Graduation Day, Six Decades Late
Dozens of Japanese Americans who as teenagers were forced to relocate to internment camps during World War II and never received diplomas from their hometown high schools donned caps and gowns, corsages and leis for a belated graduation ceremony Sunday.
Some of the seniors, ranging in age from the mid-70s to 83, wept as they shook hands with Los Angeles Community College District board member Warren Furutani and received retroactive honors in slim black leather folders.
Others simply beamed as they crossed the stage at Los Angeles Trade Tech College.
Proud adult children of the graduates snapped photos of their parents, urging them to pose and smile.
In cases in which a graduate had died, relatives were welcome to walk across the stage to represent loved ones.
Silver-haired Yoshiro “Babe” Fujioka, 77, received his brother Ted’s diploma from Hollywood High School with a smile on his face and tears in his eyes.
Sixty-one years later, he still misses the big brother who fought in the famed all-Japanese 442nd Regimental Combat Team and died in November 1944 in the south of France.
“He was a hero to me; he was an icon,” Fujioka said. “But I don’t think he died in vain. We’re Americans all the way, and I think today brings closure to what he stood for.”
Ruby Okubo, 79, has no dearth of diplomas and degrees, including a master’s from UCLA. But the acknowledgment from Los Angeles High School, which she left at age 15, was different: “I shed some tears because I wish my parents were here,” she said.
A state law that took effect in January allows high schools to issue retroactive diplomas to Japanese Americans who were unable to complete their education because of their incarceration during World War II.
Nisei, the American-born children of first-generation Japanese immigrants to the United States, make up the largest number of those affected by the law.
About 200 people applied to receive diplomas from schools throughout Los Angeles County, but hazukashi, a shyness or cultural reluctance to put oneself forward, played a part in keeping the number attending Sunday’s ceremony down to about 60, Furutani said.
“The nail that sticks up gets hammered,” he said. “In a way, that’s what happened to a generation of Japanese Americans who were under the radar and then Pearl Harbor happened.”
The World War II internment camps are central to the Japanese American experience, he said. But for many years, it was a time that those who lost their businesses or homes rarely discussed.
“It’s almost like being raped,” Furutani said. “You ask yourself, ‘What did I do wrong to have this happen?’ and either you decided ‘I’m mad’ or you let it recede.”
The Japanese call it shikataganai, or having a sense that nothing can be done about something, he said.
It was the next generation of Japanese Americans who in the 1960s and ‘70s began to advocate on behalf of those who were interned.
“I went to hear Stokely Carmichael speak,” Furutani said, referring to the former Black Panther. “He said the thing black people had to do was to define themselves for themselves, by themselves. I substituted the word ‘Asian,’ and a lightbulb went on in my head.”
Closing the chapter on internment is one way to let the Japanese American community move forward to address other issues of self-definition, he said, adding, “It was unfinished business.”
Throughout the ceremony, strains of remembered pain mixed with patriotism, much like the experience in her camp, said Toshiko Sakamoto Aiboshi, 77.
She left Foshay Junior High School when she was 13, and was sent with her family to Santa Anita, where she attended school.
“It was strange. We would have classes on the second story, and down below we could see workers making camouflage nets for the soldiers,” she said.
At the ceremony’s end, Furutani applauded the graduates: “Ladies and gentlemen, I present the classes of 1942, 1943, 1944, 1945....”
Then the long-ago students counted to three and posed for a group photo: “Ichi, ni, san, smile!”