Seven Decades Late, Japanese Americans to Get their College Diplomas

FULFILLING A PROMISE — Kimiko “Kimi” Yamaguma (at microphone) and Edith Tanita (seated), who were robbed of their education due to their wartime incarceration. At left is California state Assemblymember Warren Furutani (D-Long Beach), who authored legislation to grant honorary diplomas to the Nisei. photo by Kenji G. Taguma/Nichi Bei Weekly

Prominent members of the Nikkei community gathered in San Francisco’s Japantown on Nov. 12 to address “unfinished business” and announce a statewide project to confer honorary degrees to former students of Japanese descent who were forced out of college campuses nearly seven decades ago.

Run by the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California, the California Nisei College Diploma Project will provide community outreach and education with regard to Assemblymember Warren Furutani’s (D-Long Beach) Assembly Bill 37, which became law on Oct. 11. The bill requires trustees of California State University and the Board of Governors of the California Community Colleges (CCC) and requests that the Regents of University of California retroactively confer an honorary degree to any student of Japanese descent who was forcibly removed and subsequently incarcerated during World War II.

Furutani’s chief of staff, Dean Grafilo, said that a technicality with UC’s governance structure ensures its autonomy over its policies, thereby preventing legislation from dictating its actions. UC is, however, “in synch” with the spirit of the bill, Grafilo added, referring to the University of California Board of Regents’ announcement on July 16 to confer honorary degrees to some 700 students of Japanese descent who had been imprisoned as a result of Executive Order 9066. Some 250 are estimated to have enrolled at six California State University campuses.

A statement issued by the project estimates that there are more than 2,500 students (and their families) who may be affected by Furutani’s legislation.

Furutani emphasized the need to recognize the former students and address their unfinished business.

The project, which will help “fulfill a promise,” will work with families in navigating the process of receiving an honorary degree, said Paul Osaki, executive director of the JCCCNC.

Past Legislation

Furutani had spent years advocating for the rights of former students who had been incarcerated, prior to introducing his legislation to extend honorary degrees to students whose education in California’s public institutions were disrupted by their forced relocation.

In 2003, Gov. Gray Davis signed a law sponsored by then-Assemblymember Sally J. Lieber (D-Mountain View) that authorized a high school district, unified school district or county office of education to retroactively grant a high school diploma to “a person who was interned during World War II.”

The California Nisei High School Diploma Project was established to help implement Lieber’s bill.

One of the ways that Lieber’s bill was implemented in Southern California was through the Japanese American Internment Diploma Resolution. Furutani helped craft the resolution as a member of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board in 2004. The resolution retroactively granted high school diplomas to anyone who was enrolled in an LAUSD high school “immediately preceding his or her internment and did not graduate as a result,” a statement issued by his office said.

Obstacles of ‘Finances and Circumstances’

CBS 5 news anchor Wendy Tokuda, University of California Vice President of Student Affairs Judy K. Sakaki, Assemblymember Mary Hayashi (D-Hayward) and California State University, Sacramento vice president, Carole Hayashino — an advisory board member of the California Civil Liberties Public Education Program (CCLPEP) — gave official remarks as part of the Nov. 12 program held at the JCCCNC. The project is funded by the CCLPEP in cooperation with Union Bank.

Kimiko “Kimi” Yamaguma and Edith Tanita shared their experiences as former students and incarcerates.

Yamaguma previously lived on Post and Octavia streets in San Francisco’s Japantown. While enrolled in the California Community College of San Francisco, she was forcibly removed from her home, and sent to the Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, Calif., and then to the Topaz (Central Utah) concentration camp.

After being released from camp, Yamaguma was able to return to San Francisco.

“Finances and family circumstances” prevented her from completing her college education. That did not, however, stop her from thinking about her studies.

“All my life, I’d been thinking about college. I was an A student,” Yamaguma said.

Several months ago, Yamaguma contacted the City College, to inquire as to whether she could receive an honorary degree. After communicating with various officials, the Nikkei, at the age of 85, received her honorary degree earlier this year at the City College’s graduation ceremony.

According to the project, individuals — who were living in California, and were enrolled in CSU, CCC or UC campuses during 1942-1945 or their family members — can receive retroactive honorary degrees.

Once one’s application is received, the project or the institution will request a diploma from the college the applicant indicated.

The college or university will notify applicants of the status of their request.

The school systems are expected to hold ceremonies during the next few months, in which former students will be honored.

Osaki underscored the urgency with which the project must be carried out, in order to honor the former students before it is too late. These efforts, he said, are not only about “stories tragic and triumphant” but also about teaching new generations about their history.

For more information about the California Nisei College Diploma Project, contact the JCCCNC at (415) 567-5505 or caniseiproject@jcccnc.org. Application forms will be made available at selected Union Bank branches and community organizations throughout California.

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