The 100-year-old history of the Berkeley Buddhist Temple can be told through the eyes, experiences and the heartfelt emotions of Taeko (Taye) Oda, who is 90 years young and living in Berkeley.
Her life has mirrored the temple’s existence — from the good times when she, as a student at UC Berkeley, cooked dinners in the temple dormitory, to her April 1942 marriage to one of the dorm’s residents, Hayaji (Hike) Oda, right before the temple was closed because of the World War II-era evacuation order.
And she also experienced anxious, difficult times, when she was labeled an “enemy alien,” and couldn’t even return to her home. She had to live with her husband at the temple for more than a week before they were sent to theTanforan race track in San Bruno, where they bunked in unsanitary horse stalls for four months before being shipped to the Topaz, UT, internment camp. In all, more than 110,000 people of Japanese descent were removed from the West Coast and sent into internment camps.
Taeko Oda’s father-in-law, Heihachi Oda, sold eggs in the Berkeley and Oakland hills, and was arguably the key figure in founding the temple in 1911. He served as temple president for 24 years until 1935. And the lineage continues to this very day. Oda’s daughters and granddaughters are among the most active members of the temple.
I was fascinated to discover how the generations of the Oda family intertwined with the temple’s history. Finding out so much about the Odas – as well as other families and individuals — has been one of the joys I’ve experienced in researching and writing about the temple, with the help of our minister, Rev. Dr. David Ryoe Matsumoto of Albany, who wrote an excellent series of articles about the temple. I’m in charge of putting together the text and photos for the temple’s centennial book, which will be released early next year.
(The temple, located at , is celebrating its centennial Saturday with a service and special program. Members come from throughout the East Bay — Albany, El Cerrito, Berkeley, Orinda, Lafayette, Benicia – as well as from San Francisco.)
However, mixed in with the joys associated with the project, is a feeling of incompleteness, tinged with sadness. We’re racing against time in preserving the memories of former internees, as their number dwindles to a precious few. This realization hits home with me — this year, I’ve lost both my Nisei father and mother-in-law.
I’ve ended up interviewing several people about past events — and it seems as if solving one piece of the puzzle leads to the another piece. For example, I learned from Taeko Oda that a "Mr. Robey" was entrusted with looking after the temple during the war.
She didn’t recall Robey’s first name. With the great help of Jef Findley of the Berkeley Main Library’s History Room, we were able to identify him as William Edward Robey. Now the race is on to find his descendants – three Robeys listed in the local phone book yielded nothing. Next stop: Santa Cruz, where his son died.
Maybe, I tell myself, that the reason I’ve invested so much time in this project and spent so many nights up past midnight on it, is because I didn’t grow up here. Even though I’ve lived off and on in the East Bay for about 30 years (including the past decade in Albany), my upbringing was on a farm in eastern rural Fresno County, north of the town of Reedley. And we went to the Reedley Buddhist Church, which my grandfather helped to establish. This year, the church celebrated its 75th anniversary.
Meanwhile, I’m chasing memories captured in photos, letters, scrapbooks and newspaper articles, as well as reading and re-reading books and memoirs. Time and again, I find myself wishing that I could have met so many of these wonderful, dynamic, interesting and hardy pioneers in the photos, many of whom have passed on except for just a few like Taeko Oda.
And what would I say to the Issei (first generation) and Nisei pioneers? "Thank you for being you, for seeing it through so many tough and difficult times, and for making the path so much easier for future generations. We all are indebted to you.”