Friday, April 20, 2012

California Nisei College Diploma Project

Starting in 2009, California public universities began retroactively awarding diplomas to Japanese American students that were interned. This initiative, called the California Nisei College Diploma Project, has awarded diplomas to over 1,000 displaced Nisei, all of whom were U.S. citizens. However, the Project only affects those who studied at public universities in California, neglecting the many Japanese Americans who went to private schools.

According to this article, however, USC has recently become the first private college in California to award diplomas to displaced students. Though some people may be upset that USC and other California colleges are bothering themselves with business that began seventy years ago, these diplomas are more than empty symbols to the Japanese American community. One of the people behind this legislation has said, "A lot of people didn't even know their relatives had gone to college," and never went after they were released from internment.

This speaks to the silence that surrounded internment in the years following WWII. As the Kuramitsu article pointed out, in the 1960s and 70s, many Sansei were shocked to find that Japanese American internment had occurred at all. Internment was considered a shameful time in the Japanese American community and many older people did not talk about their experiences. By trying to move on and assimilate into mainstream American culture, many Nisei went along with government aims to sanitize the camps. The fact that the WRA tried, and often succeeded, in portraying the camps as centers of "normal" community activity is shocking, as the underlying cause for these communities should never be seen as a normal aspect of life. Yet, because the Korematsu decision remains as legal precedent, the normalcy of geographic exclusion is enshrined in the US government.

The reason I'm so interested in this legislation is because it hits close to home for me. This past fall, two of my great aunts were awarded their diplomas from Compton Junior College. (At about the 6:59 mark you can see both of them graduate!) I don't know if they ever went back to school after the war, but I do know they weren't even in the camps that long. They volunteered to go to Detroit to work in factories and help with the war effort. I guess this is something I just don't understand about the shame and silence that surrounded internment. Hundreds of Japanese Americans showed a loyalty and patriotism towards a country that was ambivalent, at best, towards them. I certainly see things to be ashamed of, but nothing that can fall on the shoulders of Japanese Americans.

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