In fall 1941, some 450 Japanese Americans signed up to study at the University of Washington. But by the next spring, the UW's single largest...

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In fall 1941, some 450 Japanese Americans signed up to study at the University of Washington.

But by the next spring, the UW’s single largest ethnic group had simply vanished.

The day the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor changed their lives forever. In February 1942, President Roosevelt issued an executive order giving the military broad powers over anyone considered a security threat.

The military banned Japanese Americans from the West Coast, forcing a majority of the UW students into out-of-state internment camps. Many were sent first to a temporary facility at the Puyallup fairgrounds — which became known as “Camp Harmony.”

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Some students fled the state. Others were drafted into the Army. At least one UW student, a Japanese national, was arrested by the FBI and put on a ship back to Japan.

Now, 66 years later, the UW plans to issue honorary degrees to all those Japanese Americans forced to leave campus in the months after Pearl Harbor. It’s an unprecedented move for the UW, which has issued just 11 honorary degrees since 1885.

Two of the people behind the May 18 ceremony are Gail Nomura and Tetsuden Kashima, professors of American ethnic studies who are Japanese American.

“We don’t want this story to be forgotten,” Nomura said. “Civil liberties are a special thing. Only when we lose them do we realize how important it is to protect and defend them for all.”

Many of the surviving students, most of whom are now in their late 80s, are excited about finally being recognized as Huskies — although others remain ambivalent. Some wonder what has taken the UW so long.

The answer, it seems, is simply that nobody thought of doing it until recently.

“I’m very surprised and grateful that it has come to this,” said Hiro Nishimura, 88, of Mercer Island, who was in his freshman year when Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec 7, 1941. “It’s a nice gesture on the part of the UW.”

UW Librarian Theresa Mudrock, the daughter of an American GI and a Japanese mother, has been researching the story for years. She recently helped compile a database of those who were forced out after Pearl Harbor.

She has found at least some details about what happened to 344 of the students. About two-thirds were sent to internment camps. Nearly three-quarters went on to graduate — some from the UW after the war, others from colleges elsewhere in the country. Nearly half have since died.

Some of the students took years to finish their degrees. One man, who went to work for Boeing, began studying again by correspondence in the mid-1950s and finally earned his electrical engineering degree 15 years later. Another woman earned her degree by taking night classes for eight years.

Others never finished their degrees, despite being just a few credits away. Some wished they had. Toshiyuki Kawanishi, who was sent to the camp in Minidoka, Idaho, and later returned to Seattle to open Admiral Way Auto Rebuild, always dreamed of earning an engineering degree, according to his family. He died last August.

Pearl Harbor changed lives in other ways. One of the UW students, Yoshio Tamura, drowned in a canal while at Minidoka. Two others — Tad and Cherry Fujioka — got married at Minidoka and later had four children together.

Some of the students were drafted into the Army and died as war heroes. Perhaps the most widely known of all the students from that year is Gordon Hirabayashi.

One evening, while studying in the UW’s Suzzallo Library, he decided to defy the 8 p.m. curfew the military had imposed on all Japanese Americans.

“I said to myself, ‘Gee, if the American Constitution means anything at all, this is wrong. And if I believe in the Constitution, I’ve got to object to this,’ ” he told the UW alumni magazine Columns in a 2006 article.

In May 1942, Hirabayashi refused to go to an internment camp, instead turning himself in to the FBI. He was later tried, convicted and sentenced to 90 days for both defying the curfew and refusing to go to camp. He appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court — the first case to challenge Japanese-American internment — and lost in a unanimous ruling.

After the war, Hirabayashi went back to the UW to study sociology, getting first a bachelor’s degree, then a master’s, then a doctorate.

More than 40 years after World War II, his convictions were overturned. By then, Hirabayashi had retired as chair of the sociology department at the University of Alberta.

Now 90, Hirabayashi suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and lives in a long-term-care facility in Alberta. Hirabayashi’s sister Esther Furugori said she may attend the UW ceremony in Gordon’s place.

Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or

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