By Nina Huang
Northwest Asian Weekly
Nearly 70 years have passed since Japanese Americans were put into internment camps when Executive Order 9066 was implemented. Their lives were forever changed. No Japanese American will ever forget the day when the United States made one of the biggest mistakes in history.
On May 18, 449 former University of Washington students were recognized for their courage and contributions to society. About 200 diplomas were given to those whose education was interrupted by World War II. The students were among the thousands of Japanese Americans who were incarcerated based on their racial background.
On Dec. 5, Northwest Asian Weekly will honor the many contributors who worked quietly and tirelessly behind the scenes to make the ceremony as successful as possible. For the contributors, it was an issue close to their hearts.
Hours of research were put toward the public recognition and the well-deserved handing out of diplomas to the Nikkei students. The combined efforts of several University of Washington professors and staff, along with members of the UW Nikkei Alumni Association, were important not only to the Nikkei students but also to society. The efforts were all part of an ongoing effort to educate the public, so the public can prevent what the Nikkei suffered from happening again.
Irene Mano said that “the successful culmination of the search was the bestowing of the honorary baccalaureate degrees by the UW at a special ceremony in May.”
Kenichi Sato believed that the recipients of the diplomas were “great because of their perseverance to survive even in a desolate internment camp and, in spite of being interned, their undying loyalty to the U.S.”
Professor Stephen Sumida said, “For the University of Washington, the graduates offered a chance to fulfill some good deeds and intentions that were left as unfinished business in 1942, when it seemed impossible to help the Nikkei students of the University.”
Beth Kawahara felt that the ensuing actions of perseverance, creativity, loyalty and resilience that drove them to lead productive lives is the real story behind the individuals who were received diplomas.
Furthermore, Professor Gail Nomura said, “The UW Nikkei students of 1941-1942 have taught us the critical importance of being vigilant, to speak up and defend the civil liberties of all, especially in times of national crisis.”
She continued to say that some people may hope that the error would not happen again, but she emphasized that “the story must be told again and again, lest it be forgotten.”
Sato agreed, expressing that society will not tolerate another evacuation based on racial identity.
Theresa Murdock added, “Their contributions to society remind all Americans about the fragility of democracy and the importance of civil liberties in wartime. The Nikkei students are a model for future generations — their lives illustrate the resilience of the human spirit. The notion of ‘gaman’ (a Japanese word to describe the concept of enduring pain) lives in this generation.”
Kyle Funakoshi praised the planning committee of “The Long Journey Home,” as “one of the best examples of institutional and community collaborations that I’ve ever seen.” He also felt that the ceremony was “a true testament to the ability for people to come together to do the right thing.”
“The ceremony opened the doors for family members, the University community, the state of Washington and people all around the world to hear a unique part of American history that is seldom discussed,” Funakoshi said.
The event itself was of great magnitude because it brought together both younger and older generations. “The experience has bonded the generations together,” Sato said.
Tom Griffin, former editor of UW’s Columns magazine, was integral to informing the public about the Nikkei. “It’s very important to American history,” Griffin said. “Americans need to know about what happened to these former students.”
Many Japanese Americans have passed away in the intervening 66 years but Kawahara remembers speaking with family members to whom the honor would have meant the world to their loved ones. The honor was so special for many people that family members from all over the country flew in specifically for the event. Kawahara mentioned that one family even had 13 in attendance from Hawaii.
Professor Tetsuden Kashima pointed out that even though the ceremony was held to honor the whole group, there were certain individuals that stood out, such as Gordon Hirabayashi and Dr. Ruby Inouye. About 13 Japanese Americans who died in combat while fighting for the United States in Europe.
“The Japanese Americans were able to go beyond their suffering and become very productive citizens, and that was how they affected future generations,” Kashima said.
Indeed, it is extremely important for the country to admit its error. “It took 60 years for the United States to recognize that,” he said.
Diane Adachi said, “It took several factions working together to promote change and retribution for a historical wrong. The University and the Seattle Japanese American Community worked well together in the spirit of collaboration, and we are proud that we were able to bring recognition to the stories of these unique students.”
For the contributors from the University of Washington, the UW Nikkei Alumni Association and Japanese American community organizations, rectifying a wrong is enough of a reward for them. However, Northwest Asian Weekly respectfully disagrees. On Dec. 5, everyone will celebrate this achievement at the Top Contributors Dinner! ♦
Meet those who helped give diplomas to Nikkei students on Dec. 5 at Tea Palace Restaurant. They are being honored as Northwest Asian Weekly’s Top Contributors to the Asian Community.
Nina Huang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.