By NAO GUNJI and JORDAN IKEDA
Rafu Staff Writers
DAVIS.—“Feeling great, feeling young,” Yoshio John Kashiki stated, looking a bit overwhelmed as a herd of reporters and photographers surrounded him. “I’m just here because my family wanted me to come, otherwise I’d be home,” the 90-year-old 442nd Regimental Combat Team veteran said with a mischievous smile.
Kashiki was one of 47 Japanese Americans who received honorary degrees from UC Davis during its 2009 fall commencement held at the ARC Pavilion on Saturday. He was also one of only three Nisei students who made it to the event to personally accept his degree more than six decades later.
Last July, the UC Regents voted to suspend the university system’s 37-year moratorium on honorary degrees to acknowledge more than 700 former Japanese American internees whose educations were interrupted in 1942 due to Executive Order 9066. UC San Francisco honored over 60 Nisei students earlier this month while 45 students received their degrees from UC Berkeley on Sunday.
Kashiki, along with Ben Mitsuo Hatanaka, 87, Harold Haruya Takahashi, 87, and a group of family members and friends representing 10 former students sat before the 328 graduates of Davis’ fall 2009 graduating class.
“UC Davis is proud to take part in this important effort, and we are honored to have the former students and their families here today,” UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi said during her introduction of the honorees.
Katehi went on to explain the significance of what the Japanese Americans went through, their perseverance and struggle, the injustice the American government wrought on its own citizens, to a whole generation over half a century removed from internment. The Chancellor’s message filled the entire Pavilion with applause.
Katehi and College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Dean Neal Van Alfen then walked over to the 13 recipients as their names were read off and personally handed out each degree.
“I feel honored to finally be getting my degree,” said Hatanaka, a Purple Heart recipient. “I never thought of it as an accomplishment, but I guess it is, yes. I feel honored that my family is here.”
“I didn’t know it was going to be this big of a celebration. Otherwise, I would have dressed up a little better,” said Takahashi, whose daughter, Susan is a staff member at UC Davis and brother, Milton also received the honorary degree.
Takahashi, of Rocklin, Calif., left Tule Lake on an educational leave after being admitted to the University of Wisconsin to study agriculture.
Frank Inami received the degree on behalf of his longtime friend, George Fukui. Inami and Fukui met in 1939 at UC Berkeley where they both started their college educations. Fukui, who now lives in Dallas, Texas, was transferred to Davis, but they’ve kept in contact over the years.
“He was a good student, very honest and studied hard,” Inami said.
Although Fukui scheduled a trip to Northern California to receive his degree, he was too ill from the chemotherapy he is currently undergoing for gallbladder cancer. He asked his friend to attend for him. Inami himself was accepting his own honorary degree from Berkeley on the day after the Davis commencement.
“It’s kind of like a dream,” Inami told The Rafu Shimpo.
With his cell phone in his pocket, Inami, a former Jerome internee, said he planned to call his friend after the ceremony to deliver the excitement of the day’s proceedings.
It was both a joyful and bittersweet occasion.
Saturday, feelings of accomplishment were splashed with tears while long suppressed memories flooded present emotion. Some of the students were honored posthumously and others, like Fukui, could not travel to Davis.
“One of the difficulties of waiting 67 years is that many of the recipients are quite senior in age,” said Judy Sakaki, UC vice president for student affairs and former UC Davis vice chancellor for student affairs, who co-chaired the task force that supported the effort to award the degrees.
Bryan Eya was there for his father, Keiso James Eya, who in turn remained home to be there for his ailing wife. “I’m sorry that he wasn’t able to make it,” Eya said of his father. “I think he would have enjoyed coming here to do this. He was in tears when he heard.”
“My husband is so proud… so happy. He wanted to come,” said Mary Kusuda who was momentarily overcome with emotion. An Orange County resident, she made the trip up north with her sons to represent her husband, Mitsugi, who is bed-ridden from Alzheimer’s disease.
Setsuko Matsuhiro was there for Keiji, her late husband of 50 years and 10 days. She was joined by a dozen family members who came out to support her. “He was looking forward to college,” she said. “But he couldn’t afford to go back after the war. So, he didn’t go back.”
Henry Marubashi, Jr. attended the commencement with his mother, sister and a framed picture of his late father, Henry Sr. The Sansei revealed that his father never talked about his college days.
“Might have been too painful or because there was nothing you could do about it…” he said. “He had only three months to finish his 4-year degree.”
With tears filling his eyes, Marubashi held the picture tightly.
“You did it, Dad.”