May 24, 2010
By Douglas Morino
In many ways, Louise Miyake Morita was a typical 20-year-old college student when war broke out in the Pacific.
When she wasn’t working towards her business degree at California State University, Fresno, she helped out on the family ranch. She enjoyed playing piano and was among the top students in her class.
Then, in the winter of 1942, her life became anything but typical.
Morita and her family, along with more than 120,000 others of Japanese ancestry, were ordered by the federal government into interment camps spread across the country.
Morita was never able to earn her degree.
Like Morita, Terushi Naritoku was forced to leave Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where he was studying agriculture,
This graduation photo shows Louise Miyake Morita as a high school student. Photo date is unknown. when his family boarded a train to an Arkansas internment camp.
A journey spanning nearly six decades came to a close Friday when Morita, 88, and Naritoku, 89, received honorary degrees from the California State University system, signaling the end of an education they never got the chance to complete.
The Nisei Honorary Degree Project, made possible by the passage of legislation in 2006 authored by Assemblyman Warren Furutani, D-Carson, calls for honorary diplomas to be awarded to Nisei – or second-generation Japanese Americans – who were enrolled in University of California, CSU and community college campuses when they were forced into internment camps during World War II.
“It’s a teaching moment,” Furutani said before graduation ceremonies Friday at California State University, Dominguez Hills, where the degrees where awarded. “It’s about realizing the importance of learning from past mistakes so we don’t repeat them again.”
Family members of Morita and Naritoku, both longtime South Bay residents, said the honorary diplomas provide closure and a chance to live family history.
“They suffered in silence,” said Donna Morita, explaining many of her mother’s stories from the internment camps that she told for the first time once she learned she would receive an honorary degree.
“I didn’t know how much the experience changed their lives and how it influenced me,” she added.
In 1942, more than 2,500 Japanese American students were enrolled in California universities.
After the federal government passed executive order 9066 in February of that year, Morita, along with the rest of her family, was transferred from the fertile farm lands of central California to the barren swamps of southeast Arkansas.
For two years they lived in military barracks, sleeping in beds of straw. Life dragged on.
“We didn’t have much to do,” Morita said.
After returning from the camp, she eventually settled in Los Angeles, taking a job as a clerical worker. Each of her three children went on to earn college degrees.
“They were determined to make a better life for themselves and their children,” Donna Morita said. “In order to get that better life, they believed in education.”
Naritoku, whose father emigrated from Japan in the early 20th century, was a sophomore at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo when Japanese war planes attacked Pearl Harbor. His family was transferred to Santa Anita Race Track before relocating to a camp in Rohwer, Arkansas.
The camp was crowded, Naritoku remembered. It was surrounded by barbed wire fence and armed guards.
“The conditions there were horrible,” said his son Wesley Naritoku. “There was no privacy; there was no running water in the bathrooms.”
After leaving the camp, Naritoku eventually returned to the Los Angeles-area, where he worked for an orthodontist.
Each of his three children would go on to earn university degrees.
“He worked very hard to support his family so that they could pursue their dreams,” Wesley Naritoku said. “He never talked about his experience. I think that the Nisei Diploma Project has, in a sense, provided closure for both his camp experience as well as his college experience.”
Only six CSU campuses were open in 1942 – Fresno, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, San Luis Obispo and Pomona. Because of its location, Cal State Dominguez Hills was chosen as the award site for Morita and Naritoku.
University President Mildred Garcia said she believed the honorary degrees are long overdue.
“We are proud to hold the ceremony here,” Garcia said. “This is about social justice and it’s important that history be righted.”