Seattle University School of Law backs effort to award honorary degrees

Uri Matsuda(May 2, 2011) Uri (Satow) Matsuda was enjoying her nursing program at what was then Seattle College when she was abruptly forced to leave school and report for internment in the spring of 1942. She was on the last bus to the Puyallup Assembly Center and was then incarcerated at the Minidoka Internment Camp.

"They called it evacuation, but really you were scheduled to leave," said Uri, 87, from a lounge at Seattle Keiro Nursing Home. "What they called camp was actually prison."

Now nearly 70 years later, she and other Japanese American students whose educations were unjustly interrupted will receive honorary degrees from Seattle University. President Stephen Sundborg, S.J, and the Board of Trustees acted on a request drafted by Professor Lori Bannai, associate director of Seattle University School of Law's Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality, that was broadly supported by Dean Mark Niles, the faculty and the university community.

"These individuals, who were our students, were required by federal order to leave our community as a result of the fear, racial hatred and hostility that prevailed in the wake of Pearl Harbor," Sundborg said. "We honor these former students to recognize their courage and sacrifice, to address the injustice that occurred, and with hope that this recognition contributes to the healing process."

Dean Niles said it is only right that a university committed to equal justice under the law honor these students. The law school - which is home to the Korematsu Center named for a man who took his fight against the Japanese American incarceration the U.S. Supreme Court - was proud to support the initiative.

"These students were torn from our community as a result of one of the most sweeping deprivations of civil rights in modern times," Niles said. "In moving forward to live productive, often heroic lives, they represent the power of the human spirit to survive and thrive in the face of great adversity.

Bannai said recognizing the wrong done to these students and presenting the degrees they would have received is an important part of the healing process. Law school librarian Kerry-Fitzgerald completed extensive research to locate the honorees and their relatives.

"While these students suffered grievous losses, they endured and survived, and most were able to pick up the broken pieces of their lives and rebuild," said Bannai, whose own parents were incarcerated during the war and who was one of the attorneys who represented Fred Korematsu in successfully reopening his case in 1983. "As lawyers, we are particularly called to fight this kind of injustice. This is not just about Japanese Americans. It is about protecting civil liberties and equality, particularly in times of national stress."

In addition to Bannai and the Korematsu Center, the law school has several other ties to the Japanese American incarceration. Professor Margaret Chon, the Donald and Lynda Horowitz Chair for the Pursuit of Justice, is the co-author of "Race, Rights and Reparation: Law and the Japanese American Internment," the only text that provides a legal curriculum examining the Japanese American internment during World War II and the successful redress movement of the 1980s.

Sharon Sakamoto, a 1965 graduate of Seattle University and a 1984 graduate of the law school, worked on the reopening of Gordon Hirabayashi's wartime internment case when she was a law student. She was born at the Minidoka camp in Idaho, the fifth child of young parents who fought to keep their family unity despite their upheaval. 

"Years later, we know it was such a trampling of civil rights and human rights," said Sakamoto, who was one of the founders of the Asian Bar Association of Washington. "I'm grateful to the university and the law school. It means tons to everyone who goes for justice, who goes for right and goes for truth."

Uri said she was "amazed and stunned" when Bannai told her about the university's honorary degree she would receive and she can't wait to be at the university's undergraduate commencement ceremony on June 12 to accept it.  She appreciates the university's recognition of what she and many others went through. It's good to talk about her experiences now, but she says it took her years to open up about her incarceration.

"When you're young, you have all these ideas and dreams that you could do anything," she said. "It's hard to live with it."

Other honorees identified so far  include:

· John Fujiwara, who was never able to complete his college degree but found success as a Boeing photographer for 30 years.

· Ben Kayji Hara, who volunteered with the Army soon after he was incarcerated, was sent overseas and died in Tokyo in 1945.

· Shigeko (Iseri) Hirai, who eventually completed her nursing degree before moving to Chewelah, Wash. to farm seed potatoes with her husband.

· Dr. May (Shiga) Hornback, who moved to Montana to avoid incarceration and went on to earn a Ph.D. and become a nursing professor at the University of Wisconsin.

· Colette (Yoshiko) Kawaguchi , who was incarcerated at Minidoka and lived many years in Chicago before returning to Seattle, where she lives today.

· Lillia Uri (Satow) Matsuda, who was incarcerated at Minidoka but eventually completed her nursing degree in Peoria, Ill., and worked as a nurse for many years there and in Seattle.

· June (Koto) Sakaguchi, who moved to Colorado to finish her nursing degree and eventually settled and raised her family in Milwaukee, Wis.

· Mitsu Shoyama, who went on to receive her nursing degree at St. Boniface Hospital in Manitoba, followed by a successful nursing career in Kamloops, British Columbia.

· Caroline (Kondo) Taniguchi, who continued her nursing education in Colorado and worked at several hospitals in Chicago as a medical records specialist. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area.

· Madeleine (Iwata) Uyehara, who continued her nursing education in Colorado and worked at a blood bank before settling down to marry and raise her son in Milwaukee, Wis.

· Joanne Misako (Oyabe) Watanabe, who was incarcerated at Minidoka, then returned with her husband to Seattle several years later and raised eight children.

· Tom Yamauchi, who went onto a successful career with Boeing and the Northrup Corp.

As part of the recognition of its former students, the law school and university are organizing a series of discussions, exhibits and historical programs for the university community and the public. A teach-in about the honorees and internment will be held on campus on May 17, and there will be an exhibit in LeMieux Library from May-June.  All are invited to attend.  Read more about those events and all the honorees.  

The university urges Japanese Americans  whose SU educations were disrupted by the wartime exclusion and incarceration orders, or their relatives, to contact Junsen Ohno, administrator for the Korematsu Center for Law and Equality at 206-398-4283 or ohnoj@seattleu.edu.