Decades Later, Japanese-American Students Graduate

July 29, 2008 at 6:35 PM EDT
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More than 60 years since they were forced to leave their university during World War II, Japanese-Americans have received their honorary diplomas and an official apology from Oregon State University. Lee Hochberg reports on their long-awaited graduation.

JIM LEHRER: Next, an apology and belated degrees. They’re for Japanese-Americans who were forced out of their university during World War II.

NewsHour correspondent Lee Hochberg of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports.

LEE HOCHBERG, NewsHour Correspondent: It was a day more than six decades in coming on the campus of Oregon State University, as 4,500 young men and women ready to receive their diplomas, 23 much older Japanese-American former students were finally about to receive theirs.

Sixty-six years ago, the Japanese honorees were themselves kids on this Oregon campus. But the U.S. government took them out of the university and sent them, along with 120,000 other Japanese-Americans, to internment camps.

University President Edward Ray.

EDWARD RAY, President, Oregon State University: This is the commencement ceremony that you should have had so many years ago. And this is the opportunity for all of us to tell you publicly how sorry we are for your pain.

Discrimination before the camps

LEE HOCHBERG: To heartfelt applause, one by one, the Japanese students received honorary diplomas.

EDWARD RAY: Mr. Jack Yoshihara.

LEE HOCHBERG: Eighty-seven-year-old Jack Yoshihara was 21 in 1942, a sophomore engineering student, the only Japanese-American on the Oregon State football team that went to the Rose Bowl.

At a breakfast the morning of the graduation, he told us because he was Japanese-American he wasn't allowed to travel to the game.

JACK YOSHIHARA: They had to move the game from Pasadena to the East Coast because they were scared there might be a bomb threat. And then they said, "Well, you can't go, because you can't travel more than 35 miles from home." So that was it.

LEE HOCHBERG: So you couldn't play?

JACK YOSHIHARA: I couldn't go. It's one of the worst times I ever had.

LEE HOCHBERG: The players just boarded the train? And what did you do?

JACK YOSHIHARA: Well, I just kind of walked away. That's all, one of my worst moments.

LEE HOCHBERG: He went home to his mother and listened to the game on the radio. He says he couldn't bear it. Later, they were sent to the Minidoka Internment Camp in Idaho.

His story deeply moved Phyllis Lundy, sitting at the next table. Her mother, Mable Takashima, was an OSU freshman in 1942 before being forced to leave. She never got an Oregon State degree and passed away in 2001.

So you're here today why?

PHYLLIS LUNDY: To honor my mother, to honor these people.

Long overdue degrees

LEE HOCHBERG: Indeed, 13 degrees at Oregon State were accepted posthumously.

EDWARD RAY: The late Mr. Edward Ko Yada, accepted by his daughter, Kim Yada.

LEE HOCHBERG: Kim Yada accepted for her father.

KIM YADA: Too bad it wasn't at least a year ago, because he would have still been here. He would be totally thrilled at getting this degree.

LEE HOCHBERG: Extending the honor was the idea of two Oregon State students, Joel Fischer and Andrew Kiyuna. Kiyuna initially approached the university with the plan, but was rejected. Fischer, who works as an aide to a state legislator, convinced his boss to sponsor a state bill allowing the degrees to be granted. Kiyuna says it was long overdue.

ANDREW KIYUNA: These people are 80s, 90s. I mean, they were our age in 1942. It's been 66 years since then. It's taken a long time for something like this to actually happen. And it's sort of a shame it hasn't happened sooner.

Mixed feelings about the return

LEE HOCHBERG: Not everyone was exuberant to return to the campus they'd been forced to leave. Kay Nakagiri was a sophomore engineering student and an ROTC member in December of 1941.

KAY NAKAGIRI: I'm going by their armory, and a guy sticks a .45 in my stomach and he says, "Stop." And I stop. I says, I said, "I'm just going over to study with my fellow student over there." I had my slide rule hanging down, thank God. And he said, "OK, I'll let you go." I thought, "My God, you know, all of a sudden everything is getting forbidden."

LEE HOCHBERG: He was forced to leave school and relocated with his family to the Tule Lake internment camp in California. In 1944, he was allowed to complete his degree at the University of Wisconsin, where he says he was greeted warmly.

KAY NAKAGIRI: It was a little different back there. They appreciated the fact there were a different nationality, but so what? They treated you equally. It was amazing.

LEE HOCHBERG: He graduated in 1946. In 1947, he asked Oregon State if he could return for advanced studies.

KAY NAKAGIRI: I got a letter that was real terrible. It said he couldn't guarantee my safety on campus. This was signed by a higher-up. And I tore the letter up because it made me bitter.

JACK NOME: Like I knew Jimmy, Ike, George, Fred, Mitch...

Undoing prejudice and suspicion

LEE HOCHBERG: Jack Nome, who now lives in Seattle, visited Portland's Japanese museum while in town for the graduation. He said the ceremony gave non-Japanese-Americans a chance to come to terms with how he and his classmates were treated.

JACK NOME: They're finally recognizing the non-white ethnic group as one of their own. And that's pretty good.

LEE HOCHBERG: When the caps and gowns actually were donned, it seemed to be a time for recognition and rethinking.

EDWARD RAY: Mr. Kay Nakagiri...

You should know that Jack Yoshihara was not allowed -- not allowed -- to play with his teammates in the Rose Bowl. But you know what? Jack's got his ring.

LEE HOCHBERG: After the ceremony, Kay Nakagiri said his fears about returning to Oregon had been unwarranted.

KAY NAKAGIRI: I appreciated the fact that the students applauded so long. I felt that you were welcome and all that prejudice and suspicion gone, finally.

LEE HOCHBERG: Instead of rejecting his Oregon past, Nakagiri said, when he returned home, he planned to have his new Oregon State diploma framed.