These days, Portland’s Expo Center hosts everything from roller derby to dog shows. But few of the Oregonians who attend can recall when the Expo was used for a much grimmer purpose. At the onset of World War II, Japanese Americans were corralled on the grounds for months, awaiting the construction of internment camps. Sixty-five years later, the Oregon Legislature has proposed a unique, if token, act of reparation. House Bill 2823, expected to become law later this month, would award honorary degrees from Oregon universities to those whose higher education was disrupted by internment.
“It’s a nice gesture to bring recognition and closure to those that missed out on their education through no fault or reason of their own,” says Floyd Mori, the national director of the Japanese American Citizens League.
After the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, 120,000 Japanese Americans were given curfews and travel restrictions, ordered to report to assembly areas, and then dispersed into 10 internment camps across the West, in Idaho, California, Utah, Arizona, Colorado and Wyoming. It wasn’t until 1988 that internees received a formal apology from the federal government and a $20,000 compensation check.
“The honorary degree is a symbolic apology,” says Tina Kotek, D- Portland, a co-sponsor of the bill, which unanimously passed the House on April 2. If the Senate approves it, internees who were forced to leave Oregon universities, or their next of kin, would be able to request an honorary degree. John Kodachi, president of the Portland chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, believes the bill will help restore pride and dignity. Even after the war, Japanese Americans in the West faced an unfriendly climate. Many weren’t welcome back at their former academic institutions, and had to complete their educations in less-hostile states like Nebraska and New York.
Although the bill is popular among many Japanese Americans, for some the memory of internment is too painful to be assuaged by a piece of paper. Sam Naito, a prominent Oregon businessman who was forced to abandon his studies at Oregon State University, has no interest in an honorary degree. On the Discover Nikkei Web site, he describes the experience of being kicked out of the University of Oregon as “the most devastating feeling I ever had.”