Kindness and respect were the weapons used in the face of fear and prejudice in Cowley County, Kansas, during the 1940s. Opportunities were provided to those that others considered threats. Leadership took the form of pragmatism mixed with lofty goals — sometimes very publicly, sometimes very quietly.
From those efforts, born of faith, families developed.
One was the Hagiya Family.
Paul Hisato Hagiya was one of the more than 112,000 Japanese Americans that were imprisoned by the federal government from 1941 through 1945. He hadn’t committed a crime. He wasn’t even accused of committing a crime. Instead, he was incarcerated solely because of his heritage. While Mr. Hagiya was born in the United States and was a citizen, he was considered a threat to the nation.
The reason? His parents were born in Japan, and he had Japanese heritage.
Mr. Hagiya and his family had been living in Santa Maria, California. According to his obituary, Paul Hagiya was named after the Apostle Paul by his sisters. He was born in San Luis Obispo and grew up in Santa Barbara and Santa Maria.
But Southwestern College, nestled in Winfield, Kansas, did not consider Paul Hagiya to be a threat.
The Cowley County institution put its core beliefs into practice during the World War II years. Working with The United Methodist Church, Southwestern College offered the opportunity of an education to Mr. Hagiya and at least 15 other young people of Japanese descent.
Among those 15 people was Yoshie Fujita.
Ms. Fujita and her family had been living in Oxnard County, California.
She and Paul met while both were initially imprisoned at the Tulare Assembly Center (Tulare Prison) that was situated on the grounds of Tulare-Kings County Fair near the downtown of Tulare, California. Americans with Japanese heritage were forced to live in horse stalls and other facilities at this converted fairground.
Both individuals then were sent with their families to the Gila River Relocation Center (Gila River Prison; also known as the “Rivers Relocation Center” – the Rivers Prison). This prison was located on the lands of the Gila River Nation in central Arizona.
The Gila News-Courier on Oct. 9, 1943, reported that as of that date, “six young people of the Rivers (Prison) are in the student body of 170 at Southwestern College in Winfield, Kansas … .” The news article went on to indicate that Paul Hagiya was majoring in religion, and Yoshie Fujita was majoring in sociology.
While at Southwestern College, both Paul and Yoshie ran for elective office among students. Both won their elections, but only Yoshie was able to actually take office.
According to Southwestern College records, Mr. Hagiya was one of the individuals who ran for president of the student body in 1943. Some members of the community put pressure on the college, according to these records, to prevent Mr. Hagiya from participating in the election; some of the local folks in Winfield did not want a Japanese American to be the leader of the students at Southwestern College. Records indicated that while the election took place with Paul Hagiya’s name on the ballot, Mr. Hagiya withdrew from the election before the votes were officially counted. The actual votes, according to college records, showed that Mr. Hagiya had won the election. With his withdrawal, though, he did not become student body president in 1943.
A newspaper in Santa Maria, California, confirmed the essence of this story in its edition dated Dec. 9, 1943. That news article in The Daily Times indicated that Mr. Hagiya had, according to his sister, won the election at Southwestern College, but resigned because of pressure from a local veterans group in Cowley County.
The situation for Ms. Fujita was different. The 1943 news article noted earlier from the Gila News-Courier indicated that “Miss Fujita was elected vice president of the freshman class last week.”
She, however, had faced a sad situation the year before. Ms. Fujita was the highest ranked student in her senior class at Oxnard High School. As such, she was slated to be the valedictorian of her senior class in 1942. Due to her imprisonment because of her Japanese heritage, though, she was replaced as the class valedictorian and was not able to give the traditional valedictorian speech or to even graduate. Her high school diploma was sent by postal mail to her while she was in the Tulare Prison.
That situation was addressed in 2002. Sixty years after most of the others in her senior class graduated, Yoshie Fujita Hagiya was awarded her diploma and was able to finally give her valedictorian speech.
“In June of 2002, I had the opportunity to organize and participate in a graduation ceremony to honor those Japanese-American students who were unable to participate in their own due to circumstances beyond their control,” stated Gary Mayeda. At the time of this ceremony, he was an assistant principal at Oxnard High School. “Mrs. Fujita-Hagiya was awarded a certificate of academic excellence acknowledging that she would have been the valedictorian of her graduating class but without detracting from the sense of accomplishment of the awarded student. Mrs. Fujita-Hagiya gave an inspirational and positive acceptance speech in addressing ‘fellow’ graduates that included my nephew and father. My dad actually had tears running down his face that I saw later during an after-commencement reception in the staff cafeteria. Nao Takasugi (a former mayor of the city of Oxnard and a former member of the California State Assembly) also served as an honored dignitary. … (He was) a former Oxnard High School valedictorian, and internee himself who announced the names of the graduates during the ceremony. … I had the honor of shaking hands and personally handing them duplicate diplomas. … The event was covered domestically and abroad (by the news media), but more importantly it was the right thing to do.”
During the early involvement of the United States in World War II, Americans with Japanese heritage were prohibited from joining the U.S. military. When that policy changed, 10 of the Japanese American students at Southwestern College served our country in the U.S. military, according federal records. These men fought on behalf of a country that was still imprisoning their families in locales from Idaho to Arizona.
