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UC to award honorary degrees to interned Japanese American students

Grace Obata Amemiya is one of about 700 who were forced to leave school and relocate to camps during WWII. Now, her dream of holding a diploma from UC Berkeley has come true.

July 17, 2009|Larry Gordon

SAN FRANCISCO — Grace Obata Amemiya was a pre-nursing student at UC Berkeley in 1942 when she, her family and 120,000 other Japanese Americans were forced from their schools and homes and sent to federal internment camps. The wartime relocations destroyed her childhood dream of a University of California diploma.

Amemiya, now 88, joyfully returned to UC on Thursday and was named a graduate six decades late.

The UC Board of Regents agreed Thursday to grant honorary degrees to all Japanese Americans who were students at the university during World War II and whose educations were interrupted by the forced relocations. The decision at the board's meeting in San Francisco marked the first time in 37 years that the regents have bestowed such degrees, making an exception to a moratorium intended to help avoid political pressures or the appearance of favoritism.

"I felt so honored. I've been floating way up there and my two feet have not come down yet," Amemiya told the regents in a speech that held her audience spellbound.

She said she and many Japanese American classmates regretted that they had never been able to return to the campus she still affectionately calls "Cal." "So it's been a part of our lives and expectations were not complete," Amemiya said.

For those broken dreams, the UC system apologized and authorized special honorary degrees with a Latin inscription translated as "to restore justice among the groves of the academy."

"Fear is a powerful thing. And when it is put to an evil purpose as it was in this case, we owe a sense of profound regret, profound sorrow, that our country was off track," regent Eddie Island said of the internments. "Today, we can rectify that in some very small way."

UC officials estimated that about 700 Japanese Americans were enrolled during the 1941-42 school year at what was then a four-campus university system; about 300 later returned to complete their degrees. The remaining 400 will also receive the honorary diplomas even though many finished their college educations elsewhere and a significant number have died. Only about a dozen of the former students have been located so far and a search is underway for the others, or for surviving relatives.

"We are going to do our darndest to find every single one of them," said William Kidder, a UC Riverside administrator who has been active in the effort to award the degrees. He said he expected the regents' action to elicit information about the whereabouts and fate of many former students. (E-mails with tips can be sent to HonoraryDegree@ucop.edu)

The UC action is another effort to disavow President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066, which treated Japanese Americans from the West Coast as potential spies. A federal commission in 1983 declared the detainment "motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria and a failure of political leadership."

In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill that awarded $1.2 billion in reparations to 60,000 surviving detainees, who received about $20,000 each.

For Amemiya, her internment broke a family tradition of educational achievement. Two of her brothers were UC Berkeley graduates, as was the man who later became her husband. Yet on Thursday, she expressed no bitterness as she described "the devastating experience" of being sent to the Gila River camp in Arizona with just two suitcases of personal possessions. She spent a year at the camp.

"It was hard to accept but we did our best to do what we had to do. It was out of control of our hands," she said. "Yes, we had very hard times, but looking back positively, we had to go on with our lives."

She soon joined the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps and cared for soldiers wounded overseas. Two brothers served in the U.S. military during World War II because they had "patriotism in spite of prejudice," she said.

Amemiya, who now lives in Iowa, earned a degree from St. Mary's School of Nursing in Minnesota and worked as a registered nurse. She married and had two sons, one of whom was disabled, and she then stayed home to raise her children. Now widowed, she remains active with her church and with volunteer activities.

But she never forgot UC Berkeley and has come back to California regularly over the years to visit relatives and watch the school's football games on television with former classmates.

On Thursday, Cal's latest degree holder expressed her loyalty to the school she left so reluctantly 67 years ago.

"Let's go, Bears," she declared.

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larry.gordon@latimes.com

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