80 years after being forced to leave USC, a degree of honor for the Nisei

Though commencement never came for more than 100 Japanese American students who were forced into internment during World War II, the university will at last issue posthumous degrees in their names.

October 14, 2021 By Ron Mackovich-Rodriguez and Eddie North-Hager

The photo of the Japanese Trojan Club tucked into the back of the 1942 yearbook was not so different from the other pictures of young men and women about to start their futures: smiling faces with a world of hope and promise. But by the time the El Rodeo yearbook was circulated, every student of Japanese descent had been forced to abandon their studies at USC and other universities all along the West Coast.

Among them was Jiro Oishi. He was a senior studying business administration at USC when President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 — issued on Feb. 19, 1942, two months after Pearl Harbor — declared that anyone of Japanese descent was a threat to the nation. Oishi was among an estimated 120,000 Japanese immigrants and their American-born descendants who were interned for the next three years in 10 camps across the West.

After the war, he longed to rejoin his class at USC.

“He always wanted his degree to be from USC,” said Joanne Kumamoto, Oishi’s daughter.

Oishi was one of the Nisei — the generation of children born in the United States to parents who had immigrated from Japan. At the time of Roosevelt’s internment order, it’s believed there were around 120 Nisei students attending USC. Few returned to the university after the war ended. Many completed their degrees elsewhere.

USC hopes to make amends for injustices toward the Nisei

In 2022, Oishi will posthumously earn his degree from USC. The university will recognize the descendants of the Nisei students at commencement in May and confer their honorary degrees at the Asian Pacific Alumni Association gala in April.

But first, the descendants must be found.

USC has already been in contact with some but knows that many more are out there. The USC Alumni Association has begun an extensive search for records with other partners across campus to locate more archives to identify Nisei students. The Asian Pacific Alumni Association also is working closely with USC’s community organizations to track down the families of every Nisei student who was attending the university in 1942.

“It has taken much from many to come to this point, and there’s still a great deal of work to be done,” said Grace Shiba, executive director of the Asian Pacific Alumni Association. “Some of our Nisei students are known through alumni and community connections. But many continued their education and their lives after the war with no ties to USC. There’s a limit to what we can find using archival materials, so we’re depending on the wider community to support us in our search.”

They are searching for people like Kumamoto, who for much of her young life assumed her father’s degree was from USC.

“He and his former roommate attended football games and basketball games and wore USC shirts all the time,” Kumamoto remembered. “Every time we needed a present, we’d run to the bookstore and get him the latest USC shirt. He’d be so happy. There was a picture of him taken his senior year and we thought that was his graduation picture.”

War and prejudice

Nisei college students in the western United States were estimated to have numbered 2,500. After the war and their release from internment, the Nisei students and their children pushed for academic recognition. A major milestone came in 2009 when California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law that required state universities and community colleges to award degrees to the Nisei students. Private universities were exempt, though USC did extend honorary alumni status to living Nisei students around the same time.

USC issued honorary degrees to some of the living Nisei students in 2012. University policy at the time did not allow degrees to be issued posthumously. USC’s current president, Carol L. Folt, made an exception to that policy for Nisei students earlier this year.

Now, the Nisei students’ memories will be honored with a formal acknowledgment of academic achievement after decades of denial.

A past unspoken

Most Nisei students were not open about their experiences during the war, leaving their families unaware of their USC connection and making them difficult to locate nearly 80 years later.

John Fujioka was in his first year of dental school at USC when Executive Order 9066 was issued and he was sent to the Santa Anita Racetrack in Arcadia. The horse stables were converted into a camp to hold 17,000 people.

“My father never talked about this,” said Larry Fujioka, even though they both practiced dentistry in the same office for 20 years — they were the first father and son to both serve as president of the Hawaii Dental Association. “I never really understood what was going on and what really happened.”

The website for their dental practice includes a picture of the honorary alumnus certificate USC issued to John Fujioka in 2012. “I’m sure he would have wanted some closure about this injustice,” Larry Fujioka said.

Growing up, Louise Takahashi also didn’t know her father John had attended USC. She learned of his attendance when she applied in 1979.

“I came to a space on the application where you could write in the names of relatives who graduated from USC,” Takahashi said. “I wrote down my uncle’s name, then asked him if there was anybody else. That’s when I found out. It wasn’t something people talked about a lot back then.”

After her graduation in 1984, Takahashi loosely followed the story of the Nisei students. She recently learned her father, who died in 1969, will be among those receiving honorary posthumous degrees in the spring.

“The paper won’t express how I feel,” she said. “I’m a Trojan. I went to USC and I’m very proud of that. I’m glad students like my father will now be honored, though to me it came as a surprise.”

Recognition and truth for Nisei students at USC

Jiro Oishi was a lifelong Trojan, even though he actually earned his degree in urban studies from the University of California, Riverside, in 1976. When enrolling, Oishi had tried to obtain his transcripts from USC. According to his daughter Joanne Kumamoto, he was told they had been lost.

Oishi’s experience was reflected in an oft-repeated story by the many Nisei students who did not return to USC and were denied transcripts.

Oishi died in 2002 — 60 years after the internment order had forced him to leave USC. Kumamoto later accepted an honorary alumni certificate on his behalf. She plans to bring home his honorary degree next spring.

“I’m sorry my father is not here to share it with us,” she said.