Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | Japanese Americans sent to internment camps while at University of California finally get diplomas
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Japanese Americans sent to internment camps while at University of California finally get diplomas

Photograph of Yoshiaki Noguchi when he was on the Polytechnic High School 1940 track team, courtesy of the Noguchi family.This past summer, the University of California announced it would award diplomas to Japanese Americans who had been students at one of the school’s four campuses at the time, but had their education disrupted by World War II and the internment of Japanese Americans on the West Coast.

About 700 students of Japanese ancestry were enrolled at the University of California at the time of internment, when they and their families were uprooted and sent to concentration camps scattered within barren parts of the American interior. Some graduated that year, in 1942, with the aid of sympathetic faculty and administrators. Some returned to graduate after the War. And some eventually obtained degrees at other universities.

But many never completed their educations.

So the Cal system did the right thing and decided to award these students honorary diplomas. Out of the 700, about 400 are set to receive honorary degrees this winter and next spring. The Associated Press sent out a perfunctory, four-paragraph news article about the diplomas over its wire service, which no doubt many news outlets picked up and published. But the real story that needs to be shared is the human one, and some news outlets have been tracking down former students and capturing their quotes. I was particularly moved by one story where the student is no longer able to give a quote.

At UC-Berkeley last weekend, 42 former students received their degrees, and the event was captured in an eloquent and moving article, “Emotional day as UC-Berkeley awards honorary degrees to former internees,” written by Sharon Noguchi, a reporter at the San Jose Mercury News. Her story does what few newspaper journalists can accomplish: It balances accurate, unbiased reporting with a poignant personal narrative.

It turns out that her father, Yoshiaki Noguchi (photo at top as a track athlete at Polytechnic High School in 1940, courtesy of the Noguchi family), was one of those students who never got to graduate from UC-Berkeley. His degree was accepted by her mother, because he passed away more than 20 years ago, without even hearing the U.S. government’s official apology for internment which was passed by Congress in 1988.

There was no giddy “wave” in the stands, no exuberant hat-throwing or silly beachball-tossing.

Laced in leis of blue-and-gold origami cranes, 42 former University of California-Berkeley students whose education was disrupted by World War II internment were awarded honorary degrees on Sunday. Relatives represented 78 more students who had died or were too infirm to attend.

If my father were alive, he, too, would have sat onstage at Haas Pavilion in cap and gown, shaken the hand of Chancellor Robert Birgeneau and heard Norman Mineta, former congressman and U.S. transportation secretary, speak. But Dad died in 1986 at age 63.

Noguchi deftly moves from Sunday’s ceremony to her father’s story, giving readers a look at the strength of his character:

Although my dad deferred his dream, he never mentioned the could-haves or should-haves. An engineer by training and nature, he focused on making things work, transforming the bad into good, the good into better.

He never let me or my brother and sister know how disappointed he must have felt being denied the chance to finish college with his friends.

When the war started, the freshman’s plans were put on hold, almost permanently.

But within a year of my dad starting at Cal, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, forcing Japanese off the West Coast. So instead of studying physics and watching Bears football, Dad ended up at a desolate internment camp in Poston, Ariz.

There he worked as the camp’s postmaster, and in the evening, he and two friends ran a college-prep class for high school students. “It was easy to fool around in camp and forget about going to college,” said his friend Tak Shirasawa, of Berkeley, who took the class. “Maybe they wanted to give us a head start or keep us out of trouble.”

As the U.S. government worried more about a labor shortage and less about potential Japanese-American subterfuge, it allowed people with sponsors to leave camp. Dad went to Chicago to work in a machine shop. He lost his thumb in a dreadful accident that made him ineligible for military service.

After the war, the Noguchi family returned to San Francisco, and Dad eventually re-enrolled at Cal. But then his mother suffered a stroke. He again had to leave school, this time to support his family.

He ended up working at an auto dealership, and then at a flower market. But he eventually found work in his chosen profession even without a degree, working in the nascent technology sector in the Bay Area, starting at Sylvania during the vacuum-tube days and ending at Apple working on disk drives. It’s a great story, and one punctuated by two powerful points:

Sharon Noguchi, who admits she was “indifferent to the sacrifice that enabled me to take my education for granted,” skipped her own graduation from Cal.

And, the Sunday diploma ceremony marked her late father’s birthday. It was a touching, albeit belated, birthday present.

Don’t let my description and quoted passages keep you from clicking to Noguchi’s article. It’s worth reading. Send her an email with your feedback. Journalists too often hear from readers only when there’s a controversy, a mistake, a strong disagreement. They rarely receive notes of support and commendation. I think she deserves kudos.

I’m glad Noguchi’s editors allowed her to write her story and cover the former internees’ “graduation.” The story was made much more powerful because it was infused with her father’s spirit.