By JORDAN IKEDA
RAFU STAFF WRITER
SAN DIEGO.—The first of six special commencement ceremonies throughout the California State University system took place at San Diego State University Monday afternoon, bestowing honorary degrees to former students whose educations were put on hold, some permanently, due to the passing of Executive Order 9066 during World War II.
“We honor these individuals in recognition of their determination and courage,” said SDSU President Stephen L. Weber. “Each overcame significant challenges to lead exemplary and inspiring lives.”
The story is not a new one. It is in fact, nearly 70 years old. But what the Issei and Nisei generations persevered through all those years ago continues to resonate today. Unfortunately, 70 years has a way of taking its toll, and only two of 43 former SDSU students, Reverend Carl Yoshimine and June Junko Kushino, were able to physically attend the ceremony.
“I’m amazed,” said Kushino who also accepted degrees on behalf of her cousins Kenji Kushino (deceased) and Helen Kushino. “It’s a really wonderful thing they are doing for us. I’m grateful. Aside from coming here, just the thought that they thought about it, means a lot to me. It’s the thought.”
“I was hoping to see a lot of familiar faces,” Kushino added. “Some are already gone, and everyone has changed. I know I have.”
Some have not been gone for long. Former SDSU student Ryo Morikawa Tsai passed away three months ago. Former Aztec Viola Takeda last month. In their stead, siblings Bilin Tsai, BiHoa Caldwell and Peter Tsai came to honor their mother, while Barabara Mukai with her son Kyle Mukai and her aunt Sophia Takeda, traveled on a week’s notice, to honor her mother.
“My mom wanted me to understand this experience,” said fifth grader Kyle when asked why he attended the ceremony.
The families of three others came to San Diego to accept the honorary degrees on behalf of their parents. Curtis Sato honored his deceased father and mother, Jyuichi and Mariko Sato. Barbara Robinson, her deceased father Aiji Esaki. And Bruce Asakawa represented his mother Grace Umezawa Nixon, who was unable to attend the event herself.
Others came simply to learn. Several members of the SDSU Nikkei Student Union were present as was an entire SDSU Japanese language class.
“It’s a great honor for our mother,” said Bilin Tsai. “Through her life, she was very committed to justice…Through my mother and dad’s experience, I’d like to think that their commitment got translated down to my generation, as well as the next generation.”
Monday, there were plenty of tears shed, several bittersweet smiles adorning faces, and a bounty of memories shared. But the lasting, most enduring element was this idea of passing down, of educating.
“There’s a lot of people who don’t know about their roots,” said Kelly Ogawa, a member of the SDSU Nikkei Student Union. “The first step is to educate them about their roots and then take action.”
The event’s keynote speaker, Bob Suzuki, former president of California State Polytechnic University and former Minidoka internee, spoke about educating all Americans on “not taking democracy for granted” but instead “taking responsibility and having a stake in preserving American freedoms and liberties for all groups in society regardless of race, religion and nationality.”
And as time passes, those who were wronged, while never forgetting, have learned to let go.
“We need to move on,” Yoshimine said. “We are all one in thought, able to put things behind us and continue moving in the right direction. To share our life together as individuals. Not a race of people, but individuals. Respecting each other from where we came from and where we are going.”
“Even though I didn’t finish college here, working for the National Council of Churches was an education,” said Kushino about her life after incarceration. And then, tears forming in her eyes, with a trembling voice she added, “I’ve had a good life.”