Both Paul Hagiya and his brother, Stanley Hagiya, were among the Japanese American students at Southwestern College who served in the U.S. military. Other Southwestern College students who also served in the U.S. military included Tedd Kawata, Warren Hasegawa, George Kusaba, John Okamoto, Albert Oyama, Toshio Tsuda, Stanley Sagara, and James Watanabe.
Tedd Kishio Kawata of Seattle served in a U.S. Army intelligence unit. He was one of the Japanese-American students who came to Southwestern College through the generosity of many people and organizations, including the national offices of The United Methodist Church. Some of that help may seem modest, but was critical to the young people. An example: According to records of General Commission on Archives and History of The United Methodist Church, one of the Japanese American students (name redacted) requested $50.71 for his travel from Hunt, Idaho, to Winfield. A note indicated that “It is his understanding that the Board of Education (of The United Methodist Church) will refund this travel expense to him and that the Board will help him with his tuition also.”
That student was likely Mr. Kawata. He likely graduated from the former Broadway High School in Seattle in 1940, and then likely spent one year at the University of Washington. Because of his Japanese American heritage, he and his family were initially imprisoned by the federal government at the Puyallup Assembly Center (Puyallup Prison) in the state of Washington and then were transferred to the Minidoka Relocation Center (Minidoka Prison) in Hunt, Idaho. While incarcerated at the Minidoka Prison, Mr. Kawata was a cadet teacher helping to educate children there. The Teacher Training Handbook issued in July 12, 1943, by the Teacher Training Department at the Minidoka Prison included a note of thanks from him: “Finally arrived at my destination on Tuesday, May 11, and found a perfectly friendly school. I enjoy this town immensely.” His address was listed as 205 College in Winfield, Kansas.
As noted above, some folks in Cowley County did not welcome the Japanese American students at Southwestern College. The views of some of those local people in Winfield and Arkansas City changed over time.
Three years to the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the front page of The Winfield Record included a news article with the headline “Americans All.” The news article was written by Paul Miller of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. He noted that some unpleasant things had happened to Japanese Americans at Southwestern College the year earlier. He wrote that “Personally I will admit that I was rather hostile towards them when they first came.”
He then stated “I was wrong.”
He concluded the modest news column by quoting the Bible: “The Good Book says: ‘Greater love hath no man than that he lay down his life for his brother.’ It also says in another place ‘Let him who is without sin among you cast the first stone.’ AMERICANS ALL, WE SALUTE YOU THIS WEEK!”
Paul Hagiya served in the 4th Armored Division of the U.S. Army in Germany.
Paul and Yoshie married the day before he left for Europe in 1945. Over the years, their family grew with three children. One of the children died at the age of 23.
Both Paul and Yoshie continued their education after leaving Winfield. Mr. Hagiya earned a master’s of arts degree at Berkeley Baptist Divinity School and earned a master’s of sacred theology from Garrett Biblical Institute. As an ordained minister in the Methodist faith, he served in churches in Berkeley, Los Angeles, and Santa Maria, California; Arvada, Colorado; Hilo, Hawaii; and Seattle, Washington.
Mrs. Hagiya continued her education by earning an advanced degree in education at the University of Colorado. She worked as an elementary school teacher in both Colorado and California.
One of the congregations where The Rev. Hagiya served as pastor was the Simpson United Methodist Church in Arvada.
Just as Oxnard High School recognized Mrs. Hagiya in 2002, Southwestern College did something similar to recognize Mr. Hagiya in the early 1970s. On Jan. 28, 1973, leaders of Southwestern College left Winfield to travel to Arvada. There, at Simpson United Methodist Church, Southwestern College conferred an honorary doctorate of divinity degree on the Rev. Paul Hagiya. It was the first time in the history of this college that a degree-conferring ceremony took place outside of Kansas. In many respects, this action was to honor the pastor for his service to the church as well as to atone for the error in judgement by Southwestern College leadership when Mr. Hagiya was asked to withdraw from the election ballot in 1943.
Other members of Hagiya family also have shown leadership through the years.
The nephew of Paul Hagiya is Grant Hagiya, bishop of the California-Pacific Conference of The United Methodist Church. In that leadership role, Bishop Hagiya provides pastoral guidance for “…almost 350 local churches throughout Southern California, parts of Central California, Hawaii, the Pacific Islands, Guam, and Saipan.”
Bishop Hagiya noted that his uncle – Paul Hagiya – was quite fond of the opportunities he found in Winfield: “I know how much he valued his time at Southwestern College, and he spoke well of it often.”
Dr. Carl Martin, president of Southwestern College from 1988 to 1998, recently commented on the impact of the leadership of the college during the early 1940s. “These were sacred moments for the individuals and for the institution,” stated Dr. Martin. “Southwestern College took the risk to do the right thing. The legacy of the decisions from that time period provided the foundation for Southwestern College to do what it could to help others through the decades since. I personally stand in awe of the courage of the leadership of Southwestern College at that time who cared for others in a profound way.”
Paul Hagiya died in 1983. Yoshie Hagiya lives in California. This story is part of "The Nuacht Of The Great Plains," a news column that details life and activities in the Great Plains. (“Nuacht” is “News” in Irish.) This story was published with permission from Richard McDonough. No reprints or digital publication may be shared without written consent of Richard McDonough. Contact him at email@example.com.