Japanese American Honorary Degree

During the traditional Winter Convocation held on Sunday, December 13, 2009, 42 Japanese Americans finally received the diplomas they had been working towards nearly 67 years ago, before they were forced to leave their studies as a result of Executive Order 9066. Wearing mortarboards and gowns, they were joined by family members who also accepted these special honorary diplomas bearing the Latin inscription Inter Silvas Academi Restituere Iustitiam — or “to restore justice among the groves of the academe,” in honor of 78 additional Japanese American students now deceased or too infirm to attend. Activist and educator Chizu Kitano Iiyama, 88, spoke on behalf of the honorees, emphasizing “the importance of fighting for civil rights.” Her message was echoed by the Honorable Norman Mineta in his keynote address. Earlier in the day they were honored by 40 Asian American campus and community leaders with leis of blue and gold origami cranes made in their honor by over 100 volunteers throughout the Bay Area, including 45 children from Murdock-Portal Elementary School. Asian American Studies sponsored a reception for the honorees, with the assistance of Professor Michael Omi and Lecturer Jere Takahashi. The granting of honorary degrees to 120 former Cal students, which merited a one-time suspension of a 37-year old UC moratorium on honorary degrees, was part of an effort by the University of California system to recognize and address, in the words of UC President Mark G. Yudof, a “historical tragedy.” At the outbreak of World War II, more than 2,500 students of Japanese ancestry were enrolled at California public colleges and universities, including about 500 at Berkeley. During the war, UC faculty and administrators protested the inclusion of students in the orders to evacuate, arranged for some students to complete their course work from internment camps, and helped arrange for some students 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. The California Nisei College Diploma Project played an instrumental role in locating honorees for the Cal ceremony. This project is the implementation of AB 37, a bill introduced by Assemblyman Warren Furutani (D-Long Beach) and passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. It calls on the California Community College, California State University and University of California systems to award honorary degrees. Working in conjunction with local chapters of the Japanese American Citizens League, the project was invaluable in locating and personally contacting over 350 honorees and family members in attendance that day. In fact, due to its continued efforts, additional honorary degree recipients and family members were located for conferral of honorary degrees at the Department of Ethnic Studies and the Asian American Studies Program commencement exercises on May 20, 2010. The events were coordinated by community advocate and Asian American Studies graduate Lisa Hirai Tsuchitani, who helped organize the 1992 granting of degrees to Japanese American students from the Class of 1942 unable to receive their diplomas when they were imprisoned, worked with Paul Osaki and Patty Wada of the Nisei Diploma Project, and more than 150 campus and community volunteers to ensure that this historic homecoming for these students, their families, and the Japanese American community at large was especially memorable.