USC to issue honorary degrees to displaced Japanese students
By Isabella Grullón Paz
In 2007, Jonathan Kaji, then-president of the Asian Pacific Alumni Association at the University of Southern California, inquired about the school’s actions toward its Japanese students in 1942. That was the year President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which forcibly removed and detained people of Japanese descent from the West Coast after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
He had read that universities in Washington state were issuing honorary degrees to the Nisei — children of Japanese immigrants — who were prevented from finishing their studies by the executive order.
A history professor at the school got back to him with a fact he found disturbing: Many universities in California, Washington and Oregon urged other institutions to accept Japanese American students so that they could complete their studies and avoid detention. However, USC’s president at the time, Rufus von KleinSmid, infamous for his antisemitism and support for the study of eugenics, refused to release the transcripts of Japanese American students, preventing them from finishing their degrees elsewhere and forcing many to start over.
Kaji immediately petitioned USC’s board of trustees to apologize for its actions during World War II and to issue posthumous honorary degrees to Nisei students who were denied their transcripts.
Almost 15 years later, USC is granting Kaji’s request.
On Thursday, the university announced it would grant posthumous degrees to over 100 Nisei students who were denied transcripts. The university is urging the public to help find the descendants of the students to honor them during a gala in April.
Carol Folt, USC president since 2019, “made the decision to right a historical wrong,” Patrick Auerbach, associate senior vice president for alumni relations, said Thursday.
USC gave Nisei former students honorary alumni status in 2008 and issued honorary degrees to some living Nisei students in 2012. USC policy does not allow degrees to be issued posthumously, but Folt decided on “making an exception to this policy because this is the right thing to do,” Auerbach said.
Folt plans to issue a public apology to the 120 students during the gala.
USC had been facing pressure to honor students since a state law passed in 2009, drafted in part by Kaji, requiring schools in the California State University and California Community Colleges systems to award honorary degrees to all displaced Japanese American students, living or deceased.
In 2009, Kaji received a response from Steven Sample, USC’s president at the time, saying the institution did not follow the state universities, Kaji recalled.
For the children of the students, most of whom have died, this degree feels like “getting closure,” said Dr. Larry Fujioka, a dentist in Hawaii. For him, this degree felt “much more meaningful” than any recognition that his father, John Masato Fujioka, one of the students to be honored, received in the past.
He said the school’s previous attempts to honor the displaced students, in 2008 and 2012, didn’t represent “a true apology and a true gesture by the university to really come to grips about what they had done.”
Fujioka, 68, said his father “never held a grudge against USC, despite what they did.” He rarely talked about what came after Executive Order 9066, but he always wore his USC sweatshirt.
“He always felt like a USC man,” Fujioka said. “I think he’d be very happy with this.”
Joanne Kumamoto said her father, Jiro Oishi, would be very happy with the news, but for her, it is a bittersweet moment. Her father died in 2002, so he was not recognized in the previous ceremonies.
“I’m really happy for my dad because I know this is something he really wanted,” Kumamoto, 76, said. For as long as she could remember, he was proud to be a Trojan. He wore the school colors, cardinal and gold, and had season tickets to USC football and basketball games. It wasn’t until Kumamoto was in high school that she found out her father did not graduate from USC.
“Personally, I’m a little more, you know, sorry that this didn’t happen earlier,” she said. “But I’m trying to stay positive, because I think it’s a good step for USC.”
Kaji said a lot had changed since 2007, including the new president’s openness to addressing racist chapters of USC history. But mostly what has changed is context, he said.
“The wave of scandals that have slammed USC in recent years, combined with the civil unrest after the George Floyd case and the wave of anti-Asian violence during the COVID pandemic, all combined to move the issue forward,” Kaji said.
Kaji remembers leading a 10-person protest in front of the auditorium where the first installment of honorary degrees were being awarded in 2012. He did not think the school was doing enough. With him were his parents, both Nisei, who knew students impacted by the executive order.
“Before both of them passed away, I promised to them that I would continue this effort,” Kaji said. “So I believe this is, you know, completing a promise to them.”