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Hope and Faith: Honorary Degrees for Double Major

by Georgeann Halburian Ikuma

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?—Micah 6:8 (NASB)

Derailed and Tested

Hope. It stands as the underlying, all-encompassing sentiment that reverberates throughout all college commencement ceremonies. But this year, Azusa Pacific University’s December 18, 2010, ceremony embodies this sentiment like no other. After nearly 70 years, APU will honor Americans of Japanese ancestry who were unable to complete their studies due to the forced evacuation and internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in February 1942, more than 120,000 Americans and residents of Japanese ancestry were forcibly removed from their homes and communities, sent to remote internment camps, and denied constitutional rights. Last year, the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California (JCCCNC) launched the California Nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) College Diploma Project, a nonprofit program, to identify and support these former students. The JCCCNC claims that of the 120,000 internees, approximately 2,567 of them were Japanese-American students enrolled in California’s higher education institutions. Left with no choice, they withdrew from school—their course derailed, faith tested, and hopes held hostage.

Righting the Wrongs of the Past

In October 2009, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law Assembly Bill 37 directing the state’s community college, California State University, and University of California systems to locate and award honorary degrees to their former Japanese-American students. Although private universities are not required to follow suit under this law, the APU community enthusiastically and unanimously supported the implementation of its own reconciliatory project. Encouraged by President Jon R. Wallace, DBA, the Board of Trustees, the provost, head of academic affairs, and the Diversity Council, Evelyn Shimazu Yee, M.L.I.S., associate professor and APU’s head of community relations for university libraries, and Irma Harue Nicola, serials coordinator for university libraries, created the Nisei Christian Honorary Program to help bring to fruition the dreams of 24 former students (most in their 80s and 90s) of the Training School for Christian Workers, Pacific Bible College, and Los Angeles Pacific College (LAPC), known today as Azusa Pacific University.

“By honoring these former students, one can see the faithfulness of our God and how He brought these young Christian students through this dark period in U.S. history with a faith that was stronger than their circumstances,” said Yee, a third-generation (Sansei) American of Japanese ancestry. “We also want to recognize those faithful Christians who were not of Japanese ancestry who reached out with Christ’s love and compassion to these marginalized sisters and brothers at a time when the popular culture turned against them.”

Steadfast and Flourishing

Faith. Many of the honorees not only remained steadfast in their service to the Lord during their three-plus years in camp, but by the grace of God, the goodness of others, and their own fearless faith, many flourished upon their release from camp.

“Receiving this honorary degree has given me the chance to reflect back to when I enrolled at LAPC and remember people like Dr. C. Dorr Demeray [dean of students, English, speech, and religion], who had been very kind to the Japanese [Japanese Americans and permanent residents]not only before World War II but after as well,” said Eunice “Miko” (Miwako Shigekawa) Yoshimine. “When I was released from camp, he sent me a telegram offering me a bookkeeping job doing payroll for the student apartments. I am amazed today that he would take such a risk hiring a high school graduate with no office experience.”

Yoshimine, who has been married to her husband, Reverend Carl Yoshimine, for 57 years and has three sons, credits her Christian upbringing for helping to make her years of internment and relocation bearable. “My family did not miss one Sunday of worship,” she said. “Having a church family and missionaries surrounding us helped immensely. We had peace knowing God was with us.”

Glory to God

While certainly symbolic for the former students, the day’s pomp and circumstance perhaps hold an even greater significance for their children, the Sansei generation, who remain protective of their parents for being forced to endure such hardship, yet proud of their accomplishments and faithfulness in the face of overwhelming adversity.

“We desire to see God glorified through this project as He had a great plan and destiny for my father,” said Keiko Downey, daughter of former LAPC student and honoree, Reverend David (Akira) Kuba. “He went on to complete his education at Asbury College and Seminary, met and married my mother, and then served as a missionary in Japan for 31 years. And now God, in His loving kindness expressed through APU, is even granting to my father, at age 92, his missed graduation!”

“I think it is vitally important for a private Christian institution like Azusa Pacific University to do this with great sensitivity and meaning along with our state’s public institutions,” said Tom Andrews, Ph.D., professor, special advisor for university libraries, and research historian for special collections. “APU exists to serve the needs of Christian higher education, and to be a servant leader in the process. This recognition of Japanese Americans is truly a public expression of our core values.”

Georgeann Halburian Ikuma is a freelance writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. ghikuma@yahoo.com

“By honoring these former students, one can see the faithfulness of our God and how He brought these young Christian students through this dark period in U.S. history with a faith that was stronger than their circumstances.”

Originally published in the Winter '10 issue of APU Life. Download the full issue (PDF).