Cal Poly rights a World War II wrong

University honors 31 Japanese-American former students who were forced to leave

nwilson@thetribunenews.comJune 7, 2010 

Nelson Akagi was a freshman at Cal Poly majoring in electrical engineering during World War II when his college experience was cut short.

Because of the U.S. government’s forced evacuation and internment of more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans, Akagi was required to relocate and ended up working on a farm with relatives in Idaho in 1942.

The 86-year-old, who now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, returned to Cal Poly on Monday to receive an honorary degree along with three other former Cal Poly students and seven families who attended the ceremony on behalf of an honoree.

Cal Poly identified 31 former students who were eligible for awards, and found contact information for 27 honorees or their families with varying responses to the invitation.

The Cal State University system estimates 250 former students attended CSU campuses before the forced evacuations. The board of trustees voted in September to honor them.

The CSU honorary effort is called the Nisei project. The Japanese word refers to children born to Japanese immigrants in a new country.

Akagi said after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, a Cal Poly physics professor urged students not to bother their classmate.

“The physics professor said, ‘Leave Nelson alone; he’s one of us,’ ” Akagi said.

The former Cal Poly student said that he returned to his hometown of Lindsay in the Central Valley from Cal Poly in April 1942. He and his family then set out for Idaho.

His family later sold its farm for a pittance of its value, Akagi said.

Cal Poly President Warren Baker said that the honorary degrees acknowledge a “huge mistake.”

“There was no military or security reason for the internments and relocations,” Baker said. “It was racism.”

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