May 24, 2010
By Sharon Noguchi
Bessie Kawachi Chin has taught children about World War II internment and has used quilting to help fellow Japanese-American ex-internees conquer their shame over the past.
But when it came time to attend a degree ceremony for students like herself whose educations were cut short by the war, she hesitated.
“I thought, oh, well after all these years? I wasn’t there very long,” Chin said.
Only at the urging of her husband, children and daughter-in-law did she decide to don a cap and gown with other San Jose State University students Saturday at Spartan Stadium.
At a commencement ceremony that will celebrate 8,000 SJSU students and their future, Chin, 87, of Castro Valley, and a handful of Japanese-American former students will be recognized for the opportunities that were denied them by war hysteria.
San Jose State and California’s universities are awarding honorary degrees to Nisei, the children of Japanese immigrants, whose education was interrupted when they were shipped to remote internment camps. The state last year created the California Nisei Diploma Project to honor more than 2,500 Japanese-Americans enrolled in public and private college in the state in December 1941.
For San Jose State, locating and convincing the 80- and 90-year-old survivors to attend commencement has been tough. “The vast majority of them feel that they are not worthy of this,” San Jose State spokeswoman Pat Lopes Harris said, especially because many, like Chin, never completed their degrees.
Harris said some relented when she argued that they owed it not only to their children and grandchildren, but also to the whole San Jose State graduating class, to share their story. The university expects to hand out 24 honorary degrees on Saturday; about six Nisei students will attend, and others will be represented by family members.
Among the honorees will be Albert Mineta and the late Helen Mineta, siblings of Norman Mineta, the ex-congressman and former U.S. secretary of transportation.
Chin was born in Alameda, the child of a goldfish farmer and Japanese-language teacher. She moved to Campbell after her father died and her mother remarried a berry farmer. In her teens Chin worked as a “mother’s helper,” living with a family in Saratoga and attending Los Gatos High, where she was the only girl taking physics and advanced math.
During her first quarter at San Jose State, war broke out. Shortly after, the driver of the Peerless bus that she took home from school refused to let her ride.
“We didn’t even get a foot aboard,” said Virginia Hosley of Davis, then Chin’s best friend. “We were both crying. It was pretty traumatic.”
Chin, her parents and siblings were shipped to a Pomona assembly center, then to Heart Mountain, an internment camp in Wyoming. After a year, she was allowed to leave for a job at Washington University in St. Louis, where she worked in a yeast geneticist’s laboratory.
She returned to California in 1948 and worked in a lab in Emeryville, later taking classes at UC Berkeley.
“I always said I’m not getting married until I get through” with college, she said.
But then, “I met somebody—”Robert Chin, a immigrant from China and community college professor—settled in Albany and raised four children. She became an aide in an English as a Second Language class and taught quilting in Berkeley.
In 1999, a community group asked her to create a quilt with her class to commemorate internment.
“They didn’t want to do it. It brought back memories. Japanese don’t like to talk about anything that’s bad about themselves,” the soft-spoken woman said, and the recollection of the camps was a source of trauma and shame.
The women finally relented. “It turned out to be a good project,” Chin said. “As we quilted the stories came out, and the tears and laughter. It was a really good healing process.”
One woman told of watching her ill father being taken away on a stretcher. “He waved goodbye and told her to be a good girl. And she never saw him again,” Chin said.
Another told of leaving behind the family dog, and later hearing from a neighbor how the dog went to the train station every day to watch for their return.
Later on, at the request of a neighbor, Chin spoke to schoolchildren about her wartime experiences. She’s traveled on the West Coast with the quilt, whose 12 squares depict a map of the camps, a guard tower, a special-occasion red kimono and broken dishes—reflecting the women who smashed their precious Japanese ceramics rather than sell them for a pittance at rushed sales before being herded onto trains bound for camp.
Chin never realized her dream to become a chemist. But even if she didn’t complete school, she made sure her children did, earning various degrees from UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, Harvard University, Mills College and the University of Michigan.
On Saturday, she’ll receive her own honorary degree.
Three of her four children and three of her six grandchildren will attend the 9:30 a.m. ceremony, where Nisei grads will be honored first.
And whereas her attitude toward the pomp and circumstance once was “Do I really need to do this?” she said that now, she’s actually getting excited.
“It’s gone full circle for me to be starting at San Jose State and ending up there,” she said.