Concord Japanese-American students get honorary diplomas 80 years after internment

CONCORD — It’s graduation season all over the Bay Area, but one high school in Concord on Tuesday night is awarding diplomas to Japanese-American students who were pulled from the campus during World War II. 

When the war began, Mt. Diablo High was the only high school in the city of Concord.  Some students there have taken on a special project as a way to atone for what happened there 80 years ago.

In 1942, all people of Japanese descent in California were rounded up and sent to internment camps.  That included a muscular Mt. Diablo football player named Tatsuki “Tats” Kanada, who years later became known as “Uncle Tuffy” to his nephew Gordon Kanada.

“Was he a tough guy? He seemed like it,” said Gordon. “He was kind of stocky, but he was always very gentle.”

The internment denied about 40 kids of Japanese descent the chance to graduate from Mt. Diablo High.  On Tuesday night, those students — most of whom, like Tats, are no longer living — will be ceremoniously granted their diplomas.

“He would be honored and blown away by such an occasion,” said Gordon. “Something that’s happened 80 years ago, people don’t really think about.”

It’s all happening because Laura Valdez’s students did think about it. Two years ago, a camp survivor and Mt. Diablo alum named Kimi Tahiri Dowell suggested the idea. Students who in the school’s History and Ethnic Studies class went to work, first learning the story of the camps and then lobbying the district to award the retroactive diplomas.

“Oh yeah, they flooded their email,” said Valdez. “They said there wasn’t a day that went by that they didn’t get another email at the top of their email list.”

“I was just writing about the affects afterwards. Like, how not having a diploma affected their lives,” said student Jesus Elias, who participated in the letter-writing campaign.

The injustice of the internment seems obvious, but it really hit home for the students to learn about others their age who never had the chance to graduate with their friends.

“I’m working hard for my diploma, right?  And imagine them working hard, just for them to not get one,” said student Galilea Pena.  “It’s just…that would make me so mad; so sad.”

Curtis Banks was impressed with the dignity the internees showed during the ordeal — those who signed up to fight for this country, like Tats and his three brothers — as well as those who stayed to help their family members in the camps.

“Unity was a big key in that,” said Banks. “They helped each other, helped one another. Treated people like how they wanted to be treated.”

The students have been doing the same with their project, fighting to honor others the way they would like to be honored.  And in this case, they weren’t just learning history; they were correcting it.

“It’s the least we can do,” said Stephanie Patino.  “It’s the least we can do to help them feel a little bit better about the bad times.”

The families of the interned students accepted the belated diplomas at Tuesday’s graduation ceremony at the Concord Pavilion.  The current students named them honorary members of the Class of 2022.

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