Mary Kitagawa: a degree of justice
On November 16, 2011, following their scheduled meeting, the Senate Tributes Committee of the University of British Columbia presented a press release stating that the University would award special Honourary Degrees to all Japanese Canadians students who were enrolled in 1942 and forced to leave the coast and give up their post secondary education following the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese Air Force. For Mary Kitagawa, who has led the fight to have the former students formally recognized, the news was both welcome and a long time coming.
Having come up against a brick wall of indifference in the early days of her three-year campaign, it was surely vindicating to hear the news that powers-that-be had acknowledged the justness of her cause.
Given that the majority of the former students have since passed on, the victory was tinged with some sadness, given that they would not be able to enjoy the trip to the podium to receive their diplomas. Still, for their families, who will receive the diplomas in their names, it will carry a special meaning that will hopefully not be diminished by the passage of time.
The Bulletin spoke to Mary Kitagawa several weeks after the news was announced.
In Her Own Words: Mary Kitagawa
by John Endo Greenaway
This has been a long and I’m sure arduous battle for you Mary – what got your started on this quest to have UBC officially recognize the students who were forced to leave at the outbreak of the war in the Pacific?
I was surfing the net one day and saw an article that caught my eye. The article was about Japanese American students who were expelled from their campuses in 1942. It stated that the University of Washington had presented Honourary Degrees to all of their former students in person or posthumously. Later, I learned that all the American universities along the Pacific coast were doing the same thing. I began to research the situation at UBC but found no information. The first letter of inquiry I wrote to Dr. Stephen Toope, President and Vice Chancellor of UBC is dated May 22, 2008. That letter was forwarded to Dr. Sally Thorne, Chair of the Senate Tributes Committee. Thus began my crusade to convince the Committee of the importance of righting a wrong. Dr. Thorne insisted that UBC did not “expel” the students. She said that faculty and staff of Japanese heritage left for many reasons including forced relocation. This is when I realized that Dr. Thorne did not know our history. “No Asians were allowed into the professions in BC until 1949” therefore they could not have been on staff or faculty. In order to practice in the profession, you had to be on the voter’s list and the amendment to the British Columbia Elections Act of 1895 denied them the vote.
Dr. Thorne went on to say that UBC’s role within this issue is not directly comparable to the universities south of the boarder. She did admit that UBC should identify an appropriate tribute so that the lessons concerning the internment would not be forgotten. However, she said that granting honourary degrees to this small subset of people would not occur. Her reluctance to admit that UBC was culpable in ridding the campus of Canadians of Japanese heritage was the sticking point in our communication. I do not think that she was aware that 49 Japanese Canadian male students in the UBC Canadian Officers Training Corp were summarily dismissed one day after Pearl Harbor was bombed. The Military Committee of UBC that expelled them included the President L.S. Klink, Chancellor R.E. McKechnie, Dean J.N. Finlayson, Mr. B. Wood, Mr. Edward McBride, and Lt. Col. Gordon Shrum.
The students were told that UBC did not want any Japs on campus. The Dean of Women called a meeting of Nisei women to explain to them that the university would not assist them to remain in Vancouver and to continue their education. Only two members of the faculty spoke out for their Japanese Canadian students. They were Henry Angus and E.H. Morrow who helped his “boys” write exams and re-establish them in eastern Canada.
In the US, sympathetic administrators and faculty members protested loudly the inclusion of their students in President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 6099 that sent 120,000Japanese Americans to concentration camps. Faculty members were sent to the camps to help their students write their final exams and helped many to register at universities outside of the exclusion zone. The Japanese Canadian students at UBC felt abandoned and powerless to defend themselves. They left the campus questioning the injustice of their dismissal and the abandonment by the university that they loved. None were ever able to set foot again on the hallowed grounds of UBC.
So you initially met with resistance . . . when did that begin to change?
For about two years after I began my crusade, it was a lonely exercise. The UBC Senate Committee seemed determined to deny my request. There were long periods when I would not receive a reply. However, I kept sending them information about our history and to make them aware of the information about the American universities’ decision to grant honourary degrees. At one time I was told that the issue that we were discussing was to remain confidential. Their need for secrecy made me more determined to broadcast the information to others. On November 17, 2010, Shag Ando, David Iwaasa, Bryan Tsuyuki Tomlinson, and my husband Tosh joined me to form a committee to discuss how best to tackle this issue. Bryan was very helpful because he was on the UBC Senate as a student rep for his faculty and knew the inner workings of the Committee. By the time he joined our group, his time on the Senate had expired. I was very grateful for the suggestions given to me that were so influential on how we would progress on this issue.
