Graduation Stories

Graduation season ended last week for my family and friends. Socially-distanced ceremonies, video recognitions, and drive-by diploma pickups transformed a familiar occasion into something unique. My niece, Jenna Moye, worked her way through college and graduated from Texas Tech this year. She watched her name on a television screen from a Houston suburb. My friend’s son, Mustafa Syed, had a delayed, socially-distanced graduation in front of limited guests at Plano East High School. He’s headed to UNT for a 7-year program that includes undergraduate school and medical school.

John Tanaka, the class valedictorian of his school, missed graduating with his class. Editor of the school paper and a key member of the yearbook staff, he also worked every day at the City Café. Like many of this year’s graduates, John got a diploma, but missed graduating alongside his classmates. But unlike Jenna and Mustafa, John learned in February that he wouldn’t enjoy a traditional graduation—February 1942.

While snow fell on December 7, 1941 in Juneau in the U.S. territory of Alaska, word of the bombing of Pearl Harbor stunned the community. The next day, John Tanaka’s immigrant father—a local businessman and U.S. resident for over twenty years–was arrested by the FBI, as were all adult male Japanese immigrants, though they had committed no crimes. Shonosuke’s arrest forced the closure of their family restaurant.

In February 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the removal of Japanese from the West Coast. So, John learned he likely would not graduate with his friends and classmates. And in late April, John, his mother and siblings were removed from Juneau without his still-detained father and taken to horse stables at the Puyallup Fairgrounds in Seattle. That’s where they were living when John’s class graduated. His class left an empty chair to honor the absence of their friend and valedictorian.

In August, the family was relocated to live in tarpaper barracks at a desolate Idaho detention center called Minidoka. They remained separated from their detained husband and father until 1944 when John’s father, Shonosuke, was able to join them in the Minidoka internment camp.

Ultimately, 120,000 people were removed from their communities. Sixty-two per cent of them were U.S. citizens—74,000 Japanese Americans like John and his sisters and brother.

The Empty Chair Memorial (pictured below) is the bronze replica of the chair left empty at John Tanaka’s graduation. It pays tribute to incarcerated members of the Juneau community.

Next week I’ll begin to explore Shonosuke’s story, and what led to the multi-year incarceration of 74,000 U.S. citizens, as well as tens of thousands of legal immigrants.


Phone interview with Alice Tanaka Hikido, December 2016

Quiet Defiance: Alaska’s Empty Chair Story, Karleen Grummett, 2016

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