CSU to honor Japanese American internment camp prisoners

Japanese children were forcibly evacuated and moved to internment camps during WWII. Photo courtesy of FlickR.com/FredMikeRudy

In the spring of 1942, hundreds of thousands of Japanese Americans were removed from their homes and forced into internment camps. Among those who faced this injustice, many were students who had to leave their studies.

The Nisei Diploma Project is a collaborative effort of all the current CSU campuses that had Japanese-American students who were removed and forced into internment camps during World War II. While Cal State Fullerton was not open at the time, six other CSU campuses were – Fresno, Pomona, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose and San Luis Obispo.

Through the project, those removed and forced into internment camps will receive Honorary Bachelor of Humane Letters degrees.

According to the project’s Web site, the CSU system hopes to at least ease the pain of the incarceration the students faced, and welcome the students back into the CSU.

When Beverly DiDomenico heard about the project, she was overjoyed. Both of her parents were removed from their studies and placed in internment camps during the spring of 1942 and neither were able to complete their education later. “I know if the war hadn’t happened they would have finished school,” DiDomenico said.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the bill calling for this project last summer. According to Colleen Bentley, who has been working on the project, the six campuses included began planning their ceremonies soon after and figuring out how to locate the students.

Unfortunately, many of the students who were removed from their studies are now deceased.

“Should we have done it years ago? Of course,” said Bentley. “It’s late, but it’s still a worthwhile program we put together.”

The internment of Japanese Americans began shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. It was during that time that approximately 110,000 Japanese-Americans on the United States West Coast were interned – all under the justification of ‘national security’.

“It was an injustice upon people,” Bentley said.

DiDomenico’s parents were each placed in different camps – her mother, Ellen Kuyama-Matsumoto, in Poston War Relocation Center, and her father, Shigeki Matsumoto, in Gila River War Relocation Center.

“When I was young, my relatives would get together and talk about camp – I didn’t know what they were talking about. I didn’t find out about the relocation camp until I was taking American history in high school,” DiDomenico said.

Her mother, now 88, didn’t tell DiDomenico much about the internment. “She really wouldn’t talk about it (when I asked),” DiDomenico said. “It was the worst time of her life.”

Joy Sato’s parents were both interned in 1942 as well. “They said that they felt safe there. They were all together.”

Having heard about the Nisei Diploma project, Sato says she feels very happy for her parents. “It would have meant more to my father, because he studied very hard and then the war broke out and he had to stop.” Though Sato’s father did attend a Quaker college in Philadelphia for some time later, he had to leave in order to tend to his family’s farm back west. “He continued his education, teaching himself.”

Her mother, Mariko Sato, and her father, Jyuichi Sato, both attended what is now San Diego State University at the time of the relocation.

Sato and DiDomenico both found out about the project through letters from their parents’ schools. Their parents are among the approximately 250 other Japanese-American students that the CSU campuses are trying to find, though Bentley is quick to point out that this is not an exact number.

“It’s as close as they can get,” she said, adding that it’s believed that, statewide, as many as 2,500 students were removed from their school during the internment. That number comes from studies done by other Japanese-American organizations.

The ceremonies for the degrees are officially in May, but the campuses are being flexible with the dates, accounting for the schedules of family members attending and the wishes of the families.

“The campuses are being incredibly thoughtful,” Bentley said.

About Tanya Ghahremani