online book
Japanese picture brides
Five Views: An Ethnic Historic Site Survey for California



current topic Organizations/Religion
World War II Incarceration

Historic Sites
Selected References


A History of Japanese Americans in California:

The first Japanese American community organization of record in the United States was the Gospel Society or Fukuin Kai, established in October 1877 in San Francisco. The Gospel Society offered English classes, operated a boarding house, and provided a place for Japanese to meet. With the influence of White Christians, the religious orientation of the society developed. Out of this organization eventually came the Japanese Christian churches, some of which were established in the 1890s.

The issei established three types of organizations in the communities they settled: churches, political/social organizations called by various names, and Japanese-language schools. Churches, whether Christian, Buddhist, or Shinto, were the focus of activity for most Japanese communities, and often were the earliest organizations to be established. Subsequently, churches expanded beyond religious services as women's organizations (fujinkai) became active, and youth groups were established with the advent of children. The churches provided both religious sustenance and a social life. It is estimated that before World War II, 85 percent of Japanese were Buddhist. Possibly the sole Japanese American community with only a Christian church was Livingston (Yamato Colony). During the World War II internment, churches served as storage centers for personal property left behind by Japanese Americans, and as hostels for returning evacuees. The churches themselves organized into umbrella groups such as the Buddhist Churches of America, the Japanese Evangelical Mission Society, the Holiness Conference, and the Northern and Southern California Christian Church Federation. Most of the original congregations still exist today.

The political/social organizations were organized under different names, depending on the community. Some of these names were doshikai, kyogikai, and nihonjinkai (Japanese Association). All Japanese were assumed to belong to political/social organizations which dealt with issues affecting the total Japanese American community. Often, they had their own offices or buildings for conducting business and holding meetings. Association leaders were spokespersons for the community in dealings with the larger community, and worked as intermediaries in differences of opinion or conflicts. Decisions were made by male members of the organization. Sometimes, a women's organization (fujinkai) was attached to this organization. Many of these organizations died with the World War II internment. Properties were signed over to the nisei, and records were lost or destroyed during this period. Today, only a few of the original organizations still exist and function.

As nisei children grew older, Japanese-language schools flourished throughout the state. The first Japanese-language school of record in the state was Shogakko in San Francisco, established in 1902. By the 1930s, virtually every Japanese American community had its own nihongakko (Japanese-language school) operated by a church or Japanese association. Some communities had two or more schools. Occasionally, both Buddhist and Christian churches in a community supported their own Japanese-language schools. Teachers were often church ministers, their wives, or well-educated persons in the community. Occasionally, a dormitory was built in conjunction with the Japanese-language school, as in Fresno, Guadalupe, and Sacramento, where children of busy parents would live at the school. Many of these schools closed with the incarceration of West Coast Japanese American residents during World War II. In many communities, however, a revival of Japanese-language schools occurred during the 1950s and 1960s, when the sansei generation became of school age. Currently, some communities still operate Japanese-language schools, but their numbers are small.

Shonien, Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Church
Shonien (left), Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Church (right), Los Angeles County

Persons originating from the same area in Japan formed kenjinkai, which are social organizations designed to support, aid, and acquaint fellow kenjin (persons from the same prefecture). Social services in the form of financial aid, informal counseling, and care for the sick or injured were functions of these groups. Communities had one kenjinkai if the Japanese American community was primarily composed of people from the same area of Japan. If the community was large, as in Los Angeles, many kenjinkai existed, reflecting the different geographic origins of the immigrants. Very few exist today.

Particularly in agricultural areas, cooperatives to grow, ship, and market agricultural products emerged, giving issei farmers greater control over their economic destinies. Some of these cooperatives including Lucky Produce in Sacramento, Naturipe in Watsonville, the California Flower Market in San Francisco, and the City Market in Los Angeles are still operating today.

The Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) emerged as the largest nisei organization. Organized in 1930, with headquarters now in San Francisco, JACL gained prominence as an organization during the World War II internment, when issei leaders were separately detained and the War Relocation Authority refused to allow the immigrant generation leadership positions. With chapters throughout the country, JACL speaks for a certain segment of the Japanese American community.

Nisei also provided leadership in Christian and Buddhist churches. Due to an "integration" move in Christian churches, Japanese Christian Churches have removed the "Japanese" designation, and have adopted names that make it difficult to identify them as ethnic churches. Many Japanese Americans now attend churches with non-Japanese congregations. Coupled with the fact that many Japanese Americans attend no church at all, it becomes difficult to evaluate religious preference. Of those that do belong to a church, their preference still remains either Christian or Buddhist.

Japanese American community organizations have been in existence since 1877, serving the changing needs of their members. A relatively recent phenomenon is senior citizens' centers, where programs geared to the needs and interests of issei are carried out by second- and third-generation Japanese Americans. Some of these include Kimochikai in San Francisco, the Pioneer Center in Los Angeles, the Nikkei Service Center in Fresno, the Suisun Nisei Club in Suisun City (Solano County), and the Asian Community Center in Sacramento.

Japan Town, Morning Star School
Japan Town (left), Morning Star School (right), San Francisco County

NEXT> Discrimination

online book Top

Last Modified: Wed, Nov 17 2004 10:00:00 pm PDT

ParkNet Home