CSU Dominguez Hills Confers Honorary Degrees Upon Former Nisei College Students and WWII Incarcerates
Like most American college students, Louise Isako Miyake Morita and Terushi Naritoku looked forward to achieving their goal of a college education that would lead to a successful career of their choice. Unlike most American college students, they were unable to continue their education due to a governmental decree: Executive Order 9066 signed on Feb. 19, 1942, designated all Japanese residents of the United States –including natural-born citizens or Nisei – as enemy aliens of the United States and ordered them to concentration camps in remote areas of the country.
On May 21, 2010 Miyake and Naritoku finally became college graduates. They were awarded honorary degrees from the CSU at the university’s commencement ceremony for the College of Professional Studies. The degrees were awarded in recognition of the interruption of their college educations due to their imprisonment.
Morita was born Louise Isako Miyake in Fresno, Calif. She was a business major at Fresno State when Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec, 7, 1941. With her parents, two older sisters, and brother, she was abruptly sent to the Fresno Assembly Center and then to a concentration camp in Rohwer, Ark., leaving behind the family’s grape farm, their home—and the youngest daughter’s hopes for a diploma.
“They said to pack our things in so many hours, that’s all they gave us,” remembered Morita. “So we packed and maybe left some things in the house. We told one of our neighbors to take care of it for us. They said they would but when we came back, it was left alone. I thought we were friends, but I guess when the war [broke] out, attitudes changed.
“The fact that the war was started by Japan... I guess [other Americans] wanted to get even with us,” she says. “We had bullet holes in our bedroom windows. That’s how much they disliked the Japanese. We didn’t do anything pertaining to the war. But that’s the way it was.”
Terushi Naritoku was also born in 1921 in Venice, Calif. of Japanese parents. He was living in a dormitory at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where he was studying agriculture with a focus on poultry, when the U.S. entered WWII.
With his parents and five siblings, he was evacuated first to the Santa Anita Race Track, where they stayed for six months before being also sent by train to Rohwer. Their house and farm were leased to a Latino family, who worked the land until the Naritoku family returned.
After the disruption of being forcibly removed from college, the young Nisei felt that he had to earn a living and was able to obtain a permit to leave the camp for menial jobs such as gathering ice.
“He got out of the camp because he wanted to do some work outside so he could make some money,” said Haruko Naritoku, Terushi’s wife of 55 years. “But he had to [stay] in Colorado or Illinois, not too close to the West Coast.”
After the war, Naritoku made his way to Chicago and trained to be a dental technician, which he was until his retirement in 1987.
Morita lost her mother after the war to illness due to hypertension, which was exacerbated by malnutrition in camp. The family eventually settled in Los Angeles, where Morita met her husband, Mitsuru Morita, who had been drafted into the Army and served from 1941 to 1945. They had two sons and two daughters, all of whom earned their college degrees.
Morita’s daughter Donna delivered the news of the honorary degree to her mother in front of other residents of her mother’s senior daycare center. Donna said she was amazed to see her typically reserved mother’s eyes well up with tears of joy.
“Because I saw how my mom reacted to it, it made me understand why my mom always pushed college so much,” said Morita. “That was so, so important, ever since I could remember, that we would go to college. And I think it was because she wanted to so badly and she never got that opportunity.
Emiko Furuta, the daughter of Naritoku, said that her father never returned to college after the war, but he and his siblings made sure their younger brother went. He also encouraged his own children – herself and two brothers – to go to college to ensure they would not endure the difficulties he did in earning a living.
“It means a lot to me in the sense that he made all these sacrifices for us and encouraged us all to go to college,” said Naritoku’s son Wesley. “I think it [the degree] served not only closure of the [loss of his] college education but also a closure for his camp experience. He’s never really talked about it, they’re unpleasant memories. He didn’t feel there was a need to talk to us about it.”
