This story originally ran in our 2014 Graduation Issue. To purchase a copy of the issue, which includes a list of this year’s Nikkei high school and college graduates, please stop by our office or call us at 213-629-2231.
By GWEN MURANAKA
Rafu English Editor-in-Chief
FRESNO — Over 70 years later, one thing hasn’t changed at Washington Union High School.
“Hot weather … That’s why I never came back,” mused Sadako Mukai Sogioka (Class of 1942).
While the temperature hovered in the mid-90s, spirits were high for the Nisei graduation at Washington Union, a rural high school in Easton at the southwest border of Fresno in the Central Valley. For one night, the school welcomed back its Japanese American graduates from the 1940s who were unable to receive their diplomas in the fear and hysteria that led to their forced removal from the West Coast and incarceration during World War II.
Sogioka, an active member of the East San Gabriel Valley Japanese Community Center and a volunteer at the Japanese American National Museum, was one of four Nisei in attendance for the ceremony on June 6. Of 50 former students, 30 diplomas were given to graduates or their families.
Interned in the Jerome War Relocation Center in Arkansas, Sogioka moved in 1947 to Los Angeles, where she raised two daughters and worked for 30 years at Pacific Telephone.
“My brother drove me here. He was the Class of 1945. We feel like movie stars,” Sogioka said.
Akio (Aki) Mukai, Sogioka’s brother, joked and smiled as family members took photos.
“Maybe I can go get a job now! I got a diploma I can show ’em,” Mukai said.
After the war, Mukai settled in Selma, where he retired six years ago as a farmer. A member of the Class of 1945, Mukai stayed at Washington Union less than a year before war broke out. By May 1945, he and his family were in Arkansas.
“We took a three-night cattle train ride to Arkansas. Jerome was first camp to close, then went to Rohwer,” Mukai recalled.
Hisaye Kanegawa Shiba (Class of 1942) traveled from her home in South Pasadena to attend the ceremony after seeing her name in an article about the upcoming ceremony in The Rafu Shimpo.
“It’s a big surprise that I never expected to happen. It’s been 72 years,” said Shiba, who turns 90 in September.
“I remember the school as different. The school was all ivy; in the springtime it used to be green. But now this is all new. Everything has changed.”
Principal Derek Cruz noted that the Class of 2014 appreciated that they would be sharing their moment with the Nisei graduates. Local Japanese American community leaders Sab and Marion Masada gave special lectures to the seniors on the Japanese American incarceration.
“Because of that their understanding is much deeper. So they’re excited to see the Nisei here and to share the experience with them,” Cruz said.
In some ways, the school is not so different now than in the ’40s. Back then, Japanese Americans comprised 11.4 percent of the Washington Union student body. While there are no Nikkei at the high school today, the school has many Asians, including Hmong Americans.
David Sasaki (Class of 1969) said the diverse student body is one of the school’s greatest strengths.
“It was a good environment to grow up in. No one was rich. It is a poor farming school, so we all had the same dynamics and it was the diversity that was a real advantage,” Sasaki said.
The Sansei was at the graduation to represent his mother, Hinako Yamagiwa Sasaki (Class of 1942), who passed away in 2005.
“She talked very little about the camp, so I know very little about it, but I do know she would have loved to be at her graduation,” he said.
Sasaki recalled the only way he could get out of farm chores was when he had homework.
“We didn’t have to go out and work on the farm after school if we had homework,” said Sasaki. “So I was one of those kids who always hoped the teacher would assign homework.”
A professional musician and teacher in Los Angeles, Sasaki relocated his family back to Fresno after his mom fell ill. Hinako was gifted in crocheting and was known for her homemade umeboshi and lemon meringue pie.
“The internment was meaningful to us because of what happened to the families. This makes something that was wrong — it makes it somewhat a little more right,” said Sasaki.
The graduates in purple and white caps and gowns were driven to the center of Washington Union’s new football stadium for the commencement to the sounds of music from “Frozen,” performed by the school’s band.
Hunter Arakawa (Class of 1958) read the names of the graduates and their photos were displayed on a large video screen. Principal Cruz presented diplomas and shook the hands of the graduates to the cheers of families gathered in the stadium. All of the Nisei graduates also received a medal engraved with the school’s name.
Jean Yamamoto (Class of 1973) spearheaded the project to honor the Nisei at Washington Union, which she compared to a big family.
“We’re honoring the 50 Nisei who went to Washington Union in 1942, but really we’re honoring a whole generation of Nisei all over the state of California who went through the same thing,” she said. “They had to leave their homes, their schools. These Nisei in high school had hopes and dreams just like all of these kids here. Their dreams and hopes took a detour, and I really give them a lot of credit for persevering.”