What happened next?
The first and important issue was finding the former students. Shag Ando was able to find a list with names, faculty, home town, and the year that the students were in. This list was crucial in our effort to begin contacting the students or their relatives. I began by writing an article in the Nikkei Voice, April 2011 to alert our community about our quest. Information about some students began to trickle in. However, I felt that if the wider community knew about our story, then perhaps more people could be found. I contacted Patricia Graham, Editor-in-Chief of the Vancouver Sun whom I had met at a National Retreat for Women Conference in April of 2010 where I was one of the speakers. Patricia agreed to publish our story and had reporter Gerry Bellett write an article in the August 27, 2011 Vancouver Sun. That one article spawned many requests for interviews from other newspapers and radio stations. The power of the media was on our side; our story was now nationwide. Mits Sumiya has become an articulate spokes person for his classmates of 1942. UBC’s student newspaper the Ubyssey wrote in favor of our quest in four issues. The November 21, 2011 issue has Mit’s photo covering most of the front page accompanying the article about our victory. Their editorial was damming of the university’s reluctance to grant honourary degrees to the 1941 Japanese Canadian students. The students at UBC are now alerted about the issue.
How did you first hear that UBC had agreed to grant honourary degrees? What was your feeling upon hearing the news?
I learned of the media release through an email that came from the President’s Office after their meeting. The relief I felt was immeasurable. My joy was evident on the CKNW radio interview the next day.
The focus now is to locate all of the students or their heirs before the spring convocation of 2012. We are hoping that through publicity generated by the media release, we will be getting additional leads to locate them. Mika Fukuma from the Nikkei Voice has been a great help in locating students, relatives of students and in publishing names of those who are not yet found.
Most of the remaining former students are now in their late 80s and 90s. I have talked to fifteen of them on the phone. It is so rewarding to hear their voices reflecting on the joy they felt in learning that they are now going to be granted Honourary degrees from UBC in May of 2012. Dr. Nori Nishio told me from Nanaimo that he did not phone me on the day he read the media release because he wanted to make sure that the information was real. He said, “I did not think that it would happen in my life time.”
Have you met with UBC since the decision was released?
Tosh and I went to meet with Christopher Eaton, UBC’s Associate Registrar & Director Senate & Curriculum Services on November 22, 2011. He gave us hope that all of what we asked for will be given: cap and gown, Honourary Bachelor’s degrees, bound diplomas with an appropriate Latin phrase, reception and others which he could not define at that time. The Senate Committee will be meeting in January 2012 to discuss the plans.
I must thank all the people who came on board to lobby and flood the President’s and the Senate Tributes Committee’s offices with letters of support. Dr. Kerry Jang, UBC professor and Vancouver city councilor began by lobbying the President. His help was timely and immeasurable. Other faculty members who were instrumental in this outcome were Dr. Henry Yu, Dr. William McMichael, and University of Victoria professor Dr. John Price. I am sure there were many others behind the scene at the university who helped. To them I owe a debt of gratitude. I must also thank Professor Emeritus Stuart Philpott of the University of Toronto, Department of Anthropology and Ken Noma of the NAJC for writing letters of support. Roy Miki and my sister, Rose Murakami have contributed so much in guiding me through the maze of definitions and ideas. Thank you also to the petition gathers and signers. I will use it as a backup when appropriate. The support of my colleagues on the GVJCCA Human Rights Committee was invaluable. They are Augustina Asantos, Judy Hanazawa, Tatsuo Kage, Lily Shinde, Lorene Oikawa, Morgan Elander and my husband, Tosh Kitagawa.
It all seemed to happen so quickly—from notices in the Nikkei press looking for former students and radio interviews in the mainstream media, to UBC agreeing to grant the degrees.
The three year journey to find justice for these worthy and forgotten students has been a trying but rewarding experience. I was determined to find justice for their sufferings however long it took to do it. Although UBC needed a lot of prodding, they made the right decision. To refuse our quest would have reflected negatively on what they claim to stand for: justice and human rights. In May of 2012, let us all celebrate with the students by attending the convocation on campus to help validate their victory. They have patiently waited for seventy years to join the alumni that once betrayed them. Let us dedicate the coming commencement day as a “Day of Remembrance” for those students who have left us without having the opportunity to celebrate with their 1942 UBC colleagues.
We are asking those former UBC students or relatives of those who have passed away to contact us by email at email@example.com or by phone at 604-943-3195. Give us your names and contact numbers so that we could phone you to get your history. You deserve to be honoured, however late. We will continue our effort on your behalf to see that you receive your special honorary degree, resplendent in your cap and gown.