UW Japanese American alumni celebrate 90 years

By Charles Lam
Northwest Asian Weekly

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Japan Consul General Masahiro Omura (standing) with University of Washington President Michael Young (center right) during the event. (Photo by Charles Lam/NWAW)

The University of Washington (UW) hosted its first Japanese student in 1894. Now, over a century later, the University of Washington Nikkei Alumni Association (UWNAA) — the successor of multiple Japanese American student organizations — is celebrating its 90th anniversary.

It’s been an eventful 90 years.

“The first Japanese student actually enrolled in 1894,” said UW President Michael Young during his keynote address at the Aug. 24 gala held in the Husky Union Building. “He went back to Japan, had a very successful career, eventually becoming the special assistant to the postmaster general of Japan.”

Young continued, “The second graduate faired a little less well. He graduated with great distinction from the law school. Took the bar examination with great distinction again. And then was not permitted to become a member of the bar because at that time it was deemed that the Japanese were ineligible to become naturalized citizens, despite the fact that he had in his possession his actual naturalization papers. With help from our law school, that was rectified, unfortunately 100 years too late.”

Organized by the UWNAA, Aug. 24’s event was the first time in years that the members of the alumni association had gathered for such a large-scale event to remember the past and look toward the future.

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VALEDA Club documents from the 1940s and 50s (Photo by Charles Lam/NWAW)

Before World War II, Japanese American students were the largest group of ethnic students on campus, with over 449 students attending. However, that number plummeted during the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. Following the war, Japanese student organizations were recreated to aid students, but by the 1960s, the necessity of the clubs diminished. In 1962, the organization sold the SYNKOA house to the University of Washington. The organization now exists to support the community by offering scholarships, honoring alumni, and helping to organize community events.

In 2008, the alumni association helped plan the Long Journey Home, an event that awarded over 400 honorary degrees to Japanese American students detained during internment or their descendents.

The organization has also given over $300,000 in scholarships, and this year awarded scholarships to five students: Evan Ko, Frederica Mackert, Lisa Matsumoto, Sean Umeda, and Michelle Yoshihara.

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State Sen. Bob Hasegawa accepting his award (Photo by Charles Lam/NWAW)

The banquet, which attracted over 160 attendees, included entertainment by jazz pianist Deems Tsutakawa and featured speeches from Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, UW President Michael K. Young, and State Sen. and 2013 UWNAA Distinguished Alumni Bob Hasegawa.

“The district that I represent is one of the most diverse districts in the United States,” said Hasegawa. “I’ve got over 150 languages in my district. This statistic just overwhelms me — 30 percent of people in the 11th were not born in America. That’s an amazing number.

But because we have shown the path that immigrant communities can take to gaining political power, we as a Japanese American community are incumbent in teaching those lessons to the new immigrant so that they can join together to assert their political power and gain their fair share of rights to achieve the American dream.”

Presented with their ancestors’ legacy, the scholarship winners were challenged to continue to change the world for the better and were grateful for the work that came before them.

“It’s inspiring,” said Evan Ko, a scholarship winner who will be starting school in the fall. “There’s so much history behind me, all the struggle that they’ve went through has made it a lot easier for me. From my grand parents to my parents, it’s gotten easier and easier.” (end)

For more information about the UW Nikkei Alumni Association, visit www.uwnikkeialums.org.

Charles Lam can be reached at Charles@nwasianweekly.com.

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