Monday, November 11

Internees to receive degrees


Decades after being forced to leave UCLA, Japanese Americans can now officially call themselves Bruins

In 1942, Robert Naka packed up all of his belongings, said his goodbyes and moved to an entirely new and unfamiliar area.

However, it was the not the first time he had left home. Naka had entered UCLA eagerly in the fall of 1940, adapting to and enjoying university life. But in the midst of his second year, Naka was forced to evacuate his home and move to an internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II.

“The evacuation itself was a very traumatic experience,” Naka said. “There’s nothing comparable to being forced to leave your home to be incarcerated and really through no fault of your own. There was nothing you did that deserved it ““ it was simply an accident of birth.”

Soon after Japan’s unexpected attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which led to the internment of people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast to inland internment camps.

Naka and his family were ordered to move to the Manzanar War Relocation Center, permanently leaving their Los Angeles home.

“There’s nothing you can do about it, you just got to go along with it,” Naka said. “You don’t have any power.”

Seventy years after first entering the university, Naka will finally receive a UCLA degree on Saturday in an honorary degree ceremony held specifically for these internees.

This will be part of UCLA Alumni Day, and about 20 former students and 30 to 40 children of former students will pick up honorary degrees, said Don Nakanishi, who chaired the UCLA task force on Japanese American honorary degrees and is the former director of the Asian American Studies Center.

“I think it’s going to be a very historic and long overdue kind of ceremony and event,” Nakanishi said.

About 700 students in the University of California system were affected by the executive order, and a little more than 200 were at UCLA. Nakanishi and others were tasked with finding and notifying family members about the degrees.

“It really became a big detective program to try to use the Internet to Google people, (use) word of mouth, ask people if they knew people,” Nakanishi said. “We sent letters and notices to hundreds of Japanese American churches and community groups.”

University spokeswoman Claudia Luther added that there were a lot of personal phone calls. Nakanishi estimated that contact was established with about 75 students, many of whom are flying from across the country to attend on Saturday.

“Others will be represented by members of their family if they passed away or if they’re too ill to come, others for various reasons have asked that the honorary degree be sent to them,” Nakanishi said.

The UC Board of Regents made a special exception to its policy of not giving honorary degrees to allow the ceremony to happen. All of the students will receive the same degree, Inter Silvas Academi Restituere Institiam, which means, “to restore justice within the groves of academy.”

“I don’t really know the significance of it,” Naka said. “I think it’s a marvelous gesture … (but) I don’t know quite how to interpret what it is.”

Naka already holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Missouri, a master’s degree from the University of Minnesota and a doctorate from Harvard University. He left Manzanar after nine months of internment to attend the University of Missouri, after educators wanted to put Japanese American students back into universities.

“I was terribly torn apart by the evacuation, and my experience at Missouri put me back together,” he said.

In any case, Naka said he is honored by the gesture of recognition, and he will be speaking at the event, where Nakanishi expects a full crowd of 400 to 500 attendees.

“I think some of (the students) were greatly touched that UCLA would finally recognize what they had done as students,” Nakanishi said. “It’s not like UCLA was at fault, but for sure these students weren’t at fault for not having finished. (It is) just the gesture of recognizing them and saying, “˜We want you to be a Bruin.’”

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