Once Upon a Time in America: June Suzuki Kawamura ’46

By Zachary Block '99 / March / April 2004
June 15th, 2007

When June Kawamura was an eighteen-year-old freshman at UCLA, her family was forced out of their Santa Anita, California, home and into Arizona’s Gila River internment camp, one of ten centers established in the months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor to house 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent. Kawamura, along with her brother and parents, shared a tar-paper barracks with four other families. Their room was just big enough to fit their beds. “It was like a concentration camp,” she recalls. “It had barbed wire all around and military guards in the posts.”

At Gila, Kawamura worked as a file clerk in a hospital, but eager to resume her studies, she applied to schools on the East Coast, where Japanese were allowed to travel for a job or to attend school. “I got a letter [from Penn] saying because I was a security risk they couldn’t accept me,” she says. “I was very upset.” With the help of a Quaker group, Kawamura eventually enrolled in Keystone College in Pennsylvania, but after a year she transferred to Pembroke at the advice of Keystone’s then-president, Byron Hollinshead ’27.

The only Japanese student at Brown, Kawamura studied biology and chemistry. She recalls experiencing no animosity from her fellow students, despite the war against Japan. After graduation, she worked on the Sioux reservation in South Dakota before joining her family in California, who had spent four years in Gila River. Unlike many other Japanese families, she recalls, her parents had been able to hold onto their house, thanks in part to a neighbor who had rented it out on their behalf while they were in Arizona.

Kawamura worked as a lab technician and chemist before marrying her husband,Genji, in 1950. The couple raised five children while growing strawberries, green beans, zucchini, celery, and lettuce on 600 acres in Orange County, San Bernadino, and San Diego. Genji died in 1993; their sons now run the business. In November, one of them, A.G., was named by California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to head the state’s department of food and agriculture. Asked recently how she feels about her family’s transition from enemy to establishment, Kawamura instead focused on her son’s rebelliousness. “He’s a [UC] Berkeley graduate, and ever since then I’ve been on him to cut his hair,” she says. “Now they refer to him as the ponytailed farmer, so I guess that’s his trademark.”

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March / April 2004