SOUTH SAN FRANCISCO – Lillian Iida Matsumoto, who took care of more than 100 children as a superintendent of the Manzanar Children’s Village, passed away peacefully at the age of 101 on Feb. 27.
Born in Salt Lake City, Utah on Feb. 4, 1913, she moved to Berkeley with her family, including three younger siblings, in 1929 when her father got a job with The Nichi Bei Times in San Francisco.
Matsumoto entered UC Berkeley at the age of 16 and graduated with a graduate certificate from the School of Social Welfare. She was initially barred from the program because of her ethnicity, but she contested the decision and became the only Japanese American student in the department. The Japanese American Women Alumnae of UC Berkeley presented her with the Outstanding Alumna award in 1998.
She and her husband Harry were recognized for their work at the Children’s Village orphanage in the Manzanar camp during World War II. The government’s exclusion of Japanese Americans from the West Coast included orphans, all of whom were sent to Manzanar. Many of the children came from Shonien (Children’s Garden), where she was assistant superintendent, and Maryknoll Catholic Home for Japanese children in Los Angeles, and Japanese Salvation Army Home of San Francisco.
During a 2007 program at the Japanese American National Museum, Matsumoto recalled arriving at Manzanar with her husband in March 1942, while the camp was still under construction.
“The hospital was already built, we suggested building (Children’s Village) there near the hospital. It was isolated from the blocks, but still nearby,” Matsumoto said.
Matsumoto and her staff packed up cribs, bedding, diapers and a piano from Shonien, and escorted the children in a caravan of two buses and a van from Los Angeles to Manzanar. Two soldiers, armed with a rifle and fixed bayonets, accompanied the buses.
“The little ones we tried to make like it was a picnic. One little girl who was four years old, said, ‘I will get up and sing’ and she sang ‘God Bless America,'” Matsumoto said. “This young soldier shed tears to hear this young four year old sing ‘God Bless America.'”
When the Matsumotos left Manzanar, they adopted one of the orphaned baby girls, Karyl. Active in civic affairs in the Bay Area, Karyl Matsumoto has been a member of the South San Francisco City Council for 17 years and is currently serving as mayor for the fourth time. She is also past chair of the San Mateo County Transportation District and current chair of the San Mateo County Transit Authority.
Lillian Matsumoto retired after 19 years from UC Berkeley’s Inter-Library Loan Department.
In addition to her daughter, she is survived by her son Kent and wife Dee diSomma; granddaughter Sabetta Matsumoto and husband Jordan Leef; sisters Grace Tasaka and Kim Iida; and many nieces and nephews.
A memorial service was held on March 15 at St. Clements Episcopal Church in Berkeley. Memorial donations may be made to Friends of Manzanar, P.O. Box 357, Independence, CA 93526, or a charity of your choice. Condolences may also be made at www.gardenchapel885.com.
To see an account of Matsumoto’s life in her own words, click here.