City

Remembering Berkeley’s vibrant Japanese-American community

In 1914, five Japanese-American families, the Fujiis, Kimbaras, Imamuras, Tsubamotos and Tokunagas, banded together to open the University Laundry. Located on the corner of Shattuck and Blake, the University Laundry was a partnership of five smaller laundries. The families lived upstairs and shared a kitchen, dining room and living room, and worked on the ground floor.

The University Laundry was one of about 70 businesses located in Berkeley’s thriving Japanese-American community before the outbreak of World War II. There were about 1,300 Japanese-Americans in the city, and the bulk of them lived in the southwest quadrant of Berkeley in a racially-mixed, affordable neighborhood.  It was a vibrant community, with its own newspaper, the Japanese Women’s Herald, grocery stores, florists, boarding houses for students attending UC Berkeley, a number of churches, including the Free Methodist Church on Derby and the Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple on Oregon Street.

Berkeley Free Methodist Church

One of the most famous residents was artist Chiura Obata, who began teaching at UC Berkeley in 1932 and who had a studio on Telegraph Avenue.  His wife, Haruko, taught ikebana, or flower arranging, in the building, and their son had a store selling Japanese art. Obata had designed the Oriental rooms for Gump and his paintings of Yosemite were internationally admired.

All this changed after February 19, 1942, when President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which ordered the internment of Japanese-Americans. Soon, Berkeley’s thriving Japanese-American community was no more; its members were forced to abandon their houses and businesses and load up on buses where they were taken to internment camps around the West, like the Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah, or Manzanar in the eastern section of California or the Tanforan Race track, on the San Francisco peninsula.  For years they were forced to live in barren barracks in isolated regions of the country. When they were allowed to return, many of them were unable to recover their possession, homes, or companies.

As historian Charles Wollenberg writes for the Berkeley Public Library website, some Berkeley residents tried to fight the internments, to no avail. “A a small group of Berkeleyans formed the Fair Play Committee to protest the internment. Members included Harry Kingman of Stiles Hall, U.C. Economics Professor Paul Taylor, photographer Dorothea Lange and Pacific School of Religion faculty member Galen Fisher. Their protests hardly represented majority opinion in Berkeley, let alone the rest of the state, and they were unable to prevent the relocation. But the committee did maintain contacts with internees and monitor conditions at the camps. At the suggestion of Kingman and International House director Tom Blaisdell, UC President Robert Gordon Sproul called on the government to allow Japanese American students to finish their college educations.”


On Friday, February 19, the UC Berkeley Nikkei Student Union and Muslim Student Association will co-present “A Day of Remembrance,” to commemorate Executive Order 9066. It will take place at 7 pm at the Multicultural Center on the second floor of the MLS Student Union at Bancroft and Telegraph.

To see more photos of the Japanese-American community in Berkeley before the war, look here.