Janet Daijogo: Japanese Incarceration and Finding Her Place through Aikido and Teaching

by Deborah Qu

“I’ve actually heard that what you think of as your earliest childhood memory has a certain importance, but not because it’s necessarily your first memory. Just that having that association as your first memory means that you’ve placed a certain importance on it, for whatever that’s worth.” — Janet Daijogo

Janet Daijogo’s first real memory was the day military police knocked on her door and gave her family two weeks to relocate. It was during World War II, and she was Sansei or third-generation Japanese American. “The whole thing was just shrouded by fear,” she recalls during her oral history for The Bancroft Library in 2011. There was a fear of police knocking at her door and the uncertainty of where she was going to live. She realizes in retrospect that this memory was like a “body imprint” that influenced her personality, and something she carried with her into adulthood. 

Janet Daijogo was born on March 21, 1937 in San Francisco, California. At age five, she and her family were relocated to incarceration camps at Tanforan Racetrack and Topaz, Utah, during WW2. Post incarceration, she followed in her mother’s footsteps and attended UC Berkeley. Today, Daijogo is a veteran kindergarten teacher at Marin Country Day school, having taught children for 40-plus years. She incorporates Aikido, a noncompetitive form of martial art, in her teaching, and attributes her journey in teaching and Aikido as a mental practice where she found her space and purpose.

Janet Daijogo
Janet Daijogo in her classroom

Daijogo remembers moving to Topaz after a few months in Tanforan. Her parents carried on with hope or gaman, the belief in Japanese culture that they “can get through this kind of thing, and we do not complain.” While she does not remember much about Tanforan as a child, she recalls barracks with dirty wooden floors and sheetless cots, and mess halls with long waiting lines that served food on metal dishes. But Daijogo most distinctly recalls the large fences that encased the Topaz camp along the grey landscape, and how her imagination went wild about the people and mystery outside the fence. 

After the war, the Daijogo family moved to Oklahoma. There, she remembers seeing black-white segregated bathrooms and being unsure about which one to enter. Daijogo recalls feeling divided, saying “I think at that moment . . . I realized that I was not one of them. I was not white, I was an outlier. I was somebody on the fringes.” 

From fourth grade onwards through high school, Janet Daijogo lived on an American Army base in Japan. She describes the unfamiliarity about not knowing the language or dressing like her peers, and becoming more ‘Americanized’ in Japan. “There was this distance,” she remembers. “I did not really identify with them even though they looked like me.” Later, she looks back on her childhood and high school years by saying, “I think one of the themes of my life is being the outsider and finding the comfort of that, where to be, how to be in that situation.”

Janet Daijogo attended UC Berkeley, majoring in child development and minoring in history. Both her parents were Cal alumni and strongly valued education, but her mother was especially proud of attending Berkeley. Janet describes how “unusual” that her mom was able to attend Cal and how “it was also an important part of her identity.” Like many Berkeley students today, Daijogo felt the same excitement in anticipation for school. She describes the feeling of picking up books for the start of the semester, saying “there’s a real energy in them…like you’re getting ready to explore something out there.” But while Daijigo describes her experience as “amazing,” she also remembers thinking, ”oh my God, what am I doing here with all these smart people?” 

Janet Daijogo with her family
Janet Daijogo with her family

After graduation, Daijigo and her new husband Sam moved to Japan, where she taught at an international school. While she still was seen as a foreigner, this time she experienced Japan more outside her American bubble. Once they returned to the US, Daijogo stayed at home to raise her children. However she quickly felt discouraged. She recalls that her “sense of purpose and personal value that comes from work” was missing, because she could not express her academic side. This was when she found a job at the Marin Child Development Center teaching emotionally disturbed children. First, she recalls coming home and crying every day for four or five months, frustrated at the difficulty of teaching children. Yet over time, Daijogo found there was something about these situations she had no control over. With the help of her mentor, Janet Daijogo realized that she was not the cause, but she also could not magically make them happy. She was just “part of the journey.” 

Around this time, Janet Daijogo found Aikido. For Daijogo, Aikido was a space for reflection and grounding, where she found her “center, a place of stability and of ‘okayness’, of feeling good, of relaxation and of power.” She integrated the practice of Aikido into her teaching curriculum, and stressed the importance of cultivating a supportive relationship with oneself to students at a young age. Janet Daijigo discovered that she needed to treat herself in the same way she had taught the children; like them, she was “part of the journey.” Today, Janet Daijigo is a grandmother who still teaches at Marin Country Day and still practices Aikido. About accepting uncertainty and understanding the self, Janet Daijigo says, “I think at this stage in my life I now know what I know, and I know what I don’t know.” 

This year marks the 150th anniversary of women being admitted to UC Berkeley on “equal terms as men,” as approved by the Board of Regents in 1870. Since the doors were opened that first year, there have been an innumerable number of accomplished women graduates from Berkeley who have gone on to contribute meaningful work in STEM and humanities, excel in sports, devote their lives to public service and communities, and introduce new and valuable perspectives on old patterns of thought. From looking at their outward accomplishments alone, it seems like large shoes for today’s students to fill. As a student studying remotely this year, I would not be surprised that many of us are anxious about school or future career prospects, health and wellbeing, financial issues, or the news in general. But Daijogo’s oral history stood out to me, because she openly speaks about the mental challenges of stressful life events and the importance of self care and patience. Her vulnerable story reminds us that that life is a journey of continued learning, and we are all along for the ride. 


Deborah Qu is a sophomore at UC Berkeley and is majoring in psychology. As a research assistant for the UC Berkeley Oral History Center, she developed a collection guide to UC Berkeley Women Oral Histories, which is available on the Berkeley Women 150 and Oral History Center websites. 

Read the Daijogo oral history: Janet Daijogo, A Life’s Journey: From Child of the Incarceration to Master Teacher, Translating the Truths of Aikido for the Kindergarten Classroom.

See the related oral history collection: Japanese American Confinement Sites.