Oct 20, 2021 - Politics & Policy

USC to apologize to WWII Japanese Americans for derailing their education

Photo of the Trojan statue in the center of the USC campus with students walking around
The Trojan Statue at the center of the USC campus. Photo: Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The University of Southern California will apologize and award posthumous degrees to roughly 120 Japanese Americans whom the university barred from finishing their education after the U.S. government detained and incarcerated them during World War II.

Why it matters: At the time, USC refused to release transcripts to students who were seeking transfers. Even after the war, Japanese Americans who wanted to re-enroll were told the university did not recognize their previous credits and that they had to start their college careers over.

Driving the news: USC will recognize the descendants of these Japanese Americans at commencement in May and confer their honorary degrees at the Asian Pacific Alumni Association gala in April, the university said in a release last week.

  • The USC Alumni Association has begun an extensive search for records to locate more archives that can identify the former students.
  • The Asian Pacific Alumni Association is working with USC’s community organizations to track down the families of every Japanese American student who attended the university in 1942 prior to the camps.

The backdrop: President Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1942 executive order led the government to detain and imprison an estimated 120,000 Japanese Americans for three years.

  • Japanese American people were deported to the interior of the U.S.. Though called "internees," they lived essentially in prison: in barracks, under the watch of guards, and surrounded by barbed wire.
  • After the U.S. released them, Japanese Americans found themselves fighting an uphill battle to resume their education.
  • Roughly 2,500 U.S.-born Japanese students attended college in the western U.S., according to USC.
  • Though California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) signed a law in 2009 requiring public colleges and universities to award degrees to these students, private universities were exempt.

What they're saying: Joanne Kumamoto, the daughter of Jiro Oishi, said he "always wanted his degree to be from USC," per USC. Oishi had been a senior studying business administration at USC when the government began rounding up Japanese Americans.

  • "He and his former roommate attended football games and basketball games and wore USC shirts all the time," Kumamoto recounted to USC. She assumed he'd graduated from USC for much of her young life.
  • Eighty years after Oishi was forced to leave USC, Kumamoto will bring his honorary degree home. "I’m sorry my father is not here to share it with us," she said.

Editor's note: This post has been corrected to show that Gov. Schwarzenegger signed the law in 2009 (not 2019).

Go deeper