Michi Uchida’s piercing black eyes and gnarled fingers testify to a community torn apart by World War II and the resurrection that followed in its aftermath.
Michi, like hundreds of other East Bay Nisei, or second-generation Japanese Americans, is a living example of determination, of survival amidst suffering, humiliation and pain.
When historian Donna Graves introduced California’s first effort at documenting its Japantowns to Berkeley’s Landmarks Preser-vation Commission recently, snippets from Michi’s life and the lives of many others like her were part of the presentation.
“There were dozens and dozens of Japantowns,” Graves said. “But only the ones which had a critical mass of community institutions made it to the final list. The ultimate aim of our project is really tying a story to these places, to make a connection of the history to the place that was ruptured by World War II.”
A bill signed by former governor Gray Davis in 2001 paved the way for a more active effort to preserve California’s Japantowns.
A push from the California Japanese American Community Leadership Council and the state Civil Liberties Public Education Program, respectively, led to extensive research, surveys and a website (www.californiajapantown.org) that tied the pieces of the puzzle together.
“Most people don’t even know that Berkeley had a thriving Japantown, don’t realize there were so many stories from their own town,” Graves told the Planet Friday. “A lot of buildings people pass by everyday were occupied by Japanese immigrant families at one point. But most don’t announce their ‘Japaneseness’ and have gone on to shelter new people and uses.”
Preserving California’s Japantowns—the organization spearheaded by Graves and Jill Shiraki—continues to dig deeper to unearth every story behind these anonymous structures.
“Little did we know that the Japanese grew flowers on what is now the Salvation Army at 1822 University Ave. and Auto California at 1806 San Pablo Ave.,” Graves said.
According to Graves, California had the largest population of Nikkei (people of Japanese descent) in the U.S. just before WWII.
“Yet their historical presence is often invisible in cities and towns where Nikkei farmed, fished, built businesses and established institutions,” she said. “Communities, as well as individual lives, suffered the effects of the war. Very few Nihonmachi [Japanese communities] were able to regain their pre-war vitality and many suffered yet again from urban renewal programs in the 1960s that destroyed what was left of Japantown.”
Unlike some cities which have had most physical traces of their pre-WWII Japantowns erased, Berkeley has more than 60 structures listed in the pre-war directories still standing.
Decades ago clusters of Christian churches, Buddhist temples and Japanese schools jostled for space along with mom-and-pop stores, florists, shoe repair markets and cleaners in Berkeley.
“This is where I was born,” pointed out Michi on Friday, peering into the stained storefront of the former University Laundry at 2530 Shattuck Ave. almost seven decades since she was last there. “The Santa Fe and Key Route trains chugged by on Shattuck while my brother and I played inside. The business was pretty good as my dad was able to send four of my sisters to Japan and bring them back here. That’s four round-trip plane tickets.”
The Fujii family shared a kitchen, dining and living room upstairs along with the Kimbaras, Imamuras and Tokunagas.
“My fiance and I were attending UC Berkeley,” Michi said. “We had no plans to get married immediately but then Pearl Harbor happened. President Roosevelt sent out the Executive Order 9066 and we decided we would get married so that we could stay together.”
Since cameras were confiscated from Japanese families, the only documentation Michi had of her wedding day was a portrait taken by photographer Dorothea Lange, who was on assignment to document the evacuation of California’s Japanese Americans.
“But we didn’t get a copy and we never saw Lange again,” Michi said. “One of my friends spotted the picture in Lange’s collection in Washington, D.C., almost 17 years later. I was able to get a copy by paying $3.”
Taeko Oda, whose father-in-law owned Oda Eggs and Poultry at 1744 McGee Ave., was also a university student around the same time as Michi.
“I had six units left to graduate,” she said. “When December 7 happened, I was in the library studying for the finals. The face of the enemy became Japanese. I was so frightened I picked up my books and left.”
Like Michi, Taeko was also relocated to Topaz, Utah.
“We had to sell all our belongings at a loss,” she said. “It was just so demeaning. The camps were smelly, dirty and there was no privacy. I survived the ordeal because I was young. Fifty years later I was awarded my degree.”
Preservation efforts have started with the former Obata Studio and Art Store at 2727 Telegraph Ave.—once used as the workspace of UC Berkeley professor and renowned painter Chiura Obata—which is being nominated for local landmarking by the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association.
“I don’t think it’s possible to landmark all 60 locations,” Graves said. “But I think it’s important to point out the poignant and powerful stories behind each building.”
After Pearl Harbor was attacked, shots were fired through the window of the art studio.
“People threw garbage on our steps at night but never showed their face,” said Yuri Kodani, 80, Obata’s daughter.
“When the war began, we had to sell everything and evacuate to the relocation camps in Tanforan. We lived in stables. But my father’s students and ex-students were very kind to us. Robert Gordon Sproul stored his paintings in the university and we got them back after the war.”
Once a bustling storefront for the popular Blue Nile restaurant, the Obata studio will open as the Muse Art House and Cafe in January.
“In a way it’s coming full circle,” Kodani said. “I am glad that the essence of the place will remain the same.”
Image courtesy Michi Uchida
George and Michi Uchida pose for photographer Dorothea Lange during their wedding on April 27, 1942. The Uchidas left for the Tanforan evacuation camps the next day.