USC will award honorary degrees to Japanese students interned during WWII

LOS ANGELES — After 80 years, the University of Southern California is trying to right a terrible wrong.

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On Thursday, the university announced that it would grant posthumous degrees to more than 100 Japanese American students who were denied transcripts because they were interned during World War II. The university is urging the public to help find the descendants of the Nisei students to honor them during a gala in April, the Los Angeles Times reported.

President Carol Folt will publicly apologize to the former students on behalf of the university, the newspaper reported. University officials are hoping to locate the Nisei students who attended the university during the 1941-42 academic year.

USC will recognize the descendants of the Nisei students at commencement ceremonies in May and confer their honorary degrees at the Asian Pacific Alumni Association gala in April, the university said in a news release.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942, two months after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The order declared that anyone of Japanese descent was a threat to the nation. More than 120,000 Japanese immigrants and their American-born descendants were interned for the next three years in 10 camps across the West, the university said in a news release.

“This is a stained part of our history,” Patrick Auerbach, USC associate senior vice president for alumni relations, told the Los Angeles Times. “While we can’t change what happened in the past ... the university can certainly still do right by their families and let them know that we are posthumously awarding them honorary degrees so that they can occupy that place in the Trojan family, which they deserve.”

USC gave former Nisei students honorary alumni status in 2008 and issued honorary degrees to some living Nisei students in 2012, The New York Times reported. University policy does not allow degrees to be issued posthumously, but Folt decided on “making an exception to this policy because this is the right thing to do, Auerbach told the newspaper.

For the descendants of the students -- most of whom have died -- the honorary degree feels like “getting closure,” Larry Fujioka, a dentist in Hawaii, told The New York Times.

Fujioka, 68, said his father -- John Masato Fujioka -- “never held a grudge against USC, despite what they did.”

“He always felt like a U.S.C. man,” Larry Fujioka told The New York Times. “I think he’d be very happy with this.”

Joanne Kumamoto said her father, Jiro Oishi, was a fourth-year student in business and only needed to take his finals to earn his degree when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, the Los Angeles Times reported. Kumamoto said her father was arrested by police in a case of mistaken identity and was sent to a federal penitentiary, the newspaper reported.

Oishi missed his exams and was not allowed to take his finals or complete his degree, the Los Angeles Times reported. He returned to Los Angeles after the war and became a gardener. He died two decades ago but remained a lifelong USC fan who bought season tickets for football and basketball games, Kumamoto said.

“I’m happy for my dad; he would have appreciated this,” Kumamoto told the newspaper. “But I also feel sort of bittersweet. He might have had an easier life if he had a degree.”