RABBIT RAMBLINGS: Cal architect a ‘role model’ for ‘all women’

Four young women were granted scholarships at the Japanese American Women Alumnae of UC Berkeley’s 22nd annual meeting April 21: Emily Ikuta in political science, Sierra Senzaki in English, Rosa Yoshitsugu (undeclared) and Sara Muraoka Koehler of the Graduate School of Mechanical Engineering. Amy Fujiwara Shen was awarded a fellowship in ethnic studies, and she presented a short film on judo master Keiko Fukuda.

Karen Tei Yamashita, the keynote speaker of the luncheon, which was held at Yoshi’s Jazz Club and Japanese Restaurant in Oakland, Calif., gave a lively, informative talk about the Brazilians of Japanese ancestry (dekasegi) who were allowed to go to Japan to work in factories. A professor at UC Santa Cruz, Yamashita has written extensively, in fiction and non-fiction forms, about the migrations and the culture conflicts surrounding this situation. Her latest book, “I Hotel,” has garnered high praise for its depiction of the Asian American community during the tumultuous years of the 1968 strike at San Francisco State University — which resulted in the creation an ethnic studies department — through the battle to save the hotel, which was demolished in 1981.

Sara Ishikawa. photo by Arthur Imagire

The Outstanding Alumna of the Year, Sara Ishikawa, professor emerita of architecture, UC Berkeley, really caught my attention. I have to confess my ignorance for I had never heard of Ishikawa. But just to know that there has been a Nikkei woman holding a professorship in architecture at Berkeley struck me as something special.

I contacted Ishikawa, and she graciously spoke about her background and work in the field of architecture. Born in 1934, she went through the camp experience, first at Walerga Assembly Center in Sacramento, and then at Tule Lake, both in California. Her father was ill in a sanatorium, leaving her mother and four sisters to cope with the situation. “I remember that when we first got to Tule Lake, the barracks were not quite finished and the door to our room was two or three feet from the ground, and we had to rely on neighbors to build some steps,” she said. Lumber was scarce and they had to scrounge for pieces.

Her mother got a job in Wisconsin, then moved the family to Chicago. Ishikawa’s solid geometry teacher suggested that she go into architecture because she was good at solving three dimensional geometry problems. Ishikawa says teachers should encourage students to consider certain careers, to give them confidence to pursue areas of interest. “Of course, it was unusual for a woman to go into architecture, but I thought I would try since I was pretty sure I could handle the engineering since I was fairly good in math, and had some propensity in physics, and I did love art.”

Her older sisters went into art related fields, one in interior design, another in fashion. One of them knew an architect, and he introduced her to the field. Chicago was renown for its architects: Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, etc., all of whom influenced Ishikawa in a big way

While a student at Cal in 1957, she took a break and went to Sweden, where she got her first architectural job and was exposed to housing and housing research.

In 1969, Ishikawa started teaching as a lecturer at Berkeley, becoming an assistant professor in 1974. “My teaching combined my interests in culture, community design and pattern language,” Ishikawa said. She was also the co-founder and a principal of Community Design Collaborative, where they designed community buildings, affordable housing and public housing.
She also co-founded and served as the vice president of the Center for Environmental Structure in Berkeley. Ishikawa is the co-author of “A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction.”

Ishikawa’s career is so impressive that it made me reconsider some of my own stereotypes of Nikkei women. Her modest words probably hide a lot of hard work and struggle making headway in a traditionally male-dominated field. The bare facts only  convey a picture of a life full of interesting achievements, including involvement in socially useful projects.

So, now I am learning that there were plenty of Nikkei women who managed to dodge the “Japanese female role” problem and got out there, engaging with the world, pursuing their passions and combining their interests to work in many areas including addressing social problems like housing for the poor. Congratulations, Sara Ishikawa, on your career. You are a real role model for Nikkei women, and, really, for all women.

Chizu Omori, of San Francisco, is co-producer of the award-winning film “Rabbit in the Moon.” She can be reached at chizuomori@earthlink.net. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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