Ten Japanese American women started a Berkeley cultural program for their kids in 1978. Credit: Judy Kono-Manning
Top from left: Etsuko Steimetz, Emiko Katsumoto, Judy Kono, Amy Shinsako
Bottom from left: Sally Takeda, Vicky Mizuhara, Janie Nehira, Jan Inouye, Jane Tanamachi.
Not pictured: Gail Harada

On a spring afternoon in 1977, a group of Japanese American women sat sipping coffee around a kitchen table. California had just passed Proposition 13, slashing the local budget and draining Berkeley Unified of funds. One of the casualties was Berkeley’s summer programming at Jefferson Elementary, now called Ruth Acty.

While their kids played together, the women dreamed up a plan for a summer camp that would expose their children to Japanese culture. Now in its 43rd year, Daruma no Gakko was founded in 1978 by volunteer mothers, whose children graduated from the program. Some of those children now run it.

“We didn’t want our culture to become lost with our children. We want them to be proud of who they are,” said Judy Kono, 78, who founded Daruma along with nine other women: Gail Harada, Janie Nehira, Jane Tanamachi, Vickie Mizuhara, Etsuko Steimetz, Jan Inouye, Sally Takeda, Amy Shinsako and Emiko Katsumoto. 

“When this program started in the ’70s, it wasn’t popular to be Japanese,” said Amy Fujimoto Chen, who graduated from Daruma in 1987 and is now a co-director. The legacy of World War II and internment weighed heavily on the Japanese community, and many families felt they had to assimilate out of fear. For some, Daruma was one of the only opportunities they had to learn about their culture and the history of internment.

“I’m a fourth-generation Japanese American, so I didn’t really grow up with a ton of culture or even language exposure,” Fujimoto Chen said. “This was it. This was my culture 101.”

Students perform traditional songs at Gakugeikai at the end of the summer. Credit: Julie Kono-Manning

The program started with 85 students at the Buddhist Temple in Berkeley. Kono, who was an elementary school teacher at Berkeley Unified, worked as the director and later taught kindergarteners. Emiko Katsumoto taught students to sing in Japanese. “I have a very early memory of my grandmother singing one of the songs to me,” said Katsumoto, who researches traditional songs and incorporates her own arrangements for a modern twist.

Students at Daruma no Gakko make Obon festival lanterns. Credit: Julie Kono-Manning.

Now, the program is serving its second generation of kids, who come from Berkeley and all around the Bay Area. Kono’s own daughter, Julie Kono-Manning, 47, graduated from Daruma in 1983 and her grandson graduated in 2019. Kono’s second grandson, a fourth-grader, is attending Daruma this year. “I didn’t understand how meaningful it was until I had my own kids,” said Kono-Manning.

As the program has grown, students have learned to make inari sushi, held tea ceremonies, and used shibori tye-dye to create colorful patterns on kimonos and household decorations. Each year, the program culminates in a mochi-making demonstration or a taiko, a Japanese drumming performance, a highlight for the community’s grandparents. Once they graduate, many students return the following summers as aides.

“Of course we want to come back,” said Naomi Furuya, an alumni of Daruma who is now a junior at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. After graduating, Furuya worked as a director’s aide for several years. “Now that I’m older, I can appreciate the community it built. The more I look, the more I see how many people are a part of my life because of Daruma.” 

“I’m very proud of the younger generation, including my daughter. They are now the leaders of this,” said Kono, who wasn’t sure whether the program would last beyond a couple of years. 

The year has brought a spike in hate crimes against Asian Americans in major cities across the country since the onset of the pandemic and then-President Trump’s anti-Asian rhetoric. In response, young people have been organizing protests to bring attention to the discrimination their community faces. The context has lent new significance to Daruma.

“It’s extremely important, now more than ever, to celebrate our culture publicly and together,” Fujimoto Chen said. “If we don’t talk about this experience and celebrate parts of our culture, which have been hidden for so long, we’re just going to assimilate.”

Fujimoto Chen said that the spike in attacks against Asian Americans has been on everyone’s mind, a specter hanging over the program’s usual activities.

“It’s close to home. It’s a very emotional subject still because attacks against Asians are still ongoing. Particularly since a lot of us rely on the grandparent community to help with childcare.”

While the need for a culturally affirming program is long-standing, the fear that some in the community feel is new.

“I’ve never felt this way in Berkeley. Before, I never felt like I couldn’t go walking around or go shopping, having to watch what’s going on around me or who’s around me,” Kono said. 

“There was no overt hostility or feelings of danger like there are now,” Katsumoto, one of the founding mothers, said. Katsumoto’s daughter and granddaughter both attended Daruma as well.

Given the attacks, the mothers said it’s all the more important for kids in the community to feel proud of being Japanese American.

“People want a place where their kids can be, where they can be comfortable,” said Kono Manning, who says even something as simple as eating similar food for lunch can make a difference in kids’ sense of belonging.

Daruma no Gakko is one of a number of summer programs for Asian American youth in the East Bay, including Hanwen School, Huong Viet Community Center, and the Thai Temple in Berkeley. Due to the pandemic, Daruma was held online last year and this year. Program leaders distributed supplies so kids could work on projects at home and singing classes were held over Zoom. Next year, program leaders are excited for Daruma to return in person.

When Fujimoto Chen attended the summer program, it was the first time she was surrounded by so many faces that looked like hers. She described growing up in Berkeley “a little bit like living two different lives,” having to shift back and forth between her family and friends. But at Daruma, that division melted away.

“It’s magical for me to just see a roomful of faces and a roomful of families that are all committed to carrying on these traditions in a modern way,” Fujimoto Chen said

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Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...