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Interned Japanese are given diplomas

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Mary Nomura, 80, sings during a graduation ceremony in L.A. Sunday.

Mary Nomura, 80, sings during a graduation ceremony in L.A. Sunday.

Jae C. Hong, Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — Amid tears and their grandchildren's shouts of glee, 58 Japanese-Americans sent to internment camps during World War II received diplomas Sunday, finally earning recognition from the communities they were forced to leave more than half a century ago.

The honorees, wearing colorful leis and sashes, walked down the aisle of Los Angeles Trade Technical College's auditorium. Some needed canes, a few were in wheelchairs, and more than a few had tears in their eyes.

The graduates represented the largest group of former internees to ever receive their diplomas at one time.

Takashi Hoshizaki, who should have graduated from Belmont High School in 1944, was one of two student speakers. He told the crowd how his education and life detoured when he was sent to the camps in Wyoming.

"Some may consider a high school diploma just a piece of paper, but it's a symbol to me," Hoshizaki told a crowd of several hundred.

Toshiko Aiboshi, 77, accepted her diploma while her grandson Nicolas Echevestre, 23, accepted one for Aiboshi's husband, Joe, who died in 2001.

The Los Angeles resident said she hopes the event gave her grandchildren insight into a chapter that for so long was a source of shame to many of her generation.

"We both went to Nic's graduation. That was a very special moment," she said. "I hope Nic will feel this is a special moment."

The diploma project is the result of legislation sponsored by Democratic Assemblywoman Sally Lieber to allow school districts to bestow diplomas on Niseis — second-generation Americans of Japanese ancestry — sent to the nation's 10 wartime internment camps. The vast majority were from California.

The federal government interned more than 120,000 ethnic Japanese, most of whom were born in the United States, amid widespread anti-Japanese sentiment, between 1942 and 1945. The Topaz camp was established in Utah.

Children went to school in the camps and received diplomas there, but not from the schools they were taken from.

Since Lieber's legislation passed last year, more than 400 people have received diplomas, some posthumously.

Aiboshi was 14 and living in Boyle Heights when she and her mother were shipped to a camp in Amache, Colo.

"For quite a long time, most Japanese Americans did not talk about being in the camp. It was as if you were in jail and then released. You didn't talk about being released," Aiboshi said.

Even when she did, it was hard for her children to relate to her experiences.

"As children, it takes a while for you to see your parents had some kind of life," she said.

In 1988, the U.S. government officially apologized for the internments and offered $20,000 to eligible survivors, but the diplomas helped make their experience relevant to the younger generations.

"For all you young people who are going to call out to grandma for representing your family today, this is the unfolding of history right before your eyes," said Warren Furutani, board of trustee member for the Los Angeles Community College District.

Jordan Maldonado, 14, of the Fresno area, learned about the experience of her great-aunt Harriet Shirakawa Ishibashi through the state's California Nisei High School Diploma project.

After learning about the program at her high school, Maldonado persuaded Shirakawa to get her diploma and to begin talking about the family's past. Maldonado began searching for all the Niseis forced to leave Fowler High School during the war and found 58, 14 of whom received their diplomas this year.

"They were just so thankful that someone had taken the time to realize how hard it was for them," Maldonado said.

Tom Machida, 79, of Sacramento, said getting his diploma in June, along with the 800 graduating seniors at Elk Grove High School, provided a long-awaited sense of closure.

"I'd never had one before because I left the camps before graduation," said Machida, who was sent to a camp near Poston, Ariz., and later served in the U.S. Army. "I realize it's a symbolic gesture, but it felt so good."

On the Net:

California Nisei High School Diploma Project: www.canisei.org