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University Of Washington Awards Honorary Degrees

Meghan Walker

Most people know the story of Japanese internment in America at the beginning of the Second World War, but few people know how it affected hundreds of students at the University of Washington.

As part of our series on the 150th anniversary of the UW, KUOW's Meghan Walker tells us how the university, years later, honored those students.


In 1942, thousands of Japanese Americans were uprooted from their lives and forced to evacuate the West Coast.

It even affected the University of Washington in Seattle. The federal government forced about 450 Japanese–American students to halt their studies and leave school. Most of them were sent to Camp Harmony in Puyallup, and later, to Idaho.

This is Gail Nomura. She's a professor of American ethnic studies at the UW.

Nomura: "Clearly, a great injustice had been done, that the students had been uprooted, removed, by their own government, without charges, without trial, and this had interrupted, and in fact for many, ended their education at the University of Washington."

One of those students was Hiro Nishimura. He's Japanese–American, born in Seattle. And he's 92 years old. He's surprisingly spry and was very eager to tell me his story. In 1941, Nishimura was a freshman at the UW.

Nishimura: "When Pearl Harbor happened, it was really very depressing news because I thought to myself, now what's going to happen?"

The attack came on a Sunday morning.

Nishimura: "Monday was a very depressing day for me to go back to school. So as usual, I walked into the library, and I felt like all the eyes were upon me. I felt very, very self conscious. I turned around and walked out because I didn't feel comfortable at all. Then the next day I wondered, what am I going to do?"

Shortly afterward, he was drafted into the US Army. He served in the South Pacific as an interrogator, while his family was in Camp Minidoka.

Nishimura: "In the back of my head, all during the four years I was in the service, wondering what's going to happen to my family."

After the war, he returned to the UW to finish his degree. But many of the other Japanese students never came back. Then, about six years ago, a UW alum named Irene Mano had an idea. She was looking through an alumni magazine, about the students who had to leave the UW in 1942.

Mano: "I was reading and then, it says, as a footnote here, it says that there were 440 Japanese–Americans listed in the student directory. And then, so I thought it would be interesting. So I Googled the list, I went to the website, and then I found the names, and I was thinking, gee, wouldn't it be interesting to see how many of these people we can find?"

Mano and a group of Japanese–American UW alumni were able to find information on about 300 of those students. Meanwhile, the UW was also making plans to award the former students honorary degrees. But Mano didn't hold out much hope for the school's effort.

Mano: "Well at the time I thought well, yeah, good luck! You know that's really quite an honor, and I don't know, I really didn't they would be able to do it, because you know with a special degree, you have to have the regents pass it and the president."

Previously, only a handful of honorary degrees had been given out to distinguished alumni. But in 2008, the UW decided to bestow them to about 160 of the former students and surviving relatives.

Nishimura: "We were all lined up, and people were, 'oh, Hiro, I'm so and so' Oh yeah, my god! So, it was like a mini–reunion, meeting old friends and old former students."

Professor Gail Nomura remembers what it was like.

Nomura: "First of all they were surprised that this was such a grand ceremony. They didn't expect that. They got their mortarboard hats, their specially designed stoles, the diploma, everybody on stage — you know, the president, the regent, the faculty in their full regalia. They marched in to 'Pomp and Circumstance.' And seeing their family, the community there, watching them, they were transported back to being, 22, 20, 19, 18. Many of the students were only beginning freshmen and their whole college career taken from them."

As he remembers the ceremony, Hiro Nishimura proudly shows me a booklet from that day. It has the stories of all the students who'd been forced to leave the UW. And their group picture is on the front cover.

Nishimura: "I was honored, very honored to be given the honorary degree. I already had my degree, but the recognition — it's not the degree, it's the recognition that they were paying. Recognition and respect to our hardship during the wartime."

For KUOW News, I'm Meghan Walker.

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