Classroom, Diploma Separated by 48 Years


Nineteen-year-old Mitsuko Yasukochi Funakoshi was just two months shy of graduation in the spring of 1942, full of hope and ambition, when her world was torn in two.

Anti-Japanese hysteria was still strong after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the U.S. government ordered all people of Japanese ancestry to leave the West Coast. The young community college student was forced to abandon her textbooks and leave California with her family, prosperous Norwalk grocers who could take only what they could carry.

Now, 48 years later, the 66-year-old secretary who commutes daily from Oceanside to Los Angeles City Hall, is about to see her dream of a college diploma come true. Next week, Fullerton College will award Funakoshi an associate of arts degree for her 3 1/2 semesters of work that ended abruptly that April, when she and 110,000 others of Japanese descent were forced to leave their homes.

“Nothing makes my life more complete,” said Funakoshi, an executive secretary in Los Angeles City Controller Rick Tuttle’s office. “I feel a little like Rip Van Winkle . . . coming back to Fullerton (College) after all these years.”


She is just one of more than 17,000 students reaping the reward of their labors this spring in graduation ceremonies at more than a dozen Orange County colleges and universities.

Cal State Fullerton will honor about 5,800 students, its largest graduating class in history, this weekend at the university’s 31st annual commencement exercises. Retiring CSUF President Jewel Plummer Cobb will be the keynote speaker as diplomas are awarded in eight separate ceremonies beginning Saturday at 9 a.m. and continuing at noon Sunday.

Also Sunday, Chapman College’s 589 bachelor’s and master’s degree candidates will cap their years of effort with a speech by Warsaw University rector Andrzej K. Wroblewski. The invocation will be given by Crystal Cathedral’s founding pastor, the Rev. Robert H. Schuller, whose daughter, Gretchen Penner, is one of the graduating seniors.

And on June 16, UC Irvine Chancellor Jack Peltason will address the university’s 25th anniversary class. The 4,486 bachelor’s and graduate degree candidates will be honored in three separate ceremonies on the greensward of Aldrich Park.

Christ College Irvine, a small liberal arts college in Irvine, kicked off this year’s round of commencement exercises on May 19 at the Turtle Rock campus. Rancho Santiago College in Santa Ana was the first of eight Orange County community colleges to hold graduation ceremonies Wednesday night.

Funakoshi, once a business and arts major, will join 1,100 other graduates at Fullerton College’s commencement June 1. About 76,000 men and women have been awarded degrees since the college was founded in 1913. But none has waited as long as she, school officials say.

Now the self-effacing woman, known to family and friends as “Mitsie,” will be delivering a short speech to the Class of 1990.

She plans to tell the graduates what happened to her family and the lives of 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry who were uprooted when President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered them out of California, Oregon and Washington in 1942.

She and her parents were lucky because they had friends in Colorado who welcomed them. Others were forced into bleak “relocation camps,” where most lived until 1945.

“We of different cultures need to work together, to help each other, and hopefully nothing like this will ever happen again,” Funakoshi wrote in the short speech that she will deliver to fellow graduates.

The first inkling of what was to come, Funakoshi said, were the curfews requiring Japanese-Americans to be indoors by 10 p.m. Then in April, her family hastily packed all they could carry in a truck and moved to Ft. Lupton, Colo., well away from the coastal military zone established by the government.

“We just had to get rid of everything, even my school materials. My family said, ‘We’ll probably never come back again, so you won’t need this stuff.’ We just threw it away,” she recalled.

In Colorado, for the first time in her life, the girl worked in the fields alongside her mother, father and brothers picking sugar beets and Spanish onions.

“It was a really strange feeling,” she said. “But here we were, American citizens (who) didn’t know any other country and we were being treated like enemies.”

Even as she labored at “some of the hardest, most backbreaking work I’d ever done,” Funakoshi said, she thought about finishing school. She wrote to her college adviser, who sent her an open-book test to win credit for an associate of arts degree.

But the books she needed had been thrown away in California.

“I thought, maybe I’ll go to the library, go into Denver,” she recalled. She gave up when she couldn’t find the books.

Years passed. She married, moved back to California, had a son and a daughter, and enjoyed a comfortable life with her husband, a furniture maker and garage-door installer. But the elusive diploma was never far from her mind.

Not long ago, she mentioned the diploma while talking with the city controller. Tuttle’s response: Why not write to the college president? Funakoshi told him she thought it would be of little use but he insisted, “No, write the letter.”

Two weeks later, after Funakoshi had given up hearing from the college, she found a letter from college President Philip W. Borst.

After reviewing her grades of mostly A’s and Bs, Borst concluded that had Funakoshi not been forced to leave in 1942, she undoubtedly would have graduated with her class that June. He invited her to attend commencement exercises, late but most welcome.

Is she bitter about what she missed?

“If this hadn’t happened, you know, I probably would have gotten my degree and done something else with my life,” Funakoshi, 66, said. “I know it was very hard for my parents . . . but you know, I’ve got a very positive attitude. These things have happened and I’ve gotten stronger. You’ve got to keep going. You can’t be bitter about things.”