Although their parents’ dreams of a college diploma and a career related to their studies were deferred, the children of the Nisei honorary graduates all were sent to college. Donna Morita established her own import and wholesale business at the age of 27. Her brother Randy Morita owns two orthodontic practices in Hawaii and sister Sharon Kelly is an engineer in the South Bay. Wesley Naritoku is a doctor of pathology and teaches at the USC Keck School of Medicine. Furuta has taught the third grade in Long Beach Unified School District for the past 30 years and their brother Roy Teramoto is a pediatrician for Indian Public Health Services in Phoenix.
The two families’ experiences also reflect the stoic attitude of older Nisei toward their wartime experiences. Donna Morita says her parents never spoke of the camps or the war and focused on raising their children as what they considered “true” Americans – even to the exclusion of teaching them to speak Japanese.
“I learned more [about the camps] recently than I have my whole life,” she says. “You don’t learn about it in school and my parents wouldn’t talk about it, so many of my friends’ parents wouldn’t talk about it. They wanted to put it behind them. They didn’t even want me to learn Japanese. I learned it on my own in Japan studying from a dictionary.”
After Japanese Americans were given reparations from the U.S. government in 1988 through a congressional bill signed by President Ronald Reagan, subsequent generations finally were able to learn about what happened in the camps.
Lane Maki, a fourth-generation or Yonsei student at Monterey Highlands School in Monterey Park and daughter of Dr. Mitch Maki, acting associate vice president for Academic Programs, paid tribute to the Nisei graduates at a reception in the University Library on May 19. She said that their sacrifice was “like a handprint on my heart.”
“My mom and dad tell me if I study hard, I can go to any college that I want,” said Lane Maki. “Almost 70 years ago, the opportunity to go to college was taken away from the Nisei. Because of their sacrifice, I will be able to go to college. We must commit ourselves to never again let liberty and justice be taken away from any American just because of the color of their skin is different.
“I will not forget what the Nisei have done. Okage sama de. ‘I am who I am, because of you.’ Thank you for what you have done for Japanese Americans, for all Americans, and for me.”
Although Morita and Naritoku were involuntarily put on a non-traditional path to their college diplomas, the celebration at the May 21 commencement was the same as if they were young graduates, with beaming spouse, offspring and grandchildren looking on where their own proud parents would have been watching almost 70 years ago.
“It’s pretty exciting. I can’t even eat anything,” laughed Haruko Naritoku when asked how her family felt about her husband’s graduation. “He doesn’t express his feelings too much but I’m sure he’s really excited about it and looking forward to it.”
Terushi Naritoku did express his feelings, however understated.
“I really didn’t expect it,” he said. “I’m happy about it. I’ve waited a long time.”
“At the Nisei Diploma Project Reception on May 19, they distributed the cap and gown for Friday’s ceremony,” said Wesley Naritoku. “Dad tried on the cap and gown, and he had a big smile on his face.”
Furuta said that at the commencement ceremony, her family was so “moved that the Class of 2010 gave the two recipients a standing ovation. It brought tears to our eyes.”
Asked how her parents would have feel to know that more than 60 years later, their daughter would finally graduate from college, Morita, now a grandmother of five, said “I think they would be really, really happy.”
For a video interview with Louise Morita by CSU Dominguez Hills Distance Learning, click here.
For a video of the commencement ceremony for the College of Professional Studies, click here.
- Joanie Harmon
Photos above: CSU Dominguez Hills celebrated the honorary degrees of Louise Morita and Terushi Naritoku (seated) at a reception on May 19 in the University Library. Their college educations were interrupted due to the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. L-R: Lane Maki, President Mildred García, and Dr. Mitch Maki,
acting associate vice president for Academic Programs
Photo by Mario Congreve
Terushi Naritoku was studying to become a poultry farmer at CSU San Luis Obispo when the United States entered World War II.
Courtesy of the Naritoku Family
Mitsuru and Louise Morita sent their three children, including daughters Donna and Sharon, to college.
Courtesy of Donna Morita