Untold Stories Guide

2008 Honorary Degree Ceremony for Japanese American Students During WWII

The attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, forever changed the lives of numerous Japanese Americans living in the United States. In February of 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which gave the military the power to forcibly remove American citizens of Japanese descent from their homes, leave their businesses, and make them abandon their education pursuits. Japanese Americans across the West Coast, including Oregon, were relocated to internment camps, and the students at OSU, at the time called Oregon State College (OSC), were no exception. (1)

Just four days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese American students of OSC wrote a letter to the college president, F.A. Gilfillan, to express their loyalty to the United States. President Gilfillan responded about a week later with appreciation for the students’ sentiments; however, in the next six months, OSC, like many other college campuses, complied with Executive Order 9066. (2) The forced removal of the Japanese American students destroyed many dreams and goals. For example, student athlete Jack Yoshihara, a member of the 1941-42 season football team, was unable to travel with his teammates to North Carolina to play in the Rose Bowl due to travel restrictions placed on Japanese Americans. Yoshihara was eventually relocated to an internment camp in Minidoka near Twin Falls, Idaho. Most Japanese American families were gathered together at the Portland Assembly Center, while others were sent to the Pinedale Assembly Center near Fresno, California. Families had to leave behind their land, businesses, and homes – which in some cases were never recovered - and were only able to take a few personal possessions with them. Like Yoshihara, other OSC Japanese American students were relocated to internment camps in the region, while others joined and served in the military. After the war some students were able to resume their studies, a few even returned to OSC to complete their degrees. Unfortunately, not all of OSC’s Japanese American Students were able to do so. (3)

It was not until fifty-five years later, in June 2008, that the students finally received their degrees during the university’s 139th commencement ceremony at Reser Stadium. Twenty-three of the forty-two Japanese American students relocated during the war were presented with honorary degrees; the families of the students who had passed away received the degrees on their behalf. Happily, it was not just OSU students who were recognized. Thanks to two OSU undergraduate students who began a lobbying campaign in the spring of 2007, the state government passed a bill that enabled Japanese American students or their family members to request honorary degrees from Oregon’s state universities. During the commencement ceremony President Ed Ray eloquently stated that during World War II, “As a nation, we lost sight of the fact the human rights must be guarded most vigorously in times of peril”; fortunately, as a campus community, we were able to honor those who we wronged and together, reconcile with our past. (4)

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