A baseball team from the
Heart Mountain internment camp
By Jessie Mangaliman
San Jose Mercury News (MCT)
SAN JOSE, Calif. — The son of Japanese immigrants who were interned during World War II, and a college instructor on ethnic studies Lewis Kawahara knew that high schools and colleges in California have awarded honorary degrees to Japanese-American students whose studies and lives were disrupted in the Spring of 1942.
"I knew there were former students from this college," said Kawahara, an adjunct assistant professor at the College of San Mateo. "So I thought, 'Why not here?' "
That three word question gets answered Friday when the college, a campus of 11,000 students perched on the scenic San Mateo Hills, awards honorary degrees to former students, 67 years after they and their families were abruptly packed off to internment camps across the West.
The junior college will be the first community college in California to confer the honorary degrees.
Nine former students — octogenarians now — have been invited to the college's 87th commencement, officials said, but it's not clear how many will attend to receive in person the associate degrees denied them after war broke.
"What struck me was, 'Why didn't we do this before? What took us so long?' " said President Michael Claire. "So from my perspective, it was an easy decision."
Claire and the San Mateo chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League credited Kawahara, 61, for his tireless work last summer perusing decades' worth of student records.
Kawahara's parents, Masao and Sakaye, and his two older sisters, Janet and Jean, were among those sent to the internment camp at Heart Mountain in Wyoming.
"It's always personal with something like this," Kawahara said, who spent his own time and money to track down students. "It is a personal story and I wanted people to remember that the system failed these students."
The work to confer honorary degrees to Japanese-American students whose lives were upended by the war and internment is not new. Many California school districts have retroactively awarded high school diplomas to the former students. Universities in California, Washington state and Oregon have also awarded honorary degrees.
According to a 1949 study, 2,567 Japanese-American students who were attending universities and colleges in the UC system were forced to abandon their studies after WW II broke and the federal government ordered the internment of 120,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans.
Kawahara, bespectacled, diffident and affable, launched his search after spring semester's end in 2008, with blessing and permission from the college.
Like a sleuth, he pored over decades' worth of student records, on paper and microfiche. He gleaned the names of students who were enrolled at the college in the Spring of 1942. Executive Order 9066 was signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on Feb. 19, 1942.
He came up with the names of 45 students. He crosschecked those names with "The Life," the college yearbook. He also checked individual student records that included scribbled comments from instructors.
"Attractive little Japanese girl. Neat appearance. Quiet. Sweet," one instructor wrote.
"Dull. Heavy. Not very trustworthy."
"Glad to get rid of the JAP."
That slur and other comments, Kawahara said, revealed the prejudices and stereotypes of the time. Some records also indicated whether a student was sent to internment camp.
Kawahara, who was born and raised in San Mateo, followed his document search with more old-fashioned detective work. In search of leads, he asked local families, members of a Buddhist temple and another church for leads. He went to the Japanese American Citizens League. He enlisted the help of local historians.
From all this, he believes that 21 on his list have died. He found addresses for nine others and wrote them. At least one former student, whom he declined to identify, is expected to attend the commencement ceremony Friday night.
"We are very happy, and very proud to be part of this project," said Kate Motoyama, president of San Mateo JACL and an instructor at the college. "What happened with the students at CSM is a social justice issue and important for anyone to fight for."
The graduation guest speaker is Assemblyman Warren Furutani, who is a graduate of the college and author of AB 37, a bill that authorizes UC regents to confer honorary degrees to former UC students who were unable to complete their studies because of the internment.
That bill passed the assembly earlier this month. It's scheduled for a hearing in the state Senate next month.
"I know a college can't correct a wrong," Kawahara said, "but it can help mend. I'm very proud of my college for doing this."
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