Lost dream restored to Japanese American family

For a time, the Fujiokas of Los Angeles lived a life of almost unimaginable abundance for a Japanese immigrant family in the early 20th century. There were white mink stoles and a Steinway grand piano, beachfront property and vacations to Catalina, even enough money to sponsor an Indianapolis 500 racer.

Then came Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and suddenly, the family lost nearly everything.

They lost their freedom when patriarch Fred Jiro Fujioka was hauled away by the FBI and other family members were sent to a desolate Wyoming internment camp.

They lost the family’s Oldsmobile dealership, trucking business, real estate and other assets estimated at $18 million. And son William lost his chance to graduate from UC Berkeley and fulfill his mother’s dream for him to become a doctor.

But the family will regain a measure of their loss today when UC Berkeley awards honorary degrees to William Fujioka and about 100 other Japanese Americans whose educations were interrupted by the internment and the war.

When President Roosevelt ordered 120,000 Japanese Americans interned during World War II, more than 2,500 students were forced to pull out of California’s institutions of higher education, according to state Assemblyman Warren Furutani (D-Gardena), who wrote the bill that became law in October calling for the honorary degrees.

The three other UC campuses that existed at the time -- UCLA, UC Davis and UC San Francisco -- have also extended degrees or made plans to do so since the UC Board of Regents voted to grant them earlier this year. Similar efforts are underway in the Cal State and community college systems.

“This validates his whole life experience,” said William Fujioka’s eldest son, Fred, who will accept the posthumous award along with his brother and mother. “I am thrilled that he’s being remembered again.”

Fred Fujioka said the honorary degree would complete the one piece of unfinished business in the family’s remarkable turnabout from post-war ruins to prominent public service.

Fred Fujioka, 58, is a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge. William T Fujioka, 57, is chief executive of Los Angeles County. And their role model and mother, Linda, went back to school in her 40s, earned her teaching credential in her 50s and at age 81 still works as a substitute teacher at Fishburn Avenue Elementary School in Maywood.

Those successes could not have been foreseen in the bleak days of World War II, an experience that the family says profoundly altered William Fujioka, who died of cancer in 1992.

The trauma of war

Fujioka’s father was a wealthy businessman whose trucking firm supplied vehicles to the Japanese immigrant farmers who were thriving along the West Coast.

After attending classes at Caltech, the patriarch brought his design for a coal oil fuel engine to Japan with the aim of manufacturing cars there, Fred Fujioka said. A major earthquake in 1923 destroyed his entire operation, but his efforts to rebuild the region caught the eye of the Japanese emperor, who bestowed on him a sword, cuff links and honorary title.

When Pearl Harbor was attacked Dec. 7, 1941, William Fujioka was taking pre-med classes at Berkeley. He had graduated from Garfield High School at age 16. When his family was shipped off to the Heart Mountain internment camp in Wyoming, Fujioka enlisted in the U.S. Army and joined the fabled 442nd Regimental Combat Team.

The highly decorated unit of second-generation Japanese Americans, known as Nisei, won enduring fame for liberating a Texas battalion trapped in France; the battle left more than half the regiment dead or injured.

Fujioka, a member of the Cannon Company, was injured twice and earned two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star, among other decorations. He survived a shelling that killed a close friend driving in the same truck and later found the body of a dear cousin on the battlefield.

The gory violence, the personal losses and the abrupt turn in his family fortunes shocked and scarred him, his family says.

“The war really messed him up,” Linda Fujioka said during an interview at her tidy San Gabriel Valley home last week. “He just wasn’t ready for all that gore.”

When Fujioka returned home to Los Angeles, he didn’t go back to college. He abandoned his ambition of becoming a doctor. He worked at a produce market, an insurance company, a trucking firm and in city government.

The war haunted him until the end. Even as he was dying of cancer five decades later, he lamented the loss of his comrades, the family said.

Family pride

But the family hardships proved a driving force for Fujioka’s two sons. Raised in Boyle Heights and then Montebello, Fred and William T Fujioka said they always aimed to restore their family legacy and become “great” like their grandfather.

Fred was always driven to excel, his mother said, waking up at 5 a.m. to practice piano and forgoing weekend ski trips to study.

A graduate of USC and UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law, he said he had wanted to be a lawyer since fourth grade -- and his family and community history were major reasons for that.

“If we had had more lawyers, judges and politicians, the internment never would have happened,” Fred Fujioka said. “It was a perfect storm of powerlessness.”

William T was more happy-go-lucky and returned from UC Santa Cruz with a sociology degree, long hair and holey jeans, his mother recalled.

But as he worked his way through top administrative jobs at healthcare facilities, the city of Los Angeles and now the county, he too has been propelled by his family history.

“My grandfather would tell me that our family lost a lot during the war and we needed to restore the Fujioka family name,” he said. “For me, it’s been a big motivation.”

When the family receives the honorary degree with William Fujioka’s name today, the honor will at last bring closure and completion.

“For us, this is very special,” William T Fujioka said. “I’m going to make a copy of the damn thing and bury it under my father’s headstone.”