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Japanese immigrant Kaoru Okawa Ito was an entrepreneur, educator, and artist, operated sewing schools in Oakland and Stockton, taught tea ceremony and flower arrangement, and was one of the first Japanese Americans to become a naturalized citizen in 1953, shortly after the ban on Japanese naturalization, in effect since 1790, was finally lifted.
Kaoru Okawa was born in Gunma-ken, Japan on October 16, 1904 to Danzaburo and Sei Okawa. Kaoru’s birth name was “Kun,” but she did not like that name and went by “Kaoru” since her youth. Audrey Tonai Yamada recalls that her grandmother “told us about the times she would have to go into the mountains as a young girl in Japan and catch eel with her bare hands. She said she disliked the chore because she didn’t like to handle the eels.”
Her parents’ first child died shortly after birth, and her father decided to leave Gunma to become a seaman, sailing all over the world. Kaoru was born while her father was away at sea. Eventually, Danzaburo decided that the family would immigrate to the United States, but he had to start a business first. He eventually started a shoe repair business at 1928 San Pablo Avenue in Oakland.
Once her father was established, Kaoru and her brother sailed to the U.S. with her mother and arrived on July 9, 1919, when she was fourteen years old. They passed the medical examination and questioning and four days later, she and her mother were released from Angel Island, but her younger brother Fujio was detained for several more days because he was found to have hookworm. Once it was treated, he was released and the family was reunited.
When Kaoru was enrolled at the Durant Grammar School in Oakland, she did not speak English and was placed in the first grade with her brother. “I was embarrassed, but after six months I was promoted to fifth grade.” After a year, she decided to go to work as a “schoolgirl” for Alameda Mayor Edward Taylor and his wife, performing domestic chores and learning how to entertain their guests. She recalled Mrs. Taylor as very highly educated and kind.
Kaoru saved her money and attended the Goto Sewing School in Oakland and transferred to the McDowell Sewing School in San Francisco. In 1924 she opened her own sewing school on 676 22nd Street in Oakland called Aileen Sewing School (“Ai” meaning “love” and “Leen” meaning “neighbor” in Japanese). She specialized in teaching limited English speaking Japanese immigrant women, and soon had twenty-five students. “I settled down to a rather active and cheerful life teaching…so that I did not have to depend on my parents, even though I stayed at home,” she recalled. She also began to study flower arrangement from the Seizan Goryu School in Oakland.
“My parents were also beginning to be worried about my marriage since I was reaching the age where single women were considered spinsters if they were over twenty-three or twenty-four.” Her parents arranged for her marriage, and found a suitable husband, Shintaro Ito, who was very active in the Stockton Buddhist Church and he was a respected businessman.
“However, I had my own opinion. First of all I did not want to leave Oakland where I had the business as teacher/proprietor and to move to a town in the hinterlands like Stockton. Nevertheless, my parents gave my future husband permission to visit the family from time to time.”
Shintaro came to visit for about six months and Kaoru said, “I began to admire his persistence.” Her parents were worried, saying, “It is necessary that at least you marry because if you don’t, the neighbors will say that the Okawas have a marriageable daughter that is being put to work teaching sewing classes and the parents are living off of her income. That is the type of rumors that would start, and so you should marry and if you are dissatisfied, you can come back.” Kaoru negotiated with the Ito family and they agreed that she would not have to take part in his grocery business and she could open her own sewing school in Stockton. The two were married on April 25, 1926.
Mr. Ito ran S.K. Ito Company, a merchandise business; he also owned several buildings in downtown Stockton. Mrs. Ito moved Aileen Sewing School to Stockton and also received a teaching degree in flower arrangement. Together they served as baishakunin (marriage matchmakers) for at least fifty marriages in Stockton and during internment and were actively involved in the Stockton Buddhist Church and the Japanese community. Mr. Ito was treasurer for the Yamato Baseball Team and was an avid fan. The Itos had three children between 1927 and 1931, Edna Tamiko, Grace Kiyoko, and Ruriko (Ricky). The family visited Japan several times to visit family and learn more about flower and tea ceremony.
By the 1940s, Kaoru Okawa Ito had become adept at sewing, design, drafting, crocheting, tea ceremony and flower arrangements. Her husband continued his activity in the Buddhist Church, and Kaoru noted, “My husband spent so much time at the Buddhist Church that I told him that he should find a room there instead of coming home every night.” He brought many visitors home to visit, and Kaoru noted that she had to feed these visitors and even house them, which was a lot of work combined with running her sewing school.
After President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in February of 1942, the family was first interned in the Stockton Assembly Center, then in Rohwer, Arkansas. During their internment Kaoru taught crocheting, knitting, and the Japanese tea ceremony. She was able to make the best of a bad situation after being uprooted from her family’s home and business.
After internment the family was fortunate in eventually getting their business and home in Stockton back into their possession. They temporarily housed the Buddhist church minister and others in their home until they could live in homes of their own. Shintaro became a gardener and Kaoru did housework. They continued to be actively involved in the Stockton Buddhist Church, serve as baishakunin, and were active in the Japanese community.
Kaoru Ito attended Edison High School evening classes in order to obtain her American citizenship and was in one of the first groups of Japanese to obtain her American citizenship in 1953. She learned to drive when she was in her 60s and obtained her license in 1969. She also had the pleasure of meeting Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko when they visited San Francisco in 1996. Empress Michiko told her, “Thank you for enduring long life in America. Please continue teaching the future generations the culture of Japan.”
Shintaro Ito passed away in 1977 at the age of 84. As she reflected on her life in a 1997 interview, Kaoru Ito concluded saying, “I feel quite satisfied that I have passed on to others what I have learned. I also believe I have lived a long and productive life here in the United States.” Mrs. Kaoru Ito passed away in 2000 at the age of 96, leaving three children, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
At her service, her grandchildren recalled many fond memories of Kaoru Ito. Audrey Yamada recalls, “I also remember a time when Grandma received a dozen or more beautiful roses. She had them displayed in the living room but I think she viewed them more as an extravagant gift. As resourceful as she is, she decided to take this ‘impractical’ gift and make it into something ‘practical.’ And so she did. She made the most delicious rose petal jam I had ever or will ever taste!
“So, she can change the impractical to the practical but she can also take the mundane and create a beautiful work of art. I remember she visited us in Massachusetts and wanted to walk in the neighboring woods to collect plants for flower arrangements. It was autumn and the trees were becoming bare and I thought Grandma would be disappointed not being able to find anything decent for her arrangements. But she gathered twigs, ferns, and other foliage and created a beautiful arrangement.”
AIISF would like to express its appreciation for many of this story’s details and the naturalization photograph to the Stockton Japanese American Citizens League and California State University at Sacramento for their Oral History Interview with Kaoru Ito, December 4, 1977, Dorothy Okura and Chisato Watanabe, interviewers; Barry Saik,i English translator; Aeko Fenelon, writer.
Grant Din is community relations director for AIISF. His wife Rosalyn Tonai is one of Kaoru Okawa Ito’s grandchildren.
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