By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
RAFU STAFF WRITER
FULLERTON.—The traditional walk taken by graduates of Fullerton College to their commencement ceremony is a fairly long one: from the center of campus, out to Lemon Avenue, north to the football stadium at Fullerton Union High School and around the field to their seats in front of the dais, it’s a good 10 to 15 minutes.
For two of those receiving degrees Thursday, the trip took 68 years.
Mitsuko Funakoshi and Stella Yano, both 87, received honorary Associate of Arts degrees nearly seven decades after being forced out of school in April 1942, after Executive Order 9066 required all residents of Japanese descent to relocate to internment camps.
Fullerton conferred four former students with honorary degrees, however, two others, Kay Yamamoto and Joe Nishimura, were unable to attend.
The belated honor comes to former students statewide as the result of the California Nisei Diploma Project, the implementation of AB 37, the State bill introduced last year by Assemblyman Warren Furutani and signed in November by Gov. Schwarzenegger. Furutani delivered the commencement address at Fullerton on Thursday.
Prior to the ceremony, Funakoshi and Yano seemed delighted to be fitted for their caps and gowns in the office of the college president. Neither woman had returned to finish college after the war, so this was indeed a new and long awaited experience.
“I feel like Rip Van Winkle waking up,” said Yano, who as Stella Asawa was just about a month from graduation when she was forced to withdraw from school. “This feels so good, I think maybe we should go back to school and finish up for real.”
Funakoshi, whose maiden name is Yasukochi, said her removal from class was a
thoroughly humiliating experience, even before she was forced out.
“Just before I left, I had a teacher who during class one day heard a plane passing by overhead and said to the whole class, ‘Look the Japs are coming.’ I was the only Japanese in the class I just wanted to crawl under the desk and hide,” Funakoshi recalled.
Having grown up near the school, Funakoshi said at the time, she was furious about being taken out of school a month before finishing, and wondered how any government could commit such a wrong against its own citizens. But she added that she let the anger go long ago.
“Our parents told us that it was shikata ga nai it couldn’t be helped,” she said. “I don’t hold a grudge.”
Dr. Ned Doffoney, chancellor of the North Orange County Community College District, said bestowing the degrees on the former students is a way to show honor and respect, albeit far too late.
“These people are part of our culture and history, and it’s never too late to do right and do well,” Doffoney said.
In his commencement speech, Furutani called the recognition for the former students a “dream deferred” and warned that the hysteria that followed an act of war still finds its way into our society and its laws.
“This is not only a chance to learn about an injustice, but an opportunity to avoid repeating it,” Furutani said. He drew a comparison to the recently enacted immigration law in Arizona, noting that E.O. 9066 was “a law aimed at people who looked different, who maybe spoke English with an accent, or who were barred from owning land.”
He invited the younger graduates to take time to speak with Funakoshi and Yano, advising, “When you look into their eyes, into the lines in their faces, you will understand that the dreams you have now are the same as the dreams they held so long ago.”
Due to frail health, the honorary degree for Kay Yamamoto was accepted by her nephew, Michael Matsuda, now the president of the Board of Trustees for the North OC Community College District.
“Seventy years ago, my aunt and the other students here had nothing to do with the horrific act of terrorism at Pearl Harbor,” he said, applauding the presence of Funakoshi and Yano. “The two women here were denied the opportunity to receive diplomas until today.”
Yano, who was accompanied to the Fullerton ceremony by her son, Richard, said she was offered the opportunity to leave the relocation center at Rohwer, Ark., in June 1943 and left immediately. She relocated to Cleveland and although she took a few college classes, never completed a degree. Now living in Norwalk, she spends much of her time volunteering at a local senior center.
Funakoshi settled in Oceanside after the war, and for 22 years worked for the Los Angeles City Controller before retiring. She and her husband of 66 years, Fred, are up at 4 a.m. every day to do some fishing at the pier near their home.
Both women said they are grateful for the gesture of the degrees, bit that it’s tempered by the fact that there were scores of other students for whom the honor is too late.
“There are so many of us who have passed away, so that’s sad,” Funakoshi said.
20-year-old Nataly Jeon, one of the current Fullerton graduates, hugged and chatted with Funakoshi and Yano following the commencement and said she was in awe of their positive spirit.
“I feel honored that they are here, taking part in this the same year that I am graduating,” said Jeon, who will continue her studies this fall at UC Berkeley. “They were stripped of their rights, so this is the least we can do, and having them here today makes this even more special.”