Berkeley History

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.

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  • http://home.comcast.net/~eo9066/Intro.html Wes

    You’ve got a few things wrong here:

    They weren’t all Japanese-Americans. There were first-generation Japanese, and they were enemy aliens due to their country attacking ours. If they were Americans, than so is every single person living in the US now regardless of citizenship.

    They weren’t interned. They were evacuated.

    And they weren’t “forced to abandon their houses and businesses” — they went voluntarily, and they came back to re-start their businesses. How many of them could and could not? You need that data there to be honest.

    If you think I am wrong, do some homework. A good place to start is here:
    http://home.comcast.net/~eo9066/Contents.html

    You need to really think hard about what should have been done with residents in the US who suddenly became enemy aliens. And picture yourself living in Japan at the outbreak of WWII. What would have happened to you?

  • http://francesdinkelspiel.com/ Frances Dinkelspiel

    Well, if they were “enemy combatants,” why didn’t the U.S. government send German-Americans, or first generation Germans, to camps in remote parts of the United States? Or Russians, for that matter, when Germany and the Soviet Union were allied? Racism certainly played a role here.

    There were first generation Japanese sent to camps, and their children, born in the U.S. who were U.S. citizens.

    I disagree that these people were evacuated. They were sent to live in jail-like compounds with guards, barracks, and barbed wire.

    It is you, I suggest, who needs to do some more investigating.

  • http://francesdinkelspiel.com/ Frances Dinkelspiel

    Oops. Russia and Germany broke their alliance before the US got into the war. I misspoke,

  • Maureen Burke

    I have only a gardening story to add. Mr. Toichi Domoto was an esteemed hybridizer of Japanese maples and tree peonies before WWII. He was forced to leave his recent tree peony crosses and his nursery in Fremont, CA for an internment camp with his family. A neighbor took care of his young plants until he returned. The following spring of 1946 his new tree peony varieties bloomed for the first time. His collection is now growing at Filoli and his cultivars generally bloom there in early April. His life’s work, which endures in gardens across the Northern Hemisphere, would have been lost due to Executive Order 9066 if not for the kindness of his neighbor.

  • Alec

    Wes has some things right and others wrong.

    He is right that: “They weren’t all Japanese-Americans.” Prof. Chiura Obata and his wife Haruko, for example, was not U.S. citizens even though they had lived in the U.S. for close to forty years before the War. Their children were U.S. citizens because they were born in the U.S. And Prof. Obata and wife desired to be U.S. citizens. But they were precluded from becoming U.S. citizens by both racist laws (like the California Alien Land Law) and poorly reasoned Supreme Court decisions (like Ozawa v. U.S.) that were not fixed until after WWII. Still, the internment encompassed not just folks like Prof. Obata who were wrongly denied citizenship, but also folks like his children who clearly were citizens.

    Wes is wholly wrong when he states: “They weren’t interned. They were evacuated. … And they weren’t ‘forced to abandon their houses and businesses’ — they went voluntarily, and they came back to re-start their businesses.”

    Public Proclamation No. 4, issued pursuant to Executive Order 9066, forbid American citizens of Japanese ancestry from voluntarily evacuating, and they were instead required to report to “concentration camps” (FDR’s own term) from which they were not allowed to leave and within which they were under armed guard. Their houses and property were seized by the government. They were only allowed what they could carry on their backs. They were not able to “go back” to the houses and businesses they had prior to being interred. Prof. Obata, for example, ended having to live in a fellow Professor’s attic for years after the war.

    I hate to see folks like Wes attempt to defend the internment by distorting the true history. The reality is that the internment was a great social injustice, one that stemmed from clearly racist attitudes on the West Coast. The right attitude is to make sure that such an injustice is not repeated.