Paul Osaki: Nisei Commencement Keynote Address at Fresno State

Keynote Address by Paul Osaki
May 20, 2010

Good afternoon. Ladies and Gentleman, President Welty, Distinguished Guests and most certainly, our Honored Nisei Diploma Recipients.

What an incredible sight! What an incredible moment to see history happen right before your very eyes. Commencement ceremonies are always full of emotion but none like watching a procession of Nisei, dressed in full academic regalia, marching to the music of Pomp and Circumstance. It’s as though time stood still, 68 years, a lump in your throat, a memory, a thought, a tear falls.

And you all look so darn cute!!!

I remember what it was like when my father, as well as 1200 other Nisei, were granted their High School Diploma as part of the Nisei High School Diploma Project back in 2004.

My father was a member of the first high school graduating class of the Tule Lake Concentration Camp. At first, reluctant and a little unsure, he felt that he had already graduated from high school in camp, so why receive another diploma.

But through our urging and in particular his grand daughter, who would be graduating from high school that very same year, he came to realize that his high school graduation ceremony at Tule Lake, being behind barbwire, was not a real graduation ceremony.

A real graduation ceremony is not just about academic achievement, it is about a new freedom, a new beginning, a liberation, a score of endless dreams and possibilities.

His graduation was in a desert, behind barbwire, shadowed by guard towers, watched by soldiers with guns, full of uncertainty, lacking of hope, of democracy and void of the constitutional rights owed to him as a citizen of the United States of America.

His Tule Lake Graduation Ceremony was not a graduation ceremony. But, because of Assembly Bill 781, he did finally have his day, over sixty years after the end of the war.

The Nisei College Diploma Project goal is to ensure that every Nisei college student of 1941 and 1942 also has their day as well.

The California Nisei College Diploma Project is a program made possible through legislation authored by Assembly member Warren Furutani. It was through his leadership that we are here today. The Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California is the statewide coordinator for the project which is sponsored by the California Civil Liberties Public Education Program.

Our job, our task and our responsibility is to assist with the outreach and education of Assembly Bill 37. To assist colleges and universities throughout the State of California, helping them identify their Nisei college diploma recipients where ever they or their families may be. To date, college campuses have identified a total of 2,200 eligible Nisei students and have located 884 who will receive their honorary degree. The search will continue.

This search has not always been easy. Some have moved away since the war and others never returned.

Many had Japanese names, later adopting American names, some women married, changing their names and moving away.

My own father’s legal name is Yoshito Osaki, but was given the name Wayne by a school teacher who could not pronounce his name. So some times he goes by Wayne Osaki, other times by Yoshito Wayne Osaki or Yoshito Osaki depending on the circumstances.

Other Nisei are better known by their nick names, Jimbo, Blackie, Sparky, Tubby or Wacky. I have an auntie Herky, an auntie Yo, an uncle Buzz and a uncle Ta. Some of them, I don’t even really know their real name.

So you see, how really complex the search can be.

At this time, I would like to thank Fresno State University, President John Welty and Mr. Paul Oliaro, Vice President for Student Affairs, for inviting me here today to this wonderful ceremony. I am grateful to the CSU System and the California State University Board of Trustees for their cooperation and enthusiasm in making this project a priority. And also, I would like to thank the Japanese American community of the Central Valley for your support in helping to identify and locate the Nisei from your area regarding this program.

Today is not just about conferring an honorary degree. It is about real history, real stories, tragic and triumphant. It is about teaching a new generation about their own history. It is about making good on a promise 68 years old.

It is indeed a pleasure and an honor to be here today, as part of your special day. For four reasons, first, because all of you whom we honor here today, the Nisei, have waited 68 years for this moment. Second, because my uncle Takami Misaki is one of those who posthumously will receive his honorary degree today. Third, because my family roots are here in this valley in a small town called Selma and Fourth, because if my uncle Ta was alive today, he would be so proud and look so cute to have me speak at his commencement ceremony.

Graduations are always special. Graduations are always emotional. They signify not only the completion of studies, but they are a passing, a new beginning, an opportunity and a dream come true.

You were born the sons and daughters of immigrants. Many of you were the first to attend college in their families. Your college education was to be the fulfillment of the American dream. You worked hard to get the grades, many of your Issei parents could not help you with your studies but they saved what they could to help pay for your tuition and books. They sacrificed of themselves and for the rest of your family so you could partake in one of the most fundamental rights of a citizen of the United States and that is, a right to an education and the right to pursue happiness.

But sadly, those dreams came crashing down in 1942.

It has been 68 years of unfinished business, 68 years of waiting, 68 years to correct a wrong and 68 years to fulfill a promise.

I know that some of you went on to finish your college education in the Midwest or back east as part of the Nisei College Relocation Program. Others completed your studies after returning from the concentration camps or fighting the war in Europe or Asia as part of the Military Intelligence Service. But others could not, their bodies lay in the battlefields of Europe fighting against fascism with the famed 100th Battalion / 442nd Regimental Combat Team, others had no choice but to forego their dream of a college education. You had to rebuild your lives, returning from the concentration camps you got married and had to provide for your families. You started businesses, you toiled in the fields, you fed America and helped rebuild our country after the War.

Today, I am here to say thank you to “Our Greatest Generation Ever, the Nisei Generation”.

I need to say thank you, simply because you are so deserving of the most honest and sincere thanks that one can offer. .Born as the first generation of American citizens of Japanese Ancestry, children of the Great Depression, raised in what would be the worst period of racism and discrimination Japanese Americans would ever experience in America. Survivors of the most wars and conflicts our nation has ever witnessed, survivors of one of the worst civil liberty violations in our nations’ history. You came back to our communities, still with hope, still with dreams. Many with nothing more than the clothes on their backs, a suitcase and the $25 issued to you by the government.

You never looked back. In looking forward, you rebuilt our communities, you raised families, created businesses, gave us values, re-established our institutions and organizations, gave us a place to call home and set the foundation for future generations to prosper and in the pursuing years, managed to educate and forgive a nation for its wrongdoings.

You are quite simply “Our Greatest Generation Ever”. You are of a generation that your word and a handshake meant more than a signature on a piece of paper. You are part of the most trusting and honest generation of Americans where your values meant more than a title or your bank account.

You have been the most giving generation our Nation has ever seen with their time, talent and money and you asked for nothing in return.

You have been the pillars, the rock, the foundation of our community and a simple thank you seems so inadequate. Perhaps a more appropriate term should be the Japanese saying, “Okage Sama De”;….

"I am who I am because of those who came before us"

Some say that the journey of what happened 68 years ago ended in 1988 with the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, the Redress and Reparations Bill. But today shows that there is still much to correct, much to change much to tell and much to educate about. This ceremony reminds us of that.

The majority of the students at Fresno State University today were not even born in 1988. The Civil Liberties Act is past history to them. Today makes it real again. Today helps to educate others that what happened back then shall never happen again.

For you that are here today, you also represent your classmates that could not be here. For them 68 years was too long but they take comfort that the civil rights and education once denied them can finally be recognized today, that democracy is in action and is the true test of our great nation, that it can admit its wrongdoing and take the necessary steps to correct them.

The Nisei were never the problem. They were the promise, they were the candles piercing holes of light in some of the darkest days in American history.

As I look at you Nisei here today, I see the hopes and dreams of this country. I see our history and I see an America whose future is brighter because of you.

Okage Sama De

Thank you