By SUSIE LING
When Dorothy Fukutaki Potter was handed the roster of students who attended Pasadena Junior College (now Pasadena City College) in 1942, the first name she looked for — and found — was that of her father, Edgar Fukutaki. Fukutaki Potter has been a librarian at Pasadena City College for 14 years and she is also an alumni. Her father attended the same campus but he didn’t quite complete his PJC career. A few months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which resulted in the uprooting of Japanese Americans like Edgar. Edgar and his family were confined in a concentration camp in Gila River, Ariz. His family lost their Meiji Hand Laundry in West Pasadena.
Edgar returned to Pasadena after World War II and worked at Eaton’s Restaurant in Arcadia before he was drafted. This June, Edgar is receiving his honorary degree from PCC thanks to AB 37. Dorothy will be beaming and applauding both as a faculty member and as a daughter.
On the 1942 PJC roster, Dorothy found 137 names of students of Japanese descent who were incarcerated. Assemblymember Warren Furutani authored AB 37 which was signed into state law in October of 2009. AB 37 allows colleges and universities to confer honorary degrees to Japanese Americans who were forcibly removed from their homes during World War II due to their ancestry. Juan Gutierrez, PCC’s public relations coordinator said, “We are doing many things to find our alumni. We want them to register on our website at www.pasadena.edu/pccnisei/. We are planning their graduation this June — 68 years late.”
For many faculty and staff at PCC, AB 37 project is very meaningful. Professor Dennis Lee who teaches Asian American studies and U.S. history at PCC said, “In 1942, our nation over-reacted and a combination of racism and paranoia caused the unjust incarceration of 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry.” He continues, “AB 37, or the Nisei College Diploma Project, not only allows us to correct a past mistake but it is a teaching moment. We hope to encourage our younger students to learn compassion as well as history. As part of this continuing education, we will be sending two buses of students on the Manzanar Pilgrimage.”
Dr. Lisa Sugimoto, born and raised in Pasadena, was a student at PCC and is the current superintendent/president. She said, “Some PJC alumni extol the superintendent of 1942. Superintendent John Harbeson had an all-campus assembly and reminded everyone that Japanese Americans had no part in the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He asked everyone to remember this.”
Former PJC student, Rose Shoda Nishio, remembered, “I was proud that someone was willing to stand up and support us. Nobody at PJC harassed us Japanese Americans, but many did avoid us.”
Nishio’s family owned a flower shop on Colorado Boulevard before being incarcerated in Rohwer, Arkansas. Dorothy Potter said, “My father was but weeks away from graduation when he was uprooted. Thanks to Harbeson, Dad did get his PJC diploma while in camp. But he and other Nisei students did not have the opportunity to march in the graduation ceremony. They never got to experience this rite of passage. Graduation is a time of celebration for all graduates and their family and friends. Every year, it is also a special time for everyone who works here at PCC.”
Paul Tsuneishi was a Monrovia-Arcadia-Duarte (MAD) High School graduate of 1940. “There weren’t that many Japanese in our area. My parents had nine kids and ran a fruit stand on Route 66. I went along with my White friends to attend PJC but I didn’t think there would be much future for me.” He remembered that in 1942, the superintendent asked to meet with each Japanese American student, but Tsuneishi said, “I never went to that meeting. I never showed up. I was not interested.”
Tsuneishi and his family were incarcerated in Heart Mountain, Wyoming. Four of the Tsuneishi boys served in World War II and two of their sisters were in civil service for MacArthur’s Army.
Dr. John Harbeson and a Pasadena Quaker group, Friends of the American Way, helped the first Japanese American return to the West Coast. Nineteen-year-old Esther Takei was carefully selected to be the secret test case. She arrived at the Pasadena train station from a camp in Colorado in September 1944. She was met by her hosts and a group of students from the PJC Student Christian Association. She was supposed to quietly enroll at PJC for a couple of weeks before an announcement was made how effortlessly Japanese Americans were returning to California.
Unfortunately, the plan didn’t work and news of Esther’s presence in Pasadena immediately flooded the Pasadena and Los Angeles newspapers. Esther’s days at PJC were met by protestors led by the “Ban the Japs” Committee, Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West, Daughters of the American Revolution, and American Legion. Dr. Harbeson received threatening calls and a bomb threat. Esther admits that there was a “little old lady from Pasadena” who spit on her, hit her, and called her a “dirty Jap” at the bus stop.
Despite this setback, more Japanese Americans returned to California in 1944, 1945, and 1946. Dorothy Potter reports, “When you look at the student roster for our 1945-46 school year, you see the names of many, many Japanese Americans. They came home and they came to PCC to get their education.” Esther along with Paul, Rose and Edgar are expected to be attending PCC’s June graduation ceremonies along with 900 current PCC students. Professors Dennis Lee and Dorothy Potter along with Superintendent/President Lisa Sugimoto will be in attendance to honor them.