104-year-old Trojan overcomes war and racism and receives an honorary doctorate

Law student Frank Chuman left USC with more than a hundred other students in early 1942, just as US President Franklin D. Roosevelt was exiling Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants to detention centers, primarily in the western United States.

Frank Chuman, now 104, celebrates his birthday. (Photo/Courtesy of Frank Chuman)

Chuman belongs to the Nisei generation – the sons and daughters of Issei, Japanese nationals who immigrated to the United States. Chuman and his colleague Nisei represented almost 75% of the estimated 120,000 people who were ordered to the detention facilities. The others were Japanese immigrants, including parents and grandparents who were the first in their families to come to the United States.

The length of detention was different for each of them. Chuman – who was forced to live in Manzanar Detention Center, a gated camp east of the Sierra Nevada mountains in the Owens Valley – was released from the camp after spending more than a year there.

Over the next 60 years, Chuman climbed far from the valley and finished his law degree. Determined not to subject anyone to such abuse, he became a prominent human rights advocate challenging discriminatory laws and court decisions. His strategy was critical to a successful, decade-long effort that eventually resulted in the courts overturning the conviction of Fred Korematsu, who was imprisoned after refusing to go to a detention center, in violation of Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. By the time USC’s Nisei students were awarded honorary doctorates in 2012, Chuman had retired to Thailand.

When a decision by President Carol L. Folt that fall allowed honorary degrees to be awarded to all Nisei students, it seemed unlikely that any would survive. Grace Shiba, executive director of the USC Asian Pacific Alumni Association, offered hope.

We managed to contact him through our trojan network. The rest is now history.

Grace ShibaManaging Director,
USC Asian Pacific Alumni Association

“From the beginning, I was optimistic that I would find a surviving Nisei student, so I started researching the existing students,” Shiba said. “Fortunately, I was encouraged when I found out that Frank Chuman lived in Thailand. We managed to contact him through our trojan network. The rest is now history.”

After Shiba made contact in mid-December, a team of executives from the offices of the President, Provost, Admissions, Advancement and Registrar rushed to issue an honorary degree on Chuman’s behalf. It was sent to his home in Thailand within days, and a video message was immediately produced by Folt.

In full regalia, the President addressed the 104-year-old Trojan.

“On behalf of our university, I am very sorry that you were never allowed to complete your law degree at our institution,” Folt said. “Eighty years after this grave injustice, I hope that you will accept the diploma as our way of thanking you for your outstanding legal career and your continued contributions to the Japan-US redress effort.

“Your civil rights activism and your involvement in the landmark constitutional cases brought before the Supreme Court demonstrate what is just and right about the United States,” she said. “You are a shining example that our students today want to emulate.”

Folt also praised Chuman’s 1976 book The Bamboo People as a seminal work on Japanese-American legal history, foreign land laws, immigration restrictions, and captivity.

The Nisei Generation: “The Bamboo Won’t Break”

Chuman wanted others to know his story. his memories Manzanar and beyond, published at the age of 94, documents his life journey, which began in Santa Barbara County. By the time he was 7, Chuman’s family had moved to Los Angeles. After dealing with gang membership as a youth, he became a super-achiever in high school as a scholar, athlete, and public speaker. Chuman also became an Eagle Scout before enrolling at UCLA where he served with the ROTC. As he neared his graduation in 1938, he considered applying for the Foreign Service. The then dean of UCLA’s political science department advised him not to, telling Chuman that the State Department would not hire anyone of his ethnicity.

Chuman describes a Depression-era climate in which racism was rampant. It was a time, he wrote, when Nisei Caltech graduates couldn’t get engineering jobs and law firms didn’t hire Nisei attorneys. He found work at a market on West Beverly Boulevard, hauling boxes of produce. The hard lifting and the splintered boxes cut his hands; he had to use his knuckles to work the cash register.

“Forget that foolish dream. … All the good jobs are for white people, not for people like us who are Japanese.’ I kept quiet because I knew what he said was true.

Frank Choman, Manzanar and beyond

Chuman believed there was more to him than the physical labor of the market. He saved his wages to continue his education while facing unseen but formidable obstacles, an experience he later recounted:

“One day, one of my colleagues in the produce department, who was born in Japan, came up to me and sarcastically scoffed, ‘I heard you graduated from UCLA and are saving money for college. Forget this foolish dream. … All the good jobs are for white people, not for people like us who are Japanese.’ I kept quiet because I knew what he said was true.”

Chuman was hired by Los Angeles County as a messenger in the fall of 1938. He carried files through county offices and courts, where he found the exchanges between attorneys and judges fascinating. He enrolled at USC in September 1940 as a law student. After the arrest warrant was issued on February 19, 1942, Chuman was sent to live in Manzanar. He became administrator of the 250-bed hospital at the detention center. In 1943 he resumed his education, first at the University of Toledo and then at the University of Maryland, where he was the institution’s first Asian American law student. Chuman earned his law degree in 1945 and passed the bar exam in 1947.

Chuman sought ways to focus on civil rights issues, fighting for the rights and protections of immigrants and Japanese American citizens, and ensuring their cultures are recognized. During his legal career, he served as legal counsel for the Japanese American Citizen League and helped found the Japanese American Research Project, a collection of documents defining the Japanese American experience.

In his memoirs, Chuman recalled words spoken by his mother from his early childhood. Her words would sustain him through a life that has lasted more than a century:

“You must be like the bamboo. When the wind blows, your body bends down. Your heart will be filled with despair and sorrow. Ice and snow form on the branches. The bamboo will not break. The bamboo is strong and resilient. That it will endure any hardship. You must be like the bamboo. You must not allow yourself to break down under the blows you will face in life.”

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