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Setting the Record Straight--After 60 Years

Achievement: Yoshie Hagiya, 77, Oxnard High class of 1942, will receive her school's valedictorian honors this month.

June 02, 2002|JENIFER RAGLAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Weeks before she was to graduate from Oxnard High in 1942, Yoshie Fujita Hagiya learned she was in the running for class valedictorian.

But in late April, the 17-year-old Japanese American girl was forced from her home and sent to an internment camp. As World War II raged abroad, she spent graduation day surrounded by armed soldiers and barbed wire fences.

Last month, Hagiya got the phone call she had been awaiting for 60 years. A school district official who dug through the old records told Hagiya she had the highest grades in her class and should, indeed, have been valedictorian.

On June 14, the 77-year-old Culver City grandmother will don cap and gown and receive the honors due her.

"I think," she said, "it will go a long way toward healing an old wound."

Though exact figures are unavailable, Japanese American advocates estimate there were hundreds of students like Hagiya who missed out on graduation when they essentially became prisoners of war.

In the last 15 years, at high schools from inner-city Los Angeles to rural Gilroy, dozens of them have been recognized and, decades later, handed diplomas. But as these survivors reach their 80s, this effort to fix an old injustice has taken on added urgency.

"For many of them, it's frankly way too late," said Chris Komai, spokesman for the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. "You are in a race against time if there is a desire to rectify what happened a long time ago."

At Oxnard High, 11 seniors were sent to relocation camps in 1942. School officials say they have tried to reach all of them for this month's recognition ceremony, which is a first for the school. At least one has died and another can't be found. Others, including one from Wisconsin, plan to attend.

Wearing black gowns and mortarboards, they will sit among the 2002 Oxnard High graduates. When their names are called, they will walk across the stage, shake the principal's hand and soak up the crowd's applause, just as they would have six decades ago.

"It's a sense of completion for what many consider to be an important rite of passage into adulthood," said Oxnard High Assistant Principal Gary Mayeda, whose 79-year-old father, Seiichi, will be among those honored. "This is one small way I can contribute to my father and his generation."

A Tense Time

Hagiya doesn't recall hostility from her peers or teachers at Oxnard High School, where she started as a freshman in 1939. But there were segregated movie theaters and swimming pools. And laws prevented Asian immigrants from owning land or marrying outside their race.

"We were the kind of people who knew our place--we didn't push things," Hagiya said.

After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, the climate grew especially tense.

There were signs at stores that screamed "No Japanese!" The family's cameras and radios were confiscated as contraband. Hagiya's older brother, Nagao Fujita, had to leave UC Berkeley because of orders that all people of Japanese ancestry stay within five miles of their homes.

"We didn't talk about it, but somehow we knew what was planned," Hagiya said.

The following April, by order of President Franklin Roosevelt, she and her family were forced to sell or give away most of their belongings. They packed what little they could and said goodbye to their friends, their two-story farmhouse and their springer spaniel, Goro.

Escorted by soldiers, the family boarded buses headed for a racetrack in Tulare, where they lived for months, first in a horse stall and then in a crowded barracks, while they waited to be transported to the Gila River Relocation Center in Arizona. That was one of 10 internment camps that, from 1942 to 1947, housed 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry from Washington, Oregon, California and Arizona.

In Tulare, Hagiya met the boy who would become her husband, Paul Hagiya. In the evenings they would linger by the fence that surrounded the assembly center. They peered out at a drive-in hamburger place across the street.

"We would drool," she said. "It smelled so good. We would have loved to go there."

In June, while Hagiya was still in Tulare, her Oxnard High diploma came in the mail. School officials had sent the lone document in a brown envelope, with no explanation or calculation of her final GPA.

After about a year in the Arizona camp, Hagiya got permission to leave early and attend Southwestern College in Kansas, a United Methodist school where Paul Hagiya had gone to study to be a minister.

Her mother gave her $500 in cash and told her to go as far as she could. Hagiya finished college in three years with a sociology degree.

She and Paul married in 1945, the night before he left to fight in the European theater under Gen. George Patton. Like many Japanese American men who wanted to prove their loyalty to the United States despite having been treated as prisoners, he enlisted in the Army immediately after finishing college.

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