10. Japanese American Girls’ Clubs in Los Angeles during the 1920s and 1930s
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10 Japanese American Girls’ Clubs in Los Angeles during the 1920s and 1930s Valerie J. Matsumoto In 1926, the first letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Japanese Daily News’s fledgling English-language section came from a Nisei girl, part of the growing second-generation readership targeted by the ethnic newspaper. Cora Asakura welcomed the Nisei-run section with delight, saying,“I hope we may put our club news in it too.”1 Asakura was one of the many young women who participated in a fast-growing range of Japanese American youth clubs in southern California before World War II.2 These organizations provided camaraderie and critical resources for second-generation adolescents in an era of segregation and exclusion, exacerbated by economic hardship during the Great Depression. In their clubs, Nisei daughters honed valuable organizational skills, developed strong gender and generational ties, socialized with young men, engaged in social service, and gained high visibility within the Japanese American community. Examining their group activities reveals how girls pushed the boundaries of acceptable gender behavior while maintaining certain gendered practices, such as women’s responsibility for food preparation. Club activities also show how the Nisei both challenged and reflected the racial structures of their time. At the intersection of gender and racial dynamics , young women played a vivid symbolic role—which grew increasingly tense with the advent of World War II—as representatives of the ethnic community.3 The English-language sections of the Japanese American newspapers in Los Angeles provide a window into the young women’s extensive networks. Two newspapers have been particularly useful: the Rafu Shimpo (Los Angeles Japanese Daily News) and the Kashu Mainichi (Japan-California Daily News). Preserved in their pages, the cadence and color of Nisei speech bring to life much that was forgotten after World War II. In this chapter I have drawn heavily from the early years of the Rafu Shimpo’s English-language section, which offer a treasure trove of “thick description” about club activities. Because of the wartime destruction of so many Japanese American personal records, the ethnic press and oral history recollections remain invaluable sources for examining the prewar community. 172 Growing Up in Los Angeles By the second decade of the twentieth century, Los Angeles had become the major population center of Japanese Americans in the United States. The Census Bureau recorded 8,641 living in Los Angeles County in 1910. By 1930 the number had grown to 35,000, of whom half were U.S.-born Nisei.As Kashu Mainichi reporter Joe Oyama observed in 1936:“Los Angeles is to the Japanese what Harlem is to the Negro, San Francisco to the Chinese, Stockton to the Filipinos, and Hollywood to the Mid-Western girl.”4 Japanese American neighborhoods and businesses coalesced in many parts of southern California, particularly as Issei and Nisei farming burgeoned. In Los Angeles County the trade in Japanese American–grown fruit and vegetables fueled a bustling wholesale produce market as well as numerous fruit, grocery, and dairy stores. Some two thousand contract gardeners, many of them living in West Los Angeles, also became a familiar part of the landscape they tended, from the estates of Westwood and Bel Air to Hollywood and Pasadena. A Japanese American fishing and cannery community also developed on Terminal Island across from San Pedro. Because racial discrimination barred Japanese from buying or renting homes in more desirable areas, Japanese enclaves were often located near commercial or industrial sites, and frequently in proximity to African American neighborhoods.5 The hub of these diverse southern California communities was “Little Tokyo,”6 a cluster of stores, restaurants, hotels, and homes in downtown Los Angeles, centering on First Street between Alameda and Los Angeles Streets. Here farm families came on weekends to shop; job seekers headed to employment agencies; and both the Nisei and their immigrant parents, the Issei, spent leisure time with their friends: attending church and club meetings, dancing, gambling, and going to movies, theater performances , and music recitals. Nisei daughters growing up in this urban setting had more comfortable, less strenuous childhoods than their rural counterparts. They did not, however, lack for responsibility . Whether they lived on a farm or in the city, Japanese American children usually worked in the home and family business. Their labor proved vital to the support of the immigrant family. City girls often helped operate family businesses in the Japanese American enclave, sweeping a tofu store or waiting on restaurant customers. Their chores included...



Subject Headings

  • Pacific Islander American women -- History.
  • Asian American women -- History.
  • United States -- Ethnic relations.
  • Pacific Islander American women -- Social conditions.
  • Asian American women -- Social conditions.
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