Frank Matsui’s family visits the Berkeley Historical Society to see his wooden trunks, which are positioned behind them. From left to right: Alice Wakida, Lauren Kaneko-Jones, Kimiko Kaneko and Jane Kaneko. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Alice Wakida doesn’t remember much from her early childhood at Tule Lake, a Japanese internment camp in Northern California.

She recalls a lot of dust. Her cousins, who were kids at the time as well, remember pilfering potatoes from the mess hall and playing hokey-pokey with their friends.

Their parents tried to shield them from the atrocities, Wakida said. But as she and her relatives grew up, they became more curious about that dark period of American history and the impact it had on their families. So they were delighted when they found out that family possessions from that era — two wooden trunks that had held Wakida’s father Frank Matsui’s belongings at the camp — had wound up in the hands of the Berkeley Historical Society.

Last Thursday, several members of the family, whose roots in Berkeley stretch back five generations, visited the Berkeley History Center to see the trunks for the first time. One of the trunks has been on display as part of the “Berkeley Home Front” exhibit on the local impact of World Wars I and II, which coincides with the 75th anniversary of the order that forced Japanese Americans to live in internment camps. Until then, Southwest Berkeley had been home to a large Japanese American community of about 1,300 people.

“If they were lucky and found a caretaker for the home, that was fine. But a lot of them didn’t and lost everything,” said John Aronovici, the manager of the History Center.

Matsui and his family, along with his sister Kimiko Kaneko and her family, were among a small number who were able to return to Berkeley and settle here once again after the war. Matsui died in 1999 and 99-year-old Kaneko is the oldest living relative.

When her granddaughter Lauren Kaneko-Jones rolled Kimiko, in her wheelchair, up to her brother’s trunks on Thursday, Kimiko burst out laughing in recognition.

“We had one too,” she said.

Her brother “was very handy,” and likely built the trunks himself while at the camp, said Kimiko, who speaks quietly but is still a reliable source of family history.

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Kimiko and Matsui were born in Southern California and grew up on their family’s farm in Long Beach. When most of the family moved back to Japan, Matsui, the oldest, stayed behind. In Japan, Kimiko met her husband, another Japanese-American, whose family lived in Berkeley, where the couple eventually moved. They worked together at a laundromat on the corner of Shattuck Avenue and Vine Street. Matsui later moved up here too.

President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 in 1942, which sent approximately 120,000 people, two-thirds of whom were United States citizens, into the internment camps scattered in desolate areas of the West. Both Kimiko and Matsui’s families went to live on their friends’ farm in rural Placer County, hoping to escape imprisonment. But they were later sent to Tule Lake, where Kimiko would give birth to her youngest daughter. Matsui and his family were later relocated to the Topaz War Relocation Center camp in Utah. Some family members think he was sent there to tend to the camp’s beet farm because he had experience farming. Others wonder if he had given the U.S. government the answer it wanted on the misleading loyalty questionnaire given to all interned adults. Tule Lake had become a “segregation center” prison for those who were deemed “disloyal.”

Shortly after the war ended, Kimiko, Matsui and their families moved back to Berkeley, first renting a garage on Parker Street, and eventually buying a house on McGee Avenue. The extended family lived there cooperatively, taking care of each other’s children. Matsui began working as a gardener.

Matsui’s trunks — stamped with his name, ID number and “Central Utah,” and labeled in ink with the Parker address and inside as “Tule Lake wood” — tell some of this story. But it is a story that some survivors of interment initially tried to forget.

“We didn’t really talk about it — a lot of families didn’t talk about it until later on,” Wakida said.

After the war, she and her cousins went to Berkeley public schools, which did not teach about the history of Japanese internment until much later. Jane Kaneko, Kimiko’s daughter, remembers a junior high classmate using an anti-Japanese slur in a class discussion.

“I remember sitting there trying to look invisible,” she said.

Later the relatives took it upon themselves to research their past.

Bob Kaneko, Kimiko’s oldest child, dove deep into it. Shortly before he died last year, he gave a talk on his family’s history at the Berkeley Public Library. He also gained some prominence as the subject of a propaganda photograph taken at Tule Lake. The photo, of young Bob grinning in a costume, was among several artifacts from Japanese internment camps put up for auction in 2015 until protesters succeeded in stopping the sale.

Lauren Kaneko-Jones and her grandmother Kimiko Kaneko look at a wooden trunk that a family member made in an internment camp. Photo: Nancy Ukai

Berkeley-based writer Nancy Ukai, who reported on the photograph of Bob, was one of the first people who realized the family’s trunk was on display.

But nobody knows how it ended up there.

The volunteer staff of the Berkeley Historical Society was eager to learn some of the backstory from the family members last week.

Aronovici took careful notes as Kimiko translated the Japanese words engraved on another exhibit item, a wooden board game made at an internment camp.

“Berkeley Home Front” ends today, Monday, but the Historical Society is helping organize other events later this month in commemoration of Berkeley’s Japanese American community and the history of their confinement:

Frank Matsui’s trunks from Tule Lake Internment camp Photo: Nancy Ukai

April 26, 6 p.m.: An internment survivor and UC Berkeley alum will give a talk at the Multicultural Community Center/Student Union on Bancroft Way and Telegraph Avenue, followed by a commemoration ceremony at the First Congregational Church of Berkeley at Durant Avenue and Dana Street. One of the trunks will be on display at the ceremony as “a tangible reminder that 75 years ago, along that same block, Berkeley’s Japanese Americans piled their moveable belongings as they boarded buses for the camps,” wrote the historical society’s Steve Finacom in an email.

April 29: The society will lead a walking tour of former Japanese American neighborhoods in South Berkeley. See the website for more information.

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Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...