A yearbook photo of Yeiko Nagata (center). • Courtesy Photo
A yearbook photo of Yeiko Ogata (center). • Courtesy Photo

Northwest University (NU) will posthumously award an honorary bachelor’s degree at its May 10 commencement to Yeiko Ogata, their first Japanese American student. Research on the school’s multicultural history will be revealed during the ceremony, including how NU assisted Ogata in defiance of popular anti-Japanese sentiment during WWII.

Ogata was born in Wapato, Washington, in 1921 to immigrants Rinzo and Toriye Ogata. Her childhood was spent in Helena, Montana. By January 1942, Yeiko was a student in Seattle’s Roosevelt neighborhood attending what was then called Northwest Bible Institute (NBI). Although Yeiko sought education in Christian ministry, larger events of WWII would threaten to cut her studies short.

“Our records show that Northwest highly valued Yeiko as a student,” NU president Joseph Castleberry said. “Her race was seen as a benefit, not as a problem for the school.”

After just one quarter of study, Ogata maintained good grades despite taking a double class load. A terse final note in her academic records, however, cut her NBI story short. The note read: “Dropped Mar. 30 Japanese Evacuation.”

In February 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 forcing relocation of Japanese people along the West Coast to internment camps. Bainbridge Island received notice for Japanese evacuation on March 24, 1942, and a Seattle notice followed on April 21. Basic rights for U.S. citizens of Japanese descent were set aside as they were seen as potential enemies.

A new development on Ogata’s story arose in January 2014 as graduate student and independent historian Devin Cabanilla began researching NU’s archives. Online history revealed that Ogata was, strangely, a student in Minneapolis, Minesota. Cabanilla theorized that NBI enabled Ogata’s transfer to sister-school North Central Bible Institute (NCBI) in Minneapolis. Requests were sent to North Central and it was verified that Ogata was a transfer student there and finished a three-year diploma in ministry.

“Our first president Henry Ness was also a founder of North Central and likely arranged for her to be accepted as a student,” Castleberry said.

Ogata’s surviving relatives also confirm her presence in 1942 Minneapolis.

“It’s important to recognize that [Ogata] would have graduated in Seattle if it hadn’t been for internment,” Cabanilla said.

At Cabanilla’s suggestion, Castleberry petitioned the Board of Directors of Northwest University to confer a posthumous four-year Bachelor of Arts degree on Ogata. The board unanimously accepted.

Northwest university’s early Christian community provided an oasis for diversity. • Courtesy Photo
Northwest university’s early Christian community provided an oasis for diversity. • Courtesy Photo

Cabanilla’s research also found that NU’s early Christian community provided an oasis for diversity. Data from the 1930s and 1940s showed that Native American, African American, and Filipino students lived together in non-segregated housing despite the city’s racial codes.

“We do not frame this honoring of [Ogata] as an apology, but rather as a ‘fulfillment of all righteousness,’ Castleberry said. “This is a celebration and reclaiming of a long forgotten NU heritage.”

Northwest University’s 2014 Commencement happens on Saturday, May 10 at 10:00 a.m.
at Overlake Christian Church Auditorium, 9900 Willows Road NE, Redmond, WA 98052.

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