Amidst an already limited number of faculty to teach Asian American Studies at the University of Washington, three professors are retiring from the American Ethnic Studies department: Steve Sumida, Gail Nomura, and Tetsuden Kashima.
“All American literature has an ethnic angle or another,” Sumida said.
Walking into Sumida’s office is like walking into a vat of knowledge: the shelves are so full of books that there’s books crammed between the top of the rows and the spaces in between the shelves, his life memorabilia is littered everywhere around the office, and two pictures of his granddaughters sit on his desk. This is a man of experience and gratitude.
Sumida began his teaching career at 22 years old in Japan, through Amherst College. He then had the desire to go back to his home and teach, and so left to be a professor at the University of Hawai‘i. After gaining his Master’s degree at Columbia University, Sumida transitioned to the University of Washington in 1969, “a time of turmoil on campuses,” he said, because of student revolutions. There, Sumida went into graduate school.
But he didn’t stay. Instead, Sumida left to teach at Washington State University where he and his wife Gail Nomura established the college’s first Asian American studies curriculum.
“For the movement eastward from the west coast of Asian American Studies,” Sumida said, “WSU was one of the important steps for that.”
Before his arrival, WSU had settled a lawsuit against a member of the community who protested against the university’s exclusion of Asian American Studies when it already had Chicano, African American, and Native American studies.
“If you lack Asian American Studies, you are violating your own educational principles,” Sumida said.
Sumida then had the duty of creating WSU’s first Asian American Studies, and so did his wife, who is also set to retire from the UW’s studies this year. Nomura has a degree in East Asian History, specializing in modern Japan.
Nomura also instigated the first Asian American Studies in the midwest when she went to teach at the University of Michigan. Sumida was also at this university, but focused on the Modern Language Association.
Nomura’s beginnings were different than Sumida’s, however. Her first teaching job was at the University of California, Los Angeles. After teaching there for three years, she went to WSU, and then to the UW where she has stayed for 17 years.
“It was nice to come to a department with colleagues I could work with,” Nomura said. “It’s hard being the pioneer, it can get a bit lonely.”
Nomura recanted her admiration for the history of activism within the UW and the broader Seattle community. “Bridging town and gown,” she called it. For her, one of the most important parts of teaching in American Asian Studies is serving the community and bringing that relevance to the classroom.
“It’s better if there’s a community behind you or, rather, leading,” Nomura said. “We don’t have to be everything to everybody. There’s a lot of skilled people out there.”
The last of the three Asian American Studies professors retiring this year at the UW is Tetsuden Kashima. He has actually partook in the activism Nomura admires.
“In 1967, when we had a strike in San Francisco State [University],” Kashima said, “we didn’t have ethnic studies, women’s studies, environmental studies. I was on a picket line.”
At the time, he was a graduate student.
“I knew that when we talked about minorities in American society, the point of view came from the larger dominant society,” Kashima said, “and they didn’t allow us—or it wasn’t encouraged, or they didn’t even know—that the minorities have their own history.”
Kashima got his doctorate at the University of California, San Diego and then came to the UW in 1976. But, after 39 years at the UW, he said he leaves with both regret and a certain amount of happiness.
“I’ve come to appreciate what a great university we have,” Kashima said, “just treating people fairly—much more so than many other schools. I’ve had a wonderful career teaching, and faculty is one of the best in the world.”
Kashima expressed the same sentiments as Nomura, however, in that what they do is but a grain of sand in the hourglass of time.
“I’m really grateful for our comrades, but we have many many people out in the community and on campus who helped greatly, if not more, than we three,” he said. Kashima said that if it weren’t for the community of faculty, and those outside town, a lot of the events that are put on through Asian American Studies wouldn’t be possible.
“And so I think we should say thank you to everybody,” Kashima said. “I played a small role. I don’t even want to talk about my role.”
One of the many memorable events that the retiring professors and the greater Asian American community put together was the Long Journey Home, a gathering of all the UW’s 1941-1942 Japanese students who were sent to incarceration camps during World War II solely due to their ancestry. Many of them weren’t able to finish their degrees but, at this event, the UW and Nikkei students gave them honorary degrees in 2008.
“What happened in 1942 was a tremendous violation to civil liberties,” Kashima said. “That issue is something that we should not forget. We don’t have to dwell on it or get upset about it, but we need to make sure it doesn’t happen again to any other group.”
The crowd on that day in 2008 was an emotional one. Some of the previous UW students had already passed and so relatives were sent in their honor.
“Many of them just didn’t realize how much they would feel after 66 years,” Nomura said. She, Kashima, Sumida, and the broader community watched as 440 people were finally listed as UW graduates.
“There’s nowhere you can draw lines saying ‘this is community, this is campus,’” Sumida said. “It’s our job.”
Although all three are retiring, their illustrious lives don’t end there. All three are going to continue working on speeches, research, and book publications. Meanwhile, Sumida himself plans on continuing his job as an Asian American actor, and documenting the oral stories of Japanese Americans.
“The only thing that changes is I don’t have to grade papers anymore,” Nomura said. She laughed about it being the only thing she’ll miss.
Kashima already speaks at one of the three national parks used for the Japanese American incarceration camps: Minidoka, Idaho, the place most Japanese Seattleites were sent.
“I’d like to continue in this area because we have to teach the young people, the grandchildren of the grandparents who were there,” Kashima said. “And the people who aren’t of Japanese ancestry, to tell them what the story is about and why it’s important; to remember.”
Despite so many plans and aspirations, there’s some worry about the gaps the three professors are leaving in Asian American Studies.
“I’m worried that without community voices,” Nomura said, “the university may not replace all of us.”
The Divisional Dean of Social Sciences, Judy Howard, is part of one of four divisions in the College of Arts & Sciences. She said the UW is currently looking for temporary lecturers for next year, and will begin searching for full-time faculty once they hire the temporaries.
“With three retirements, that’s a lot of change,” Howard said. “It’s an opportunity to build the next chapter, hiring people earlier in their careers.” She did say, however, how much of a loss it is to lose three dedicated faculty.
The hiring really depends on the fiscal circumstances of next year, according to Howard. She predicts Asian American Studies will make one to two new tenure track hires. That leaves one gap unfilled, which Howard attributed to “difficult financial circumstances.”
“What you hope for in retirements is people do it one by one rather than all at one period of time,” Howard said.
Nomura said the American Ethnic Studies department does the major lifting of diversity teaching on the UW campus. She argued that that reason alone, and especially when paired with a “Race and Equity Initiative”-driven president, should be enough to fill the needed faculty. Nomura questioned where the money that would otherwise pay the three retiring professors is going.
“It’s maddening,” she said. “I don’t see how we can justify that.”
The Seattle area Nikkei community is planning a midday “Sensei-tional3” retirement celebration for all 3 professors on August 27, 2016. Details will be announced, but for more information, please e-mail [email protected].