During World War II, 15 students of Japanese ancestry were attending Seattle University, then known as Seattle College. They were young men and women, full of hopes and dreams, and they treasured their educations as pathways to achieving those hopes and dreams. However, during the spring of 1942, they were ordered to leave their West Coast homes and this university community because the country was at war with Japan. Some were able to leave for the interior of the country before internment orders were issued, but most were among the 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry sent to desolate camps surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. 2/3rds of those who were incarcerated were second-generation Japanese Americans, or Nisei―American citizens by birth.
We now know the removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans to be one of the worst deprivations of civil liberties in this country’s history. In the words of the Congressional commission that investigated the WWII incarceration, the wartime orders issued against Japanese Americans “[were] not justified by military necessity.” Instead, these decisions were based on “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.”
Seattle University recognizes their courage and perseverance in surviving the injustice of their forced removal. Many were able to leave the confines of the camps to finish their degrees elsewhere. Two went into the armed services. Many went on to accomplished careers and made enduring contributions to their communities and industry. They became treasured and beloved spouses, parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. In moving forward to build rich, productive lives, they show us the strength of the human spirit to survive and thrive, even in the wake of great adversity.
In awarding these honorary degrees, we also affirm Seattle University’s commitment to justice. We remember the lives and experiences of these Nisei students and, in so doing, learn the danger of prejudice and fear and the importance of moral leadership during times of national stress. They teach us, in real, human terms, the need for the kinds of leaders we strive to educate at Seattle University—leaders for a more just and humane world.