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Japanese-American Woman Gets Honorary Degree 60 Years After Internment Halted Studies

Michiko Kiyokawa was a typical freshman in 1942, taking biology and playing field hockey, when she was forced to leave college during the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

This Sunday, more than six decades later, Kiyokawa will return to the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma to receive an honorary degree.

"It's an honor," the 85-year-old woman said in a telephone interview Friday from her home in Parkdale, Ore. "The college is being very broad-minded. It's an effort to make up for something that had been done to us."

Kiyokawa is one of two former WWII internees who will attend the graduation ceremony at the university's Baker Stadium. Relatives of more than 30 other former Japanese American students who have passed away or couldn't travel also are attending.

"Each loyal student removed from campus at that time represented a life and an education suddenly interrupted," said university president Ronald R. Thomas. "By granting these now, we complete a circle."

The university is the latest to award honorary degrees to former Japanese American WWII internees. The University of Washington, University of Oregon and Oregon State University held similar graduation ceremonies last spring.

Evacuation notices were issued the spring after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that drew the U.S. into the war on Dec. 7. About 120,000 ethnic Japanese were relocated to one of 10 camps in Washington, Idaho, California and other states.

Kiyokawa said her father had to give up the grocery store he owned in Tacoma, and "we sold off everything." Her older sister and older brother also had to leave the college.

The family was first sent to a camp in Pinedale, Calif., and lived in barracks with no running water and showers with no privacy, she said.

Kiyokawa said she was thrown in with other Japanese Americans from all over the West Coast and was so busy living and meeting people that she didn't think much about college then. "Life went on with things happening constantly," she said.

She wrote for the internment camp newspaper, covering sporting events and upcoming classes. Kiyokawa met her future husband when the family was transferred to another relocation center near Tule Lake, Calif., south of the Oregon border.

It wasn't until she left the camp, she said, that she realized how secluded she had been and what she had missed.

"It was wrong in the sense that you uproot people up and down the coast and disrupt their lives," Kiyokawa said. "But it wasn't as though we were herded in and kept as prisoners doing nothing. We were a thriving community in the camps."

Kiyokawa left the camp in March 1944 to attend Hamline College in St. Paul, Minn. She earned a bachelor's degree in biology, and later moved to Oregon to train in medical technology.

She has five children, three of whom will attend Sunday's graduation ceremony. Her niece will also accept a degree on behalf of Kiyokawa's late older sister, who was a college senior at the time the family was forced to leave Tacoma.

Kiyokawa said she feels she doesn't deserve a degree from the University of Puget Sound since she already has one. But "it's a gesture that the college is making, and I appreciate it."

She joked: "At my age, this excitement is a little more than I need."