Willamette University, Students at the Mill Stream

The campus community joined visiting dignitaries and families for a memorial to honor Willamette's 10 Japanese American students who had to leave the university during World War II.The campus community joined visiting dignitaries and families for a memorial to honor Willamette's 10 Japanese American students who had to leave the university during World War II.

Oregon's fifth poet laureate Lawson Inada read a poem titled Oregon's fifth poet laureate, Lawson Inada, read a poem titled "Sakura," referencing the flowering cherry tree above the campus memorial.

Willamette honors Japanese American students incarcerated during World War II

Poetry, pink cherry blossoms, and speeches from dignitaries and students marked Willamette’s memorial ceremony last Friday in honor of 10 Japanese American students who were forced by the government to leave during World War II.

The students left during the 1941–42 school year in response to federal Executive Order 9066, which forced individuals of Japanese descent on the West Coast to go to internment camps.

“Willamette aptly recognizes that these American students’ schooling was cut short — not due to what they’d done, but because of what our government now recognizes as ‘a grave injustice,’” said Graduate School of Education Professor Linda Tamura, who has researched and written about Oregon’s Japanese settlers during World War II.

Willamette first honored the students in 2008 with a Day of Remembrance, but several current student groups lobbied the university to install a permanent campus memorial: a bench, stone and plaque under a cherry tree along the Mill Stream.

All the Willamette Nisei (second-generation Japanese American) students have passed away, but members of the families of Reiko Azumano, Hideto Tomita and Taul Watanabe attended Friday’s ceremony.

Also attending were Consul General of Japan Takamichi Okabe; a representative of U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden’s office; Oregon’s fifth poet laureate, Lawson Inada; Oregon Rep. Brian Clem; and Willamette alumnus Dean Nakanishi ’98, MAT’00, whose undergraduate research project documented the story of the 10 students.

Following the dedication, a concert at Hudson Hall featured Inada and the multi-generational Minidoka Swing Band.

Willamette’s Nisei

The plaque now in place lists the names of Willamette’s 10 students who were forced to leave: Reiko Azumano, Kenji Kurita, Kate Kyono, Tom Oye, Henry Tanaka, Hideto Tomita, Maye Oye Uemura, Edward Uyesugi, Taul Watanabe and Yoshi Yoshizawa.

Eight ended up in camps, and two served in the U.S. Army in Europe as part of the highly decorated 442nd Regimental Combat Team. All 10 eventually finished their college educations.

“These students found a way to put the pain aside, not allowing bitterness and resentment to fill and occupy their souls and their spirits,” President M. Lee Pelton said at the ceremony. “They forged through difficult times to become successful citizens of hope and promise and strength — examples of integrity and courage for all of us to emulate today.

“Today we shine a bright light on the lives of these Nisei students — courageous and persistent young men and women who resolved to triumph over life’s adversity.”

Current student involvement

The memorial dedication was the result of work from several groups of current undergraduates. Students in Sudarat Mushikawong and Jong Bum Kwon’s 2008 “Asian American Mobilities” class initiated activities that resulted in a proposal of support signed by 350 students asking for a permanent monument. The efforts were also led by Tamura and History Professor Ellen Eisenberg.

In 2009, the Associated Students of Willamette University (ASWU) followed with a resolution of support, which ASWU President Walter Robinson ’11 read at the ceremony. Pelton acknowledged the students’ work on the issue.

“I am encouraged by the passion with which our young men and women are making their voices heard in their fight for justice and equality for all,” Pelton said. “Willamette students have reaffirmed our commitment to diversity and social justice by challenging our community to become a better place to live, work and study.”