USC to award degrees to Japanese interned during WWII

Friday morning, the USC campus will be filled with smiling students posing for pictures next to the most important people in their lives. For Hitoshi Sameshima, however, graduation comes a little too late.

It’s been 70 years since Sameshima attended USC, and he has longed for this day. But his wife and daughter didn’t live long enough to see it.

Commencement will be bittersweet for Nisei alumni like Sameshima, 91, whose educations were interrupted by internment during World War II and who will finally receive degrees from their alma mater. Nine former students will take part, school officials said.

Although they will cross the stage and shake hands with President C.L. Max Nikias, other Asian Americans are planning a morning rally against the private university.

Sameshima will stop by the demonstration too. He said he is grateful to get a diploma but sad that many of his peers won’t be recognized at all. He also wishes USC had acted earlier, before his wife and daughter died.

“We were going to go as a family,” he said. “My daughter would have had her camera and everything.”

The Nisei students — children of Japanese immigrants — were swept up with their families in 1942 and forcibly relocated to internment camps, halting their college education. In recent years, universities across the West Coast have handed out honorary degrees to help repair the wounds.

A 2009 state law led California public schools to award those degrees to both living and deceased students as part of the California Nisei College Diploma Project. The action came after the University of Washington and University of Oregon also granted honorary degrees in 2008.

Private schools, however, were not obligated to award degrees, and USC did not, offering honorary alumni status in 2008 instead. That will change Friday, but to many, the school’s renewed effort is not enough.

Among their complaints: USC has refused to issue the honorary degrees posthumously to the families of Nisei who have died, and the school has yet to formally apologize for being the only West Coast university to actively withhold transcripts from Nisei students.

All of this disappoints Joanne Kumamoto, whose father, Jiro Oishi, died in 2003 and will get no mention on Friday. Oishi was a senior when he was removed from campus, and when he returned in the 1960s to get his transcripts, Kumamoto said school officials told her father the records were lost. He ultimately got his degree at UC Riverside.

“It’s almost like they’re not even acknowledging that they were even there,” Kumamoto said. “USC talks about the Trojan family.... These children have been the step-children in that family for many years.”

Scott Mory, USC Alumni Assn. chief executive who spoke for the school, declined to comment specifically on USC’s past practices, but he pointed to policy posted on the school’s website explaining USC’s stance on posthumous degrees. The policy states that “honorary degrees are conferred only upon individuals who are present at the commencement exercises.”

But a posting about Friday’s ceremony contradicts that policy, saying that if Nisei students “indicate that [they] will not be able to attend the ceremony in person … the honorary degree will be mailed.”

“USC has its policies,” Kumamoto said, “but policies can be reviewed.”

The university announced that it would offer the honorary degrees to living Nisei students in March. Mory said that a new president and new provost along with a “very impassioned nomination” from the USC Asian American community gave the school an “opportunity to revisit the issue.”

Jonathan Kaji, former Asian Pacific Alumni Assn. president, is not satisfied.

“Either you honor all or none,” Kaji said. “How can you draw a line based on survivability? They’ve effectively eliminated 95% of all the affected students.”

School officials also said that the issue of USC’s past treatment of the Nisei was addressed by a former vice president in a 2008 speech. The administrator retold Oishi’s story, and acknowledged that “decisions were made that were hurtful and unjust.”

But that talk made no reference to what one professor said made the university “stick out like a sore thumb.” Roger Daniels, history professor emeritus at the University of Cincinnati, said that former USC President Rufus B. von KleinSmid, who ran the school from 1921 to 1947, believed that issuing a transcript would constitute “giving aid and comfort to the enemy.”

Daniels and other historians say USC is the only documented school on the West Coast that resisted providing transcripts to Nisei students who were granted permission to attend schools in the Midwest and on the East Coast in the fall of 1942.

Despite the swirling controversy, Sameshima maintains that he has always been an “SC man.” He earned a degree from the University of Denver and worked his way up to become a supervising deputy purchasing agent for Los Angeles County. He sent his daughter, Linda, to USC.

She died in early 2011. Sameshima’s wife of 64 years, Utako, died in March, just days after getting word that her husband would finally get his USC diploma.

“If they could have done this back when they made us alumni,” Sameshima said, “oh, what a difference it would have made.”

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