The University of Southern California opened a traditional Japanese rock garden on April 1 to honor its Japanese American students who were forced out of school and into concentration camps during World War II. On the same day, 33 Japanese American former USC students were conferred honorary degrees.
The rock garden is located at the northeastern corner of the school’s campus and was designed by architect Calvin Abe, the son of Nisei generation parents who were incarcerated in Arizona, Arkansas and California concentration camps during World War II. He described it as a “place to relax and reconsider what happened in the past” and “an expression of perseverance and hope.”
Several family members of deceased Japanese American former USC students attended the garden’s opening ceremony, including Carolyn Classen. Classen came with a framed black and white photo of her late father, Francis Sueo Sugiyama, who was unable to re-enroll, transfer his credits or get ahold of his transcripts after the war, nor transfer his credits or even get ahold of his transcripts.
“His dreams were almost dashed because of what USC did to him,” she told the Los Angeles Times said. “Our family… hated USC for decades.”
Three months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, forcing over 100,000 Japanese Americans (around 70,00 of them American citizens) into “relocation centers.”
Although a $20,000 reparation payment was made later in 1988 to each person who was incarcerated, total property damages and income losses are estimated to be in the billions of dollars. More than 30,000 Japanese Americans served in the army during World War II in an effort to prove their loyalty.
Over 80 years after being forced to leave USC, Japanese American students were posthumously awarded honorary degrees. Approximately 120 Japanese American USC students were forced to end their studies at the university in 1942. Very few ever returned.
At an evening event on April 1 held by the Asian Pacific Alumni Association, USC President Carol L. Folt conferred honorary degrees to 33 former Nisei students. Folt made the pledge to award honorary degrees back in October of 2021, after advocates voiced their discontentment with the school’s original proposal to only offer living former Japanese American students with degrees.
“Never have I felt a stronger sense of alumni pride than I do now,” USC alumna Lauren Sodetani-Yoshida, who was present to receive a degree on behalf of her grandfather, James Sasaki, said in a note to Folt. “Although my grandfather passed away in 1994, I never lost hope. I cannot begin to tell you how much his honorary posthumous degree means to me. It has brought so much peace to a piece of my heart.”