By JORDAN IKEDA
Rafu Staff Writer
COMPTON, Calif.—Distance certainly wasn’t a factor for the Nisei and their families who returned to Compton Community College on Saturday. Many traveled from all over the country to take part in a special graduation ceremony and receive honorary degrees long overdue.
“We were here on vacation about two weeks ago,” said Joe Haruto Hamada who hails from Ohio. “Got home on Friday, and on Sunday, Mr. Michael Odanaka finally found me. So, we just packed up a few things, and rushed back out.”
That’s nearly 6,000 miles and eight days of driving in less than two weeks, just so Hamada didn’t miss the graduation.
Actions like these speak far louder than words in describing the emotion and magnitude generated from Saturday’s ceremony, a direct result of the California Nisei College Diploma Project, which aims to award honorary college degrees to all Japanese Americans—living or deceased—whose postsecondary studies were derailed during World War II.
“It’s very emotional, very emotional,” Toshiko Yamauchi Tomooka said. “It’s wonderful for Compton College to do something for us.
According to Compton CC professor Michael Odanaka, who spearheaded putting the graduation together, 78 Nisei were identified as qualifying for honorary degrees. On Saturday, 43 of them claimed their diplomas in person while the relatives of a few others accepted on behalf of their kin, making Compton CC’s ceremony one of the biggest Nisei graduations to date.
“They have come from all over the country,” said Dr. Lawrence M. Cox, chief executive officer of Compton Community College District. “That just goes to show how much they care about Compton. It gives me great pride.”
The hundreds of others that attended the event, from family to friends to the graduates themselves, seemed to share that same sentiment, smiling, laughing, hugging, even shedding a few tears of joy.
Of course, all spent time reflecting.
“All we do is reminisce you know,” said Phyllis Matsushita Takekawa, who came from Minnesota to attend the graduation. “Even after all of these years, people seem to remember really well. And we’ve been separated for so long! I think we need something like this once in a while to renew old friendships.”
Takekawa reconnected with Hamada, Tomooka and several of their other friends who all happened to begin their education together in first grade back in 1930. The others include: Sachiko Takusagawa Minami, Bob Sugasawara, Margaret Matsushita Yoshida, Yukiye Sasaki Suzuki, and Hideko Tateoka Yamaguchi.
As part of the Compton JC library exhibit on display until Dec. 18, a single, black and white photo of the seven friends and their elementary school class connected six centuries worth of their collective lifetime experiences.
Sugasawara likened what he was feeling Saturday to an old Japanese fable, “Urashima Tarō.” The story tells the tale of a fisherman who rescues a turtle, is rewarded with a visit to the palace of the Dragon God, and then returns after three days to discover that 300 years have passed, and that everything is changed, and that he is an old, graying man.
“I don’t know what to say,” Sugasawara said. “I haven’t had this particular chance in 70 years. I’m meeting all my classmates, but I can’t recognize them, only the names.”
While physical appearances certainly have changed, a mere 80 years later, the memories remain just as vibrant.
“It’s been wonderful,” said Yamaguchi who came down from Fresno. “We had a get-together last night. No tears shed, just lots of hugging and smiles.”
Yoshida, who flew in from New Jersey, explained the group’s progression through education. How they began together at McKinley Elementary School, moved on to Enterprise Jr. High, then up to Compton High, before the war scattered them across the United States.
Yoshida spent four years in Manzanar. Yamaguchi at Gila River and Tule Lake. Hamada’s family voluntarily moved to Colorado where they came to own a farm. Takekawa found herself in Minnesota. Only Sugasawara and Minami returned to Southern California after the war.
Saturday, they reconvened together, the first time they had returned to the college in nearly 68 years.
Assemblyman Warren T. Furutani (D-Gardena), who sponsored a bill that helped launch the California Nisei Diploma Project last year and was the keynote speaker Saturday, was certain that
“It’s a teaching moment,” said Furutani about the honorary degree ceremonies. “It’s not about nostalgia. It’s not about walking down memory lane. It’s an opportunity to teach people about a very important period in American history.”
The school has in fact spent the entire month educating its faculty and student body on World War II, Japanese American incarceration, and Executive Order 9066.
In addition to the library exhibit that features books, photos, yearbooks, memorabilia and articles from 1941-42, earlier this month the college showcased the film “Rabbit in the Moon” by Emiko Omori and featured a lecture by Alan Nishio, both bringing to life the struggles JAs endured during WWII. Next month, oral presentations from the college’s speech courses will be given on the internment and war.
But nothing compares to firsthand knowledge and experience. And thanks to the 43 who attended Saturday, Compton JC’s Nisei honorary degree ceremony was overflowing with both.
“I’m glad that I did come, and I got to see all of my old friends,” said Minami. “It’s truly a memorable occasion.”