June Shimokawa

Interview by Deborah Lee

June Shimokawa was born on the Big Island of Hawai'i in 1934 in a sugar plantation village on the Hamakua Coast. June’s grandparents immigrated in 1899 from Fukuoka, Japan to the Big Island in the Kohala area with June's mother, age four. Both of June’s parents were Japanese language instructors on a sugar plantation, teaching Japanese to the children of the Japanese sugar cane workers.

June (foreground) as a child with her older cousin Peggy in Hilo, Hawai’i
June's childhood family home had many visitors. Their parlor was the place where school board and other community meetings took place. June recalls, “As daughters in particular, it was important to know how to be hospitable. My mother had taught us that when company came we would wait a little while, then we would hustle off to the kitchen to open a can of fruit or something and water and serve the company something.”
“My mother was somewhat progressive in her thinking. She was Japanese American but she was not passive. When WWII came, she was rolling bandages for the Red Cross.”
June's family grew up in the Buddhist tradition with a butsudan (home altar) where “the first serving of rice freshly made would be put on this little stand, brass stand and placed on the butsudan.” Her mother had also been influenced by missionaries in the Kohala area.
School photo of June and her classmates reflecting the diverse sugar plantation workforce of Hawaiians, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Puerto Ricans, and Portugeuse.

The evening of December 6th, 1941, the night before Pearl Harbor was bombed in Oahu, Hawai'i, June's father was taken away by government authorities. Like him, other Japanese language teachers, Buddhist ministers and other leaders in the Nikei community were taken away and sent to Department of Justice camps across the continental US. It was not until November 1945, three months after the end of WW II in the Pacific, that June's father was released and able to rejoin his family.

About this time period, June says:
“When my father was taken away in the middle of the night, I woke up in the middle of the night. My mother was packing an overnight bag.  My sister remembers 3 men came to pick up my father. The police who came to pick up my father had come on Dec. 6th, BEFORE the bombing....It was a tumultuous time for everybody. Probably the most affected was my mother. Father was the breadwinner. What were we going to do?” ... “It wasn't until 30 years later that we discovered that the reason he was picked up. As the teacher in the village, he was also the record keeper of the Nikei community's births, deaths and weddings, and reported this information to the Japanese Consulate.”
Because he performed these duties, he was on the US government's suspect list even before WWII. He was held in U.S. Department of Justice camps for enemy aliens/prisoners of war for four years.

The YWCA: “Service and Social Action”

After the end of World War II and the return of her father, June's family moved to Honolulu. She was 13 years old. As a high school student she started attending Harris United Methodist Church, a Japanese American congregation in Honolulu, with her sister and several classmates. She also joined the YWCA Y-Teens Club, which became a key part of her formation as a Christian and a leader, shaping her path towards “service and social action.”

YWCA in Honolulu
At the Y, she learned Christian values and teachings and the “social principles of the church” by Walter Rauschenbusch. The values of “servant leadership, faith in action, faith in practice” shaped her understanding of the Christian faith as rooted in the words of Micah 6:8 --“Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.”

At the YWCA , June was also exposed to the empowerment of women. June saw models of strong women leaders, theologically trained spiritual women, and a multiracial and racially-integrated and “shared leadership between African American women and white women,” during the Civil Rights Period.

Video excerpt: “The places like the YWCA were real laboratories for a democratic way of doing things. Democracy, equality and empowerment, although we didn't use terms like empowerment in those days. Even the Civil Rights movement was called a human relations thing in '59-'60, when I was first exposed to the Civil Rights period. But we didn't use terms like that. Even other organizations had a "human relations" person. JACL's Civil Rights leader was a human relations person for the City of Seattle. These are evolutionary things in the movement. The YWCA early on, even in the South, were places where black and white women could work together. It was a building in many places where blacks and whites could go.”

Her involvement in the YWCA influenced her career path into the field of social work. Through a scholarship from the YWCA, June attended college in Cleveland, Ohio studying social work. The scholarship required her to work two years for the YWCA after she graduated, which she did in Columbus, Ohio. After Ohio, she went on to work many years for the YWCA in other locations, such as Seattle, WA and Pasadena, CA as the Western Regional Coordinator of the YWCA.

Racism and Civil Rights

“Racism was a very big issue for that time period.”

In the different cities where June worked, she became involved with different aspects of the Civil Rights struggle which at that time was either black or white. Issues of Native Americans and Asian Americans were only beginning to percolate under the surface, but Asian American organizations like the Japanese Americans Citizens League (JACL), which she was a part of in Seattle, were engaged in the struggle for Civil Rights.

Video excerpt: “When I went to Seattle, I joined JACL. Immediately I got involved in the human relations committee. It had a parallel March on Washington in Seattle. The Urban league, NAACP, other groups and the JACL all shared together in those experiences of cultivating race relations. ... At that time welfare, the war on poverty--the strain of racism was still very present. So that was the natural kind of thing to work on in JACL and through NASW. In fact, the president was killed. He was Urban League. Someone just came to his door and shot him in the face. ... He was African American. It was really a big blow to us."

