Long-delayed prize now a certainty

Originally published Dec. 27, 2009

Kiyo Sato doesn't need any more honors to prove how much she's accomplished over her resilient 86 years.

The Sacramento resident has been beating the odds her entire life, starting when she earned a nursing degree as a young woman despite policies barring Japanese Americans from attending college.

She went on to become a captain in the U.S. Air Force Nurse Corps and, more than five decades later, won the 2008 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing for a memoir about her family. It was the first book she'd ever written.

Despite that success, Sato said she will especially cherish her latest prize -- an honorary degree from Sacramento City College.

Like some 2,500 Japanese Americans in the state, Sato was forced to cut short her college education during World War II when she was interned, in her case, at Poston camp in the broiling Arizona desert.

Now she and others are taking advantage of a new law written by Assemblyman Warren Furutani, D-Gardena, that requires state university and community college officials to work with their campuses to confer honorary degrees on former students who were interned.

For Sato, the degree isn't about her achievements as much as it's an acknowledgment of the pain and heartbreak she and hundreds of other Japanese Americans experienced.

She recalled how FBI investigations into her family and other Japanese American families during World War II sent fear throughout the community about what would come next. The father of one family in the region killed himself after he was questioned.

"What will I do with an honorary degree?" Sato asked. "The important thing to me is that people are beginning to see, understand what went on."

Furutani said pushing through the new law, Assembly Bill 37, was his contribution to resolving the "unfinished business" of the internments.

Furutani is a product of that history; his parents met at an internment camp in Rohwer, Ark., shortly after graduating from high school.

All Japanese American internees have already received an official apology from the U.S. government; also, surviving internees received $20,000 in reparations in the late 1980s and 1990s.

On top of that, many of the state's universities, including the University of California, have already launched their own initiatives to give internees degrees.

Nonetheless, Furutani said he wanted to make sure all internees received the honor.

"It's a symbolic gesture," he said. "It's not going to help (the internees) get a job. They're 80-something years old."

Some internees such as Foster City resident Kimi Yamaguma never resumed their education after returning from the camps.

Yamaguma had been a business major at San Francisco City College when she and her family were sent to the Topaz internment camp in central Utah.

She was allowed to return to the West Coast four years later, but she didn't go back to school due to "family and financial circumstances," the now 85-year-old woman said.

Instead, Yamaguma took a secretarial job at a federal agency and later worked for 23 years as a secretary at the city manager's office in Redwood City.

"It ruined our whole life, more or less," Yamaguma said of the internment. "Had we not gone to camp, who knew what our life would have been like?"

"I always wanted to finish college, but I couldn't. I didn't have the means. I'd been an A student in all those years in grade school and high school, and it was important to me. I always had it in the back of my mind."

Yamaguma received some solace in May when she received an honorary degree from San Francisco City College and participated in its commencement ceremony.

A few weeks later, Yamaguma testified before the state Senate's education committee, which was considering Furutani's bill, about her experiences.

The task of finding internees such as Yamaguma has fallen to Paul Osaki and his Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California in San Francisco.

Three full-time staff members, paid by the California State Library's Civil Liberties Public Education Program, have been calling community groups, churches and other organizations to locate people on a list of detainees provided by the schools, Osaki said.

"Back in '42 the communities were pretty close and someone knows someone," Osaki said. "There's probably one degree of separation once you make a phone call or an inquiry."

He estimated that about half the internees had already died, meaning they'll receive the degrees posthumously.

The biggest group of internees, 485 of them, attended the University of California, Berkeley, followed by 265 from the Los Angeles Community College District, 244 from the University of California, Los Angeles, and 224 from what then was known as Sacramento Junior College. About 20 Japanese Americans attended the University of California, Davis. California State University, Sacramento, was created after World War II.

Osaki said the internees were glad to have been found, and honored to receive the degrees. Many of them ended up finishing their college education after World War II, while others were later drafted or enlisted into the military.

"Some of them are kind of shocked that 60 or 70 years later (the schools) are finally getting around to doing this," Osaki said. "Some have been thinking about this since they were forced to leave the universities."