get on with life after the war. It was like a bad dream.”
Tule Lake internment camp became infamous for its inadequate sanitation, as well as poor food and medical care. During the camp’s heyday, Roosevelt passed a law directed at Japanese Americans that permitted American citizens to denounce their citizenship in wartime. The law led 70 percent of Tule Lake’s internees to renounce their citizenship and thus be expatriated to Japan.
The regents’ decision to grant the degrees to internees ended the UC’s 37-year restriction on honorary degrees.
“My uncle is totally delighted with his honorary degree,” Lawrence said.
GABRIELLE GROW can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.