Wartime Sacramento Jr. College students return for commencement

A DREAM DEFERRED HAS NOW BEEN ACHIEVED– The Sacramento City College Class of 2010 joined the Nisei and their next of kin in a commencement ceremony at Hughes Stadium. Beach) (R), who spoke at the reception, was also the keynote speaker for the commencement. photos by Sandy Muraki and courtesy of Sacramento City College

SACRAMENTO — After almost 70 years of waiting, former Sacramento Junior College students and their next of kin completed some unfinished business at Sacramento City College.

Representing the 224 Nisei that once attended, 12 of the former students and 35 of their next of kin were present to receive their honorary diplomas in accordance with AB 37 at the school’s 90th commencement ceremony.

In 1942, more than 2,500 students joined some 120,000 persons of Japanese descent in their imprisonment due to Executive Order 9066, which incarcerated any person who was more than one-16th Japanese living on the West Coast.

Assemblyman Warren Furutani (D-Long Beach) introduced AB-37, authorizing postsecondary educational institutions to issue honorary degrees to those students that were unable to finish their schooling because of their wartime incarceration. The bill, passed unanimously with no abstentions in both the State Assembly and Senate, calls upon the California Community Colleges, California State University and University of California systems to comply.

Furutani was inspired to draft the bill when several high schools gave honorary degrees to their former students. He recalled from one of the ceremonies that one of the recipients remarked, “I could have used this 40 years ago.” Since then, he realized he had to take care of some “unfinished business” for those wronged by EO 9066.

“All we were given was a number,” said Keith Muraki, a counselor at Sacramento City College, who, along with Kim Goff, the admissions services supervisor, spearheaded the project to locate and contact 224 former Sacramento Junior College students. The school only gave Muraki and Goff, who also worked with Corine Stofle, the public information technician, the estimated number of students that attended.

“Kim Goff populated most of the list,” said Muraki. “We even found at least another 15 more students who were never listed, but we checked back. And sure enough, there they were.”

Most of the former students or their families were still around in Northern California. Through exhaustive efforts by volunteers to leave no stone unturned, a community effort revealed that everyone was two or three phone calls away.

The reception for the honorees became what college president Dr. Katheryn Jeffery could only describe as “beautiful.” The committee to honor the graduates created a special reception in the Student Center on campus, with food supplied by Oto’s Marketplace. “When we were planning this, I heard we could use the university catering, but they said ‘No, we want it done right.’”

The reception featured several speakers, including representatives from Congresswoman Doris Matsui and U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer’s offices. Matsui’s aide addressed the house to congratulate the former students, and Boxer printed personalized letters to each graduate.

Perhaps the biggest presence of the night, though, was Furutani, who spoke at the reception and was the keynote speaker for the commencement.

Furutani’s fervent speech stressed that this event was not only to award those Nisei their just dues, but also to remind people of what happened and to have a new generation of Americans learn from it. He evoked imagery of apartheid South Africa and Nazi Germany in his speeches, citing not only Arizona’s recently-passed immigration law, but also that state’s abolishment of ethnic studies and Texas’ elimination of the Japanese American experience from schools as the latest example of such injustices.

Later that evening, the Sacramento City College Class of 2010 joined the Nisei and their next of kin in a commencement ceremony at Hughes Stadium, the school’s football stadium. While it was cold and windy outside, a light sun shower fell just before the beginning of the ceremony, but ended just as friends and family of the graduates gathered in the stadium stands.

The graduates walked out onto the field with all the traditional fanfare of a graduation ceremony. “Pomp and Circumstance” played, and the graduates strode in one by one to take their seats. Some held on to their caps due to the wind as those in the stands applauded them.

Many of those receiving their degrees that day had led a life of resilience, as Furutani had said.

One graduate, Susumu Nakazato, lived a full and interesting life. He attended school until he was told to leave for internment on that fateful month of May 1942. Nakazato, 87, was one month away from obtaining his associate’s degree in chemistry from the college.

He was offered a compromise from the school’s dean; he would take a grade point lower than what he had and be allowed to receive his degree. A straight-A student, Nakazato agreed to the deal and left for Tule Lake. While he could not attend commencement, his degree eventually guided him to an M.A. in chemical engineering and a career as a nuclear scientist.

Ardene Yasuko Kitazumi, 90, never returned to school. While she chose not to walk with the others in the commencement, she smiled as she received her honorary degree. “That’s my name,” she said as she pointed to the plaque that was presented to her after the reception. Her daughter sat by her, nodding in agreement.

Kiyo Sato, a nurse and also a celebrated author, expressed thoughts similar to those of Furutani in regard to her diploma. “The degree doesn’t mean much to me. I’m 87. What am I going to do with it?” she said with a laugh. “But I have all my family members and friends — they will learn from this too.”

Also present at the reception was Mas Hongo, 90, a native of Hawai’i. He and 60 others from the islands had come to Sacramento to study when they were told to relocate to the concentration camps.

Hongo left school, but was given a crash course in medicine so that he could operate the medical lab at Tule Lake. He was then moved to the Topaz (Central Utah) camp, where he was asked to set up a surgical unit and be an ambulance driver. He eventually got his degree at UC Berkeley in 1950 and started an orchid plantation.

Still others never made it to their graduation ceremony at Sacramento City College. Muraki, in addition to being one of the organizers for the event, received one of the honorary degrees in the place of his father, Tom Muraki.

The elder Muraki was born and raised in the Sacramento area. He studied business before getting shipped off to Tule Lake. He moved east to get out of the camp, toward Idaho to farm sugar beets. He eventually joined the army and was placed into the Military Intelligence Service, where he worked in the Philippines and occupied Japan.

He eventually received his degree in business from UC Berkeley under the GI Bill, and resettled in Sacramento with his wife and three sons. He studied law by night and attempted a private practice, but eventually settled in to work for the state’s Franchise Tax Board for 35 years.

His son described him as a humble man and a great father — “a stand-up kind of guy.” He passed away two years ago.

Muraki expressed regret over not being able to honor the former students sooner. “If we had done this 10 years, or at least five years ago, a lot more of them would have still been alive.”

Muraki felt touched by the experience. “I was so busy making sure the reception went perfectly, I didn’t feel it until I started walking in that stadium with the gauntlet of faculty and students cheering us on.” He walked up surrounded by his friends and family and accepted his father’s degree, bringing to a close some unfinished business.

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