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FIRST PERSON

Learning Dignity From a Generation That Knows

November 24, 1994|RENEE TAWA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On a hot June day in 1944, my aunt's high school graduation ceremony--behind barbed wire, under an armed-guard tower--was cut short by a fierce dust storm.

My aunt, who wore a dreary gray cap and gown, fled to her barracks in the U.S. government's internment camp in Poston, Ariz. Her graduation gift was a piece of chocolate cake.

Fifty years later, I watched with mixed emotions as my aunt and 12 other Japanese Americans finally got the graduation ceremony they should have had in Los Angeles. To a standing ovation last month at their Class of '44 reunion, Los Angeles school district officials presented the Japanese Americans with replicas of the diplomas they would have received in 1944, had they not been torn from Theodore Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights.

One woman accepted her diploma with a traditional, waist-deep bow, grateful for getting something that was rightfully hers 50 years late. Later, I was saddened when my aunt, 68-year-old June Tawa Nakano, told a Japanese-English daily paper: "The school did a wonderful deed for us. It brought our spirit back like we were good citizens."

I found their humility moving but also frustrating. It was hard for me, a third-generation Japanese American, to understand why my aunt and her peers showed no bitterness at lost proms, lost football games, lost freedom.

Four decades after my aunt's internment, my high school graduation ended with an all-night party at Disneyland. I count my days at Torrance High School among the best in my life. Those are the years that shaped my identity. The loss of those years would mean a loss of self. How could you ever make up for that?

I measured disappointment by a different yardstick than my aunt did in her high school years. I thought hardship was being stuck with 20 leftover apple pies from a Sadie Hawkins dance I had planned as junior class president.

So why is it that I am bitter for my aunt and her peers, even if they are not?

Mine is the self-righteous viewpoint of someone who has the luxury to lament a moral outrage, thanks to those who walked before me. I am a product of their lives, the tail on their comet. They endured the indignities of the war and then moved on, their heads held high, so that my generation could have a better life.

My aunt's generation is also private; she never talked about the war camps to her son or daughter. My father, a physician, never talked about it, and I regret not asking. It is a burden I'll bear the rest of my life; he died in 1989.

At the diploma ceremony, I pressed my aunt gently to express her feelings but then stopped. I wasn't there to be Barbara Walters. This was her night.

*

My aunt's generation was closely tied to the humble values of its immigrant parents. When they got their marching orders in May, 1942, they simply went. My aunt packed up, along with her mother and two brothers--one of them my father, a fifth-grader at the time. My grandfather, a seed salesman, was shipped off to a separate camp in New Mexico for suspected spies. He wasn't a spy.

Shikata ga nai. It can't be helped.

On the first night of her imprisonment, my aunt, a high school sophomore, stuffed a canvas sack full of straw for her mattress. Watch out for scorpions, someone told her.

Yet, later my aunt and her peers remained loyal to a government that had robbed them of their high school years, and they worked to rebuild their country and their lives.

Giri, ninjo. Duty and obligation, from the heart.

After the war's end in 1945, more than 120,000 people of Japanese descent were freed. Scores of them had lost their homes, their businesses, their pride. Some of these American citizens came home to boarded-up businesses covered with graffiti: Go home, Japs.

Shimbo, gaman. Patience, endurance.

I am the lucky one for their forbearance. I was born into a world that is slowly awakening to the riches of multiculturalism and diversity; their world was marred by segregation and intolerance.

Yet, my aunt's generation, the Nisei, retained dignity in the face of injustice through a collective faith in traditional values--ones, I'm afraid, that will all but disappear with their passing.

I--and probably most third-generation Americans--am more shaped by the values of this country than the ones of my ancestors. My generation prizes openness and assertiveness, values that allow me to begrudge a historic wrong with unrestrained anger.

It wasn't until I lived in Japan on a one-year fellowship that I began to understand the traditions of my heritage, even though my mother was born and raised in Japan. Day after day, I saw duty and obligation played out, even in the interplay of virtual strangers.

One day when my American friend, Tyler, bounced a check, a Japanese bank teller who realized the error covered for him--with funds from her personal account.

Still, my aunt's 50th reunion was an eye-opener. "Now, which barrack were you in?" the graduates asked each other blithely. That was all they said about the camps.

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