NISEI COLLEGE DIPLOMAS: Making Good on a 67-Year-Old Promise

The California Nisei College Diploma Project is sponsored by the California Civil Liberties Public Education Program in cooperation with Union Bank. Our job, our task, our responsibility is to assist colleges and universities in identifying their Nisei college diploma recipients, wherever they or their families may be.

I would like to thank Assemblymember Warren Furutani for his leadership in making AB 37 — which bestows honorary degrees to persons of Japanese descent, who were forced to leave their college studies and were incarcerated in American concentation camps during World War II — and the Nisei College Diploma Project, a reality. This bill was not without opposition, not without those who did not want to see this day a reality. But it was through his courage NOT to back down or water down this bill that we are here today.

From 2003 to 2005, the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California also assisted the State of California with Assembly Bill 781, the Nisei High School Diploma Project, where we were successful in helping more than 1,200 Nisei and/or their families receive their long-awaited high school diplomas.

My father, who was part of the first graduating class of the Tule Lake concentration camp, was one of them, at first reluctant and a little unsure. He felt that he had already graduated high school, of which he later went on to graduate from UC Berkeley. So why receive another diploma?

But through our urging and in particular his granddaughter — who would be graduating from high school that very same year — he came to realize that his high school graduation behind barbed wire was not a real graduation ceremony.

A real graduation ceremony is not just about academic achievement: it is about a new freedom, a new beginning, liberation, a score of endless dreams and possibilities.

His graduation was in a desert, behind barbed wire, shadowed by guard towers, watched by soldiers with guns, full of uncertainty, lacking of hope, of democracy, void of the constitutional rights owed to him as a citizen of the United States of America.

His Tule Lake graduation ceremony was not a graduation ceremony, but because of AB 781 he did finally have his day in 2005. More than 60 years after the end of the war.

The Nisei College Diploma Project’s job is to ensure that every Nisei college student of 1942 gets their promised diploma.

It is not just about an honorary degree, it’s about real history, real stories, tragic and triumphant. It’s about teaching a new generation about their own history. It’s about making good on a promise 67 years old.

Paul Osaki is the executive director of the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California

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