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Paying a 50-Year Debt : UCLA Makes a Gesture to Woman for Her World War II Internment

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Akio Hirashiki Yamazaki was a senior at UCLA in 1942, only 16 credits from graduating and beginning an internship as a dietitian when she and her family were ordered out of their Los Angeles home and into a makeshift assembly center at Santa Anita Park racetrack.

During the panic after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor that winter, the racetrack had been transformed into a relocation center from which the U. S. government could disperse 120,000 Americans to camps where they were to be incarcerated for the duration of the war.

Like other Americans of Japanese ancestry suspected of being potential spies for Japan, Yamazaki lost everything. Her family was split apart, her friends were left behind, and her education came to an end.

At a civil rights conference held Saturday to explore this chapter in U. S. history, UCLA tried to compensate Yamazaki in a small way for what she went through. The university awarded Yamazaki her college diploma.

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The ceremony was part of a yearlong commemoration of the 50th anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066, which forcibly relocated Japanese-Americans, 175 of them UCLA students, into internment camps during World War II. Thirty were honored at Saturday’s ceremony.

“I am only sorry it took 50 years to recognize and correct,” said Dan Nakanishi, director of UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center and an organizer of the conference.

But for Yamazaki, the gesture came 50 years too late.

It is “a very nice honor, I suppose,” she said with a sad but gentle smile. “But it is too late. You ask will it make any difference . . . in my life. No. It won’t. I’m not going for an internship now. I’m 71, you know.”

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She shows no animosity toward the university. In fact, for years she worked energetically as a volunteer and fund-raiser for the UCLA Center for Health Sciences, where her husband, Dr. James N. Yamazaki, now retired, was a researcher and clinical professor of pediatrics.

Current UCLA officials never knew what had happened to Yamazaki during the war years. She never talked to them about it. It was only when they scoured their records to find the 175 internees that her story surfaced.

Her senior year, she had been president of Chi Alpha Delta, a UCLA sorority for Japanese-American students. The university was far different then. Although the proportion of Japanese-American students was not significantly smaller than it is today, the numbers of Asian-American students have grown dramatically, so that this fall, for the first time, Asian-Americans now outnumber whites.

At UCLA, Yamazaki had worked hard in her courses in dietetics, taking chemistry classes with chemistry majors and accounting classes with business majors. It was a practical course of study that should have landed her a job in a hospital.

“In chemistry,” she said, “they told us to introduce ourselves to our neighbors because we might never see them again . . . since it was such a difficult course.”

Although Yamazaki did not see her classmates again, it was not because the course was difficult.

First, the authorities came for her father for his alleged connections with the Japanese government. Yamazaki remembered how they “were looking under the beds, everywhere, for something suspicious. . . . I was sitting at the dining room table studying the values of Japanese diet, looking at a lot of charts, and they said: ‘Oh, we’ve found something.’ Of course, they hadn’t. There was nothing to find.”

On Dec. 10, 1941, she and other Japanese-American leaders on campus issued a statement to the student newspaper saying that none had ever “known loyalty to any country other than the country of our birth. . . . Individually and collectively, we plead that our friends will accord us the same impartiality and tolerance which they have shown us in the past.”

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But it did not stop authorities from taking Yamazaki and the rest of the family. Her brother and mother went to internment camps in the Midwest but she stayed on at Santa Anita helping the administrators plan meals for the internees. It would be her only job as a dietitian.

Eventually, Yamazaki was sent to New York, where a Quaker family agreed to sponsor her while she worked as a maid and tried to finish her education at Columbia University. But Columbia refused to award her a degree, saying she had not studied there long enough.

While she was still in New York, a friend from UCLA came to visit. She and James Yamazaki were married in 1944.

Her husband had graduated in 1938 and completed his studies at Marquette University before the war. He volunteered for the military after Pearl Harbor, was captured during the Battle of the Bulge and held by the Germans as a prisoner of war.

When he returned to the United States, Yamazaki and his bride encountered more problems because of their race. Ironically, the worst episode occurred in Hiroshima, where Dr. Yamazaki was sent by the U. S. government to work with scientists studying the effects of the atomic bomb on children.

The team, a joint venture by the Australians and British, did not allow scientists of Japanese descent to live in base housing or shop in base stores. Even more troubling, their children were not allowed to attend the base school.

Dr. Yamazaki said it was the only time they ever spoke out against racial injustice.

“People wondered why we did speak out then, because our son was not yet old enough to go to school,” Akio Yamazaki said. “There are some things you just can’t tolerate.”

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Sitting in the Van Nuys house where they have lived for the past 40 years, Yamazaki and her husband acknowledged that their generation’s reaction to past injustices--and to the current effort to compensate--is very different from their children’s.

The oldest of their three children was impatient when she learned of her mother’s honor.

“Perhaps she’s more perceptive,” said Dr. Yamazaki. “She wants to know why the university didn’t respond when it really counted.”


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