On January 1, 1943, National JACL established the JACL Midwest Regional Office by leasing a space on the 9th floor of 189 West Madison in the Loop. The office served to provide information and assistance to Japanese Americans either considering or already coping with relocation to Chicago. Dr. Thomas Yatabe, the first elected JACL National President, was asked to run the office upon his release from Jerome, Arkansas internment camp.
Dr. Yatabe was committed to the idea that the growing Chicago Japanese American community needed a JACL chapter to represent its long-term interests. Meetings to discuss chapter formation began in the summer of 1943 at such locations as the International House at the University of Chicago, and were attended by the nucleus of what later became the 25 charter members required to form a chapter. Along with Bill Minami (who had been asked by Dr. Yatabe to eventually be the Chapter’s first president), George Hiura, William Hiura, Noboru Honda, Dixie Ishida, Togo Tanaka, and Kumeo Yoshinari were prominent among those 25 individuals. Chicago became the first JACL chapter of the Midwest after receiving its charter on April 15, 1945.
The JACL Midwest Office has continued to work closely with the Chicago Chapter by providing guidance and assistance in implementing national JACL programs in the Chicago area. JACL’s Midwest Directors have been Richard Akagi, Tats Kushida, Tom Hibino and William Yoshino, who has held the position since 1978.
Since its inception, the Chicago Chapter has played a key role in the success of many of JACL’s national legislative efforts. The Chapter has done so by making significant contributions in terms of personnel, labor, information, and funding.
As part of a 1946 JACL mandate seeking to attain (1) naturalization rights for the Issei, (2) compensation for evacuation-related losses, and (3) the end of racist immigration and naturalization laws, the Chapter participated in the push to get Congress to pass the Walter-McCarran Immigration and Naturalization Act. This act (which became law in 1952) brought about a number of changes, providing aliens with eligibility for citizenship, creating an immigration quota for Japan, establishing supplementary rights for spouses and children of American citizens, and setting fair administrative procedure and court review for all immigration and deportation cases.
Essential to the act’s passage were the substantial financial and letter-writing contributions of Chapter members and the critical support of Congressmen like Sidney Yates of the Illinois 9th District. Yates demonstrated his dedication to the struggle of Japanese Americans in his maiden speech on the floor of the House. His strong working relationship with Mike Masaoka, then the JACL lobbyist in Washington, D.C., completed a triangle of solid channels of communication between National JACL, Congress, and the Chapter.
National JACL and the Chapter again coordinated efforts in support of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, one of the strongest civil rights laws in this country’s history. While National JACL participated in the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, Hiro Mayeda, then Midwest District Governor, made several visits to major Midwest cities to speak as an advocate of the expansion of civil rights. Chicago, along with other Midwest chapters, held activities designed to introduce and educate its members to the common struggles of all minorities and the concept of universal civil rights.
The Chapter’s involvement with the Redress movement began in 1978, when National JACL began its initiative toward the formation of a Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. This federal commission would reopen the evacuation experience and consider the issue of Redress. Midwest Director William Yoshino worked closely with the JACL National Committee for Redress in shaping and implementing the national legislative strategy. Yoshino was invited to witness the signing of the Commission legislation by President Jimmy Carter in the Cabinet Room of the White House in 1980.
Chicago was selected as one of the sites for the subsequent Commission hearings. Chairing the Chapter’s Redress Committee, Chiye Tomihiro mobilized local volunteers to speak about their experiences. The JACL Midwest Office also found individuals to testify from surrounding Midwestern cities and held workshops to assist individuals with their testimony. Twenty-five representatives of institutions and legislators from Chicago and the Midwest testified along with 53 additional individuals. The preparatory workshops and the hearings themselves proved an important forum for resettlers to confront emotions that had been repressed for decades. In 1983, the Commission submitted its report, “Personal Justice Denied,” which recommended that Congress issue $230,000 per evacuee as symbolic redress and that the nation formally apologize.
During the next six years, National JACL lobbied for the fulfillment of this recommendation. The JACL Midwest Office coordinated letter writing, Congressional visits and redress support from all the JACL Midwest Chapters. To finance this effort, National JACL established the independent Legislative Education Committee with Shig Wakamatsu as its treasurer. Through the collective work of Wakamatsu’s office, the JACL Midwest Office, and the Redress Committee, the Chapter raised over $30,000 to assist the Redress campaign. The resulting Civil Liberties Act of 1988 provided an apology signed by the president of the United States, as well as payment of $20,000 to every surviving internee. Shig Wakamatsu and William Yoshino attended the signing ceremony by President Ronald Reagan at the Old Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C.
As with the legislative victories, the Chapter has been at the center of JACL’s major cultural contributions, perhaps chief among them the Japanese American Research Project (JARP). Shig Wakamatsu first suggested the idea of compiling a history of the Issei as an educational tool and public relations exhibit in 1959. After Wakamatsu organized a fund-raising drive, many Chicagoans not only contributed, but also volunteered to be interviewed for the project. JARP has produced a chronological and legislative history of Japanese Americans, a sociological three-generation study of acculturation, and a record of the agriculture achievements of the Issei generation. This final chapter was completed with the 1992 publication of Planted in Good Soil.
Along with its work as an arm of National JACL, the Chapter has devoted itself to regional activities. These have ranged from providing for the basic needs of its members to offering information and support for the cause of civil rights for Japanese Americans and all minorities.
In 1945, Noboru Honda and Jack Nakagawa started the JACL Chicago Credit Union to meet the survival needs of many resettlers, who found it difficult to get approval for bank loans due to discrimination. Nakagawa based Chicago’s Credit Union on the JACL National Credit Union in Salt Lake City, which issued loans on slightly easier terms than those of a bank. Investors could purchase stock in the Chicago Credit Union for $5.00 per share. With a few hundred dollars in generated capital, this Credit Union originally made loans to provide for such things as food allowances and medical bills.
Attempting to introduce the Japanese American community to other major civil and human rights issues of the day, Mari Sabusawa, Program Chair in 1947, arranged periodic lectures at the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations. These lectures dealt with the African American experience, scholarly issues, legal matters, and an assortment of other topics. These lectures drew audiences ranging between 200 to 250 people. By the early 1960s, the talks had been merged with the Chapter’s general meetings, and still attracted audiences of 150 people. As Shigeo Wakamatsu put it, “the talks served to give a paradigm to Japanese Americans’ future work as individuals, as well as provide a social gathering.”
In conjunction with the Civil Rights Movement of the early 1960s, the Chicago Chapter began its annual Brotherhood Dinner to promote unity among all races. The Chapter prepared a sukiyaki meal and invited speakers from other civil rights groups in the area. These dinners were succeeded in the 1970s by Candidate’s Night. Throughout that decade, the Chapter invited various political candidates to give presentations and field questions from chapter members.
Between 30 and 50 members would attend to talk with candidates for city, county and state offices.
Toward the Future
In the new millennium, the Chapter has focused its efforts on fighting hate crime violence and educating the public on the Japanese American historical experience. For more information, see Programs.