Working for the National Church in New York

In her mid-40s, June spent several years working on the national denominational staff of the United Methodist Church. She worked for the Global Ministries Board of the United Methodist Church based at the Interchurch Center of New York City. While she was there, she was involved with the national church's responses to issues of health and welfare, including the arrival and resettlement of Southeast Asian refugees beginning in the late 1970s, as well as the issue of Disability Awareness and issues of accessibility.

Video transcript: “At around the same time, there was another initiative that was coming out within the church. I think it all springs from the Civil Rights movement. It was people with disabilities. ... I told my boss I wanted to work on that. I created a nationwide taskforce, wrote grants, got people from different disabilities or their parents to sit together. We had meetings throughout the country to talk about the theological basis for supporting people with disabilities and accessibility. A United Church of Christ (UCC) pastor helped us with that. A man who had no arms, Harold Wilke, was a very significant individual of the UCC. He helped make wholesale changes in the social principals of the church. That’s another whole movement in terms of trying to affect things so that people who had disabilities were no longer locked up in their homes, and they could go to church. We gave out accessibility grants so that people could apply for money that they would match with their own money and make their places more accessible. Whether with the hearing impaired, physically impaired and so forth. I left it for disabled people to lead, and said I gotta get back to the grassroots.”

California: Creating an Asian and Pacific American organization

Members of APANA in Los Angeles
June came to California as the Western Regional Coordinator of the YWCA, based in Pasadena, California. While living there, she became involved in a Japanese American church, Sage United Methodist Church, and helped in the formation of a community organization called Asian Pacific Americans for Nuclear Awareness (APANA) in 1985.

"I was a member of Sage United Methodist Church, where Wes Himaka was pastor, and he was very progressive. So we created a Church and Society division, a small group. And we got the permission of the church to do the social action things for the church. It’s a really good way to work. And that’s when we helped to form the Asian and Pacific Americans for Nuclear Awareness (APANA) because we saw the Peace movement in CA being pretty white. So the issues of the Pacific [were left out]. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were about as far as they got. That’s when we decided that it was pretty important to get the Pacific aspect of this [issue] into it. So we learned more about the nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands, and Giff Johnson and Darlene Keju came to expose us [to the issues]."

June speaking at a Hiroshima-Nagasaki Day event in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles.
One of APANA's major events was an annual Hiroshima-Nagasaki Day gathering which drew 100-200 people to the plaza in Japantown, Los Angeles each year. APANA’s aim was to reach beyond the white anti-nuclear and peace movement to bring greater visibility to the issues of nuclear weapons and testing to a wider community. During this time period, there was little awareness of the impact of atomic testing on the Marshallese people and the nuclear weapons testing happening in the US. APANA’s annual program, which began in the early '80s, often brought speakers “living that hell” such as atomic survivors from Japan or the testing in the Pacific. It included videos, folk singers, and rituals presenting cranes at the events. At the beginning, APANA was made up of mostly third-generation Japanese and Chinese Americans and immigrant Filipinos and Koreans. The folks like June from the faith community were “the group of people who found a certain amount of impatience within the organized church. And so we take our faith out into the streets to where the people are, with like-minded folk…”

Hawai'i: Back to the Grassroots

June’s picture in the newspaper at a peace vigil at the Federal building in Honolulu at the one-year anniversary of September 11th, in 2002.
June returned to Hawai’i, where she now resides in Oahu. She began working part time with the American Friends Service Committee in Hawai’i, involved in the local struggles of native Hawaiians, or kanaka maoli, issues of demilitarization, decolonization, and economic justice issues.

June was also part of the Hawaiian Ecumenical Coalition, and as a Methodist in that coalition worked to raise the consciousness within the United Methodist churches about the history of the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom and the continued struggles which Native Hawaiians face.

Though retired, June is still active on many social justice issues in Hawai’i and known to many people in the movement and community as “Auntie June.” She still continues to actively pursue questions of theology, faith and spirituality.

On experiencing discrimination as an Asian American and as a woman

Video excerpt: “There were times, especially during the Civil Rights period, being Asian American, you were [perceived as] a foreigner. Or being a woman, I felt that at the church. At committee meetings and so forth, I would make a contribution in the meeting reflecting on my thought and it just didn’t seem to be heard. Maybe I didn’t have the [right] language to use. Maybe it was the way I said things: very different from, 'I don't care what you think, this is what I think.' Maybe it was cautionary language, or questions. I learned how to use questions as a way to open dialogue in a group. There may have been times I felt less than, but I try not to let that get to me.”

Guiding Philosophy and Practice

Video excerpt: “A turning point for me was that wherever I lived, I would have one foot in the Japanese American community and the other foot in the community, the larger community. ... I did not want to forget where I came from. And living on the continent-- it's different in Hawai’i, but on the continent because you were such a minority, it was important to remember that. But the other [side] was that it is important to be part of the larger community and the issues that were of concern to the larger community. For two reasons: one reason is, as a social worker, the discipline of bringing about equality, justice. The other reason is the Christian faith calling for faithfulness, righteousness and justice. Working with others to bring about a sense of community and hospitality. That’s the expression of the Christian faith .”

Spirituality: “we are all just specks in the universe”

The full transcript of our interview is available here.