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.
One of the most famous residents was artist Chiura Obata who began teaching at UC 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 75 years ago on 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 Racetrack, 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 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 Allen C. Blaisdell, UC President Robert Gordon Sproul called on the government to allow Japanese American students to finish their college educations.”
Berkeley’s Japanese families were ordered to report to Pilgrim Hall in the First Congregational Church, according to Kenneth Stein, a past president of the Berkeley Historical Society. He sent the photo below.
“The ladies of the church provided the evacuees with tea and cookies in Pilgrim Hall, as one elderly church member recalled, ‘to make the experience as warm and as friendly as possible,’” according to Stein.
After the war, Obata and his family, along with other Japanese families, did return to Berkeley, but their community was never as geographically connected as before.
In recent years, a number of steps have been taken to acknowledge the history of the Japanese and Japanese-Americans in Berkeley.
Obata’s studio before his internment was at 2525 Telegraph Avenue (now a City of Berkeley landmark.) A history written by Donna Graves for The Berkeley Historical Plaque Project provides this description:
“From 1939 to 1942, the Telegraph Avenue storefront hosted Obata’s painting classes, art exhibits, and ikebana lessons by Obata’s wife, Haruko, a prominent teacher of this traditional Japanese art of flower arranging. Their eldest son, Kimio, managed the studio and ran an art goods store in the space as well. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Berkeley’s Japanese American community came under increased suspicion, and a gun was fired at the Obata Studio. Four months later the Obatas, along with 1,300 other Japanese Americans, were given ten days to prepare for “evacuation” from Berkeley. The family closed the Telegraph Avenue studio and had to sell their merchandise at a loss.
While incarcerated, Chiura Obata founded art schools, first at the temporary Tanforan Assembly Center and later, in Topaz, Utah, at one of ten remote “relocation centers” operated by the War Relocation Authority. Obata encouraged his fellow “internees” to look to nature for strength during their unjust imprisonment. Sketches and paintings made throughout Obata’s wartime experience provide crucial and poignant documentation of the process that forcibly relocated and imprisoned approximately 120,000 people, two-thirds of whom were United States citizens.
The Obatas returned to Berkeley in 1945, and Chiura resumed teaching at the University; they were not able to reopen the Telegraph Avenue studio and store.”
In 2016, the Telegraph Avenue Business Improvement District commissioned a commemorative mural across the street from the painter’s studio.
On March 2, the Landmarks Preservation Commission will consider an application to declare the University Laundry building a city landmark, according to Steve Finacom, who submitted the application.
“The building is important not only because of its lengthy association with the University Laundry but because it’s a rare early Berkeley commercial building, particularly on Shattuck south of Downtown,” said Finacom. “It dates to 1897.”
Click here to see more photos of the Japanese-American community in Berkeley before the war.
The Berkeley Public Library also has links to books, photo archives, and other information about the internments.
Editors’ note: This is a reprint of a 2010 Berkeleyside article, with a few additions.