Berkeley, a Look Back: City’s Japanese Americans interned in May 1942

For this week, instead of 100 years ago, I’m just going back 82 years, to an important and traumatic period in Berkeley history.

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At the end of April and start of May 1942, Berkeley’s Japanese American residents were entirely removed from the city and sent to guarded inland camps. This came after the Pearl Harbor attack the previous December and President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 that directed and authorized the U.S. Army to round up and imprison people of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast.

In California, about 120,000 people — ranging from octogenarians to newborn babies — were “registered” and deported to internment camps from rural eastern California to Colorado and Arkansas. Of the 120,000 imprisoned, some 70,000 were full, native-born U.S. citizens, but the federal government made no distinctions. About 1,200 were Berkeley residents, a population that overlapped with some 500 Japanese American students enrolled at UC Berkeley.

Though widely advocated at the time because of fears that Japanese Americans would form a “fifth column” to support the Japanese Empire during the war, the “relocation” program also had roots in deeply established xenophobia and discrimination on the West Coast against East Asian immigrants.

Berkeley’s Japanese American community, like those in other Bay Area cities, largely lived in certain “mixed” residential neighborhoods, while informally banned by racist custom and practice from residence in much of the rest of the city. Berkeley’s Japanese Americans, though, also operated businesses — ranging from horticultural nurseries to laundries and professional offices — throughout much of the city.

In March and April, 1942, the Army began issuing “evacuation orders” directing people from specific regions to go on specific days to “civil control stations” operated by the Army. Berkeley’s order — which also included northwestern Contra Costa County — came on April 24, 1942, and was printed on flyers distributed and posted around town.

The Berkeley location was initially to be a fire station, but the First Congregational Church at Dana and Channing offered its social hall — Pilgrim Hall — as a more humane gathering point. That is where 1,200 Berkeley residents went after April 24 to register and then — at the start of May 1942 — boarded buses to a temporary guarded camp at the Tanforan racetrack on the San Francisco Peninsula.

“Evacuees” were told to show up with “bedding and linens (no mattress),” “toilet articles,” “extra clothing,” “sufficient knives, forks, spoons, plates, bowls and cups for each member of the family” and “essential personal effects.” They were also banned from bringing pets and limited “to that which can be carried by the individual or family group.”

In the period of a week they had to make frantic arrangements to close businesses, leave jobs and schools, store or sell belongings and find people to watch their homes and take their pets for an indefinite period.

Many would eventually return to Berkeley and rebuild their lives. Others did not return, and many of those who did had lost all or much of their Berkeley property, belongings and assets while in the camps the government initially called “relocation centers,” where they would spend years in many cases.

Historians and those imprisoned would later define them as “internment camps”. Today they are sometimes also called “concentration camps” based on the similar British program during the Boer War from 1899 to 1902 to round up South African residents of German ancestry and put them in guarded camps.

This anniversary should always be remembered soberly in Berkeley, particularly in challenging eras like ours when there are repeated calls for imprisonment or deportation of people based on ethnicity, religion or national origin.

Bay Area native and Berkeley community historian Steven Finacom holds this column’s copyright.

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