The Philadelphia Chapter of the JACL (Japanese American Citizens League) was established as a consequence of the diaspora of Nikkei (Japanese Americans) from the West Coast of the United States as a result of events triggere. In Philadelphia, the Nikkei were a small group in a large urban area of non-Asian Pacific Americans, and its members worked to nurture Nikkei heritage and family traditions and to share them with others. Despite the chapter’s small size, it has proudly contributed to the leadership and funding of the national JACL.
Pre World War II
Prior to WWII, there were about 100 Japanese living in the Philadelphia area. These were persons who came to study at the area’s elite colleges and universities and to establish themselves in Japanese art goods, the silk trade, and to fill the need for domestic workers in the estates along the Main Line.
Of those who came to Philadelphia in the latter part of the 19th century, three attained international fame: Inazo Nitobe, scholar; Hideyo Noguchi, scientist; and Ume Tsuda, educator and founder of Tsuda College for Women.
In contrast to the West Coast experience, the Issei who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with degrees in engineering, architecture, medicine, and dentistry were able to secure professional employment or establish their own practices or businesses within the community-at-large.
Two men of note were Yosuke W. Nakano from Yamaguchi who studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and Tadafumi Mikuriya from Kumamoto who earned his civil engineering degree from the Univerity of Pennsylvania. Both men worked for major firms in the Philadelphia area.
Nakano was responsible for the design of some important buildings in Philadelphia, including Thomas Jefferson Hospital. Mikuriya established his own firm specializing in structural engineering. Both Nakano and Mikuriya became naturalized citizens after passage of the Walter-McCarron Act of 1952 and served on the board of the Philadelphia Chapter of the JACL.
The War Years
President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 that removed over 115,000 aliens and American citizens of Japanese ancestry from their West Coast homes. Most were interned for years in concentration camps located around the United States. As conditions in the camps deteriorated, the War Relocation Authority (WRA) committed itself to a program of agricultural and student leave, and resettlement.
The Philadelphia WRA office opened in late 1943 when the Eastern Defense Command opened the East Coast for resettlement. This office operated under the direction of Henry Patterson, a Quaker from Swarthmore. The office helped relocate the second wave of Japanese Americans in Philadelphia and the eventual establishment of a chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League in the City of Brotherly Love and the Greater Delaware Valley.
The Nisei (second generation Japanese Americans) met and held social activities at the International Institute (later renamed the Nationalities Service Center). For the recently resettled Japanese Americans, the International Institute became their second home and a place to get together, away from their cramped apartment and the isolation of a strange, new city. Without a doubt, the International Institute served an important supporting role for the newcomers trying to get their footing in starting a new life.
Grayce K. Uyehara worked at the International Institute as a community group worker and Mary D. Murakami served as its bookkeeper. Hiroshi Uyehara, who was then chairman of the Philadelphia Nisei Council, served on the Institute’s advisory committee.
When Nikkei were finally permitted to return to the West Coast, their numbers in Philadelphia decreased. Eventually, nearly half of the Japanese Americans who had initially resettled on the East Coast from the camps decided to return to more familiar surroundings. Those that stayed began to establish more permanent roots, prompting the pre-War Nikkei in the area to begin socializing with the newer arrivals.
It was in this climate that Tesua Iwasaki initiated the movement to transform the Philadelphia Nisei Council to become the Philadelphia Chapter of the JACL. On March 25, 1947 the chapter was chartered with the help of Mas Satow and Mike Masaoka. Iwasaki was elected to be the chapter’s first president and Hiroshi Uyehara became the chapter’s official delegate to the JACL’s national convention. Jack Ozawa would eventually succeed Iwasaki in 1948 and 1949.
At its peak, the Philadelphia Chapter had 250 members. In subsequent years, membership fell to as low as 145, but recently it has been experiencing a resurgence and now has more than 175 members.
Involvement in Local Activities
For many years, the Philadelphia Chapter JACL was a major participant in the International Institute’s Folk Fair, held at the old Philadelphia Convention Center. The chapter derived funds from the sale of food and gift items to sustain its activities. Delicious sushi, chirashi, teriyaki, and sukiyaki were typical offerings. Wonderful performances were produced for the Folk Fair by Hatsumi Harada, who taught young Sansei (third generation Japanese Americans) traditional Japanese folk dances, sewed their colorful kimonos, and created fabulous hanagasa and other dance props. In time, the International Institute reluctantly discontinued the Folk Fair as participation by immigrant groups declined.
The chapter then moved on to participate in the City’s Super Sunday event, held in October on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, near the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Super Sunday, a giant block party, was an extravaganza of ethnic foods and crafts, along with local popular personalities and performing groups. Initially, the event was meant to celebrate the museums along the Parkway. The chapter sold teriyaki, shish kebobs, nori maki, and inari sushi.
For many years, a major annual fund raising project for the chapter has been the preparation and selling of obento (box lunches) at the June summer Festival of the Japanese House and Garden in Fairmount Park. Preparing the obentos was a fun event that brought together many of our members, their family and friends and gave the Sansei an opportunity to learn how to prepare Japanese dishes like chirashi zushi and chicken teriyaki.
The chapter also cooperates with other Philadelphia based Asian Pacific American organizations on mutually beneficial projects. Chapter members serve on various boards and provide program support to advance Japanese culture and US-Japan relationships for organizations such as the Friends of the Japanese House and Garden (FJH&G), the Nationalities Service Center, the Balch Institute of Ethnic Studies, the Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia (JASGP), the OCA of Greater Philadelphia, Ikebana International, and Asian Americans United.
The founder and first president of the FJH&G was the late Mary I. Watanabe. Mary was an active member of the chapter as were Reiko Gaspar, Hiroshi Uyehara, and Steve Yanai, all of whom also served as president of the FJH&G. Mary also served on the board of the JASGP as did Grayce Uyehara and her son, Paul. These two organizations are at the forefront of presenting the culture and appreciation of Japan to the Philadelphia community.
District and National Activities
The impact of the Philadelphia Chapter on the national organization was much greater than might be expected from its numbers. Kaz Horita, Teresa Maebori, William Marutani, Tom Tamaki, Hiroshi and Grayce Uyehara, Mary and Warren Watanabe have all chaired major programs at the district and national levels during the chapter’s over 55 year partnership with the national organization.
The Philadelphia Chapter was tops in raising funds to support the Redress Campaign, and exemplary leadership was provided by William Marutani as the only Nikkei member appointed by President Jimmy Carter to serve on the Commission of Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC). In the mid-1980’s, Grayce Uyehara served as Executive Director of the JACL Legislative Education Committee (JACL-LEC).
Additionally, the Philadelphia Chapter took on the larger quota of the Legacy Fund campaign to help out the JACL Eastern District Council and then raised the highest amount per member among JACL’s 112 chapters.
A Chapter in Transition
The JACL has much to celebrate in remembering the triumphs of the Nikkei community as reflected in the words of General Joseph Stilwell about JA GI’s, “You’re damn right those Nisei boys have a place in our hearts, now and forever. We cannot allow a single injustice to be done to the Nisei without defeating the purposes for which we stand.”
The JACL looks forward. Now, in the 21st century, we face a new world in which our civil and human rights are under attack in ways that few of us have experienced. The Founding Fathers of this nation sought to establish a “more perfect union” and the JACL, in order to grow and develop, will need to continue to meet that challenge head on. The JACL was created and exists to tackle the continual problems of racial prejudice and injustice in this country.