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Ventura County

Diplomas in Hand--60 Years Later

Education: Five Japanese Americans, part of Oxnard High School's Class of 1942, are honored.

June 15, 2002|JENIFER RAGLAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It took Yoshie Fujita Hagiya 60 years to find out she was valedictorian of her high school class.

On Friday those decades of wondering culminated in one dramatic moment, as Hagiya took to the graduation podium and, at age 77, finally said her peace.

"We are nearing the end of a road that has come with many twists and turns, but now we can see the sunlight at the end," said Hagiya, one of five members of Oxnard High School's Class of 1942 honored at the school's graduation ceremony Friday. The Japanese Americans missed out on their commencement six decades ago when World War II forced them from their homes and into an Arizona internment camp.

"We look back not in anger," Hagiya said, "but with gratitude for all the unexpected joys."

Wearing black caps and gowns, the Class of 1942 stood on stage before 550 members of Oxnard High's Class of 2002 and a stadium packed with cheering friends and family members.

As their names were called by former Oxnard mayor and assemblyman Nao Takasugi--himself a camp survivor--applause erupted. Some in the crowd stood.

The elder graduates, silver hair poking from under their mortarboards, shook hands with school district dignitaries and picked up copies of their diplomas, just as they would have as teenagers 60 years ago.

They have survived wars. Retired from productive careers.

Their children have children of their own.

But those who were honored Friday said it wasn't too late.

"I didn't expect anything like this," said 78-year-old Yori Kanamori, who still lives in Oxnard. "I feel really honored and happy about the whole thing."

Mike Matsumiya, 79, said he still feels some residual bitterness about what happened to local residents of Japanese ancestry during the war, many of whom were U.S. citizens.

"We were put behind barbed wire. We didn't commit any crime," he said.

Although claiming his diploma did not completely undo that damage, Matsumiya said, "It does help make up for what was taken from us."

Also receiving her diploma was Yoshiko Inouye Mato. There were 11 seniors of Japanese ancestry from Oxnard High interned that year, school officials say. At least one has died, and the other five could not be found or could not make it to the ceremony Friday.

In the spring of 1942, by order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 120,000 Japanese Americans from Washington to Arizona left their homes and businesses, selling or giving away most of their belongings. Escorted by armed soldiers, they were sent to 10 internment camps scattered across the West.

At Oxnard High and in hundreds of high school classrooms along the West Coast, students of Japanese ancestry were there one day and gone the next.

Lois Booth Argend remembers it well. Hagiya was one of her best friends, who taught Argend how to write her name in Japanese.

"When they left it was so all-of-a-sudden," Argend said. "It was a very sad time."

She read about Friday's recognition ceremony in a news article, and wanted to be there to support her old friend.

"She's very deserving of this," Argend said, "and it's about time she's recognized."

Hagiya didn't learn until last month that she had the highest grades in the Class of 1942, after school officials uncovered the records. It's something Hagiya wondered about off and on over the years, but the 60th anniversary of her lost graduation prompted her to find out once and for all.

Hagiya's request coincided with a wish Oxnard High Assistant Principal Gary Mayeda had since being hired three years ago: to hand a diploma to his 79-year-old father, Seiichi Charles Mayeda, who was also a member of the Class of 1942.

"I hope this provides you with resolution, clarity or closure," Gary Mayeda said to his father and the other four graduates at the ceremony. "Thank you for the significant contributions you have made, to society and to history."

Since the late 1980s, high schools and colleges throughout the West have been trying to make reparation to those students who were denied diplomas in 1942. Dozens of them have been honored, from Santa Clara to San Diego.

Delaine Eastin, state superintendent for public instruction, commended Oxnard High, and urged all schools that have not yet honored their forgotten graduates to do the same.

Judy Takasugi, standing near Hagiya's 13-year-old grandson, Tyler, said the commencement exercises are equally important for the graduates' younger family members.

"We have to teach our children that such a thing happened," she said. "And that it should never happen again."

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