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JANM Volunteer Reflects on Southern California Roots and World War II Experiences

Barbara and Hal Keimi at the opening of the new exhibition, BeHere / 1942: A New Lens on the Japanese American Incarceration, at JANM. Photograph by Jim Conner.

Barbara Reiko Mikami Keimi has been volunteering at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) with her husband, Hal, before the Museum opened to the public in JANM’s Historic Building in 1992. 

“I never realized how much my parents protected us until I was an adult and my husband, Hal and I became volunteers at JANM,” said Keimi.

Keimi’s roots in Los Angeles and Orange County, California, run deep. She was born Barbara Reiko Mikami in 1935 to Chihiro Harry Mikami and Fumiko K. Mikami. Chihiro was born in Japan and Fumiko was born in Buena Park, California, in 1912. Fumiko’s family returned to Hiroshima when she was around three years old. Educated in Japan, she aspired to become a doctor. But her dream did not come to pass. Fumiko met Chihiro through a family member, who arranged their marriage. 

After marrying in 1930, Chihiro and Fumiko immigrated to the United States, where Chihiro worked as a chauffeur for wealthy families in Los Angeles. The Mikamis lived in Beverly Hills, and Sawtelle, a Los Angeles neighborhood where Keimi was born. They eventually moved to North Long Beach, California. During that time, Chihiro worked for Masami Sasaki, Keimi’s granduncle and the “Chili King of Orange County” who was known for his prosperous chili pepper farm in Huntington Beach, California. Both of them were involved in the community. Chihiro joined the board of the Japanese language school in Huntington Beach and Masami hosted civic groups at his warehouses. 

Keimi recalled playing with the children from five other Japanese families at her granduncle’s farm in a recent Densho oral history interview.

“I remember there was a big warehouse where they put the dried chili in to store it for shipment. And so we used to play around in there,” she recalled in her interview.

When the Japanese military bombed Pearl Harbor, the Mikami family lost everything.

“My dad had a big oil barrel and my job was to throw any Japanese books and things we had in there. He lit it so that everything would burn,” said Keimi.

Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Chihiro and Masami were arrested by the FBI. In their absence, the Mikamis moved from their home in North Long Beach to the chili farm in Huntington Beach to live with Keimi’s grandaunt, Shigeko Sasaki. When Chihiro and Masami were taken to the Tuna Canyon Detention Station, they moved to Marysville in northern California, and stayed with friends’ relatives.

“And so the four of us—myself, my mother, my grandaunt, and our friend’s wife—drove our Buick while our friend’s husband and my brother, Richard, drove the pickup truck. They had to rush because there was a curfew and you had to be wherever you’re supposed to be by sundown. And so all I remember her telling me was that she drove from eight to eight. She was so exhausted the next day that she spent a couple of days in bed recovering from the drive,” said Keimi.

When Executive Order 9066 was signed by President Roosevelt, Fumiko and her children were imprisoned at the Merced temporary detention station, where Chihiro reunited with them. Together, they were transferred to the Amache concentration camp in Colorado. Keimi’s strongest memories of camp are of Fumiko. Prior to World War II, Fumiko took sewing classes at the Pacific Sewing School in Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo. She continued honing her skills at Amache, where she took sewing, tailoring, and ikebana classes. She even made a suit for Chihiro in camp. Keimi also recalls that Richard participated in kempo and Chihiro took shigin classes while in camp. Chihiro also taught shigin after the war.

Barbara and her family were incarcerated in the Amache concentration camp in Colorado during World War II. Courtesy of Barbara Keimi.

During this time, Chihiro and Fumiko decided to return to Japan because of the uncertainty of their family’s future. Fumiko wrote to her father in Hiroshima, asking if the Mikamis could live with him in Japan. Since her father grew his own vegetables and caught fish from a stream on his property, he agreed. When Chihiro and Fumiko requested to return to Japan they were sent to Tule Lake, where they eventually decided to stay in the United States. 

They were released from Tule Lake in 1945, shortly before Keimi turned ten years old.

But Chihiro and Fumiko pulled their resources together to provide stability and safety for their children. Prior to their release from Tule Lake, Chihiro returned to Los Angeles alone to secure a job at a mattress factory and an apartment in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood in Los Angeles. When the Mikamis were released from Tule Lake, they came directly to that apartment during a time when many families could not return home. After the war, Fumiko taught ikebana and sewed clothing by the piece and Chihiro eventually started his own gardening business. Keimi attended East Los Angeles College and the University of Southern California. While working in the accounting department at Lucky Stores, now known as Kroger, she volunteered at JANM on Thursday nights. She continued to be involved with the Museum’s volunteer program in retirement. 

“The people that were in charge of the volunteers, they were very accepting, and they made you want to be a part of it, and I think that’s what made us think, ‘Well, why not?’” she explained in her oral history interview. 

Over thirty years later, she and Hal are still active volunteers with the Museum.

“JANM has helped me to understand my past, connect with Japanese American culture, and appreciate the value of family and the ties that bind us together, especially when I saw my granduncle’s photograph featured in a JANM exhibition. Those are just a few of the ways the Museum is committed to preserving the rich intergenerational heritage of Nikkei and this nation today, and for the next 30 years,” said Keimi. 


© 2022 Helen Yoshida

Amache Barbara Keimi Boyle Heights camps Chili King of Orange County heritage Huntington Beach JANM Merced postwar resettlement roots Southern California Tule Lake Tuna Canyon Detention Station volunteer World War II