Support a ‘Living’ Legacy of Japanese American Culture (Part 1)


Established in 1975, Nihonmachi Little Friends (NLF) is a bilingual, multicultural childcare organization located in San Francisco’s Japantown. In 2002, NLF launched the Issei Women’s Legacy Project – a $2.2 million capital campaign to fund the purchase and renovation of the historic 1830 Sutter Street building. Completed in 1932, it was originally built as the Japanese Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA).

Nihonmachi Little Friends Capital Campaign

For the past five years I’ve had the pleasure of serving as the Honorary Co-Chairman of the Nihonmachi Little Friends (NLF) Capital Campaign along with Hatsuro “Hats” Aizawa. $2.1 million of our original $2.2 million goal has already been raised.

Through 35 years of fundraising in San Francisco’s Japantown, I have come to appreciate the difficulty of completing campaigns. In 2009, given the poor state of our national economy and the worldwide recession, the ascent to complete our ambitious goal is steeper than ever. Well, that’s not quite true: The young Issei women, who raised funds to build the Japanese YWCA building at 1830 Sutter Street, NLF’s home today, in the deepest part of the Great Depression, had a far greater challenge.

Your contribution might well be the difference between an ongoing Japanese-American “living” legacy or a legacy reflected only in history. Why?: Completing NLF’s Capital Campaign allows young children to benefit from NLF’s programs. Under-funding risks programs ending.

Sitting comfortably in your living room, office, or corner coffee shop reading this editorial suggests that Japanese American culture has a place in your life. I am not speaking of just a “Japanese” influence, but of your tangible and intangible appreciation of things, events, people, and memories distinctly “American” of Japanese descent.

JA, an Evaporating Culture: The Unnoticed Diaspora

More than likely your connection to Japanese America is no longer with the J-town you grew up in or near, simply because 43 of the 46 Japantowns in America no longer exist. Or if you grew up in San Francisco’s Nihonmachi, you probably didn’t live in the current remaining 4 to 5 square blocks; you lived elsewhere across over 50 square blocks, among 300 vibrant JA businesses in the greatest Japantown ever outside of Japan.

Uniquely, one building in J-Town was built by Issei, used by Nisei, fought for by Sansei, served as a school to Yonsei and Gosei, and, with the completion of this NLF Campaign, will serve future generations. It was formerly the San Francisco Japanese YWCA building. This facility is one of the oldest remaining community edifices in Japantown. I hope to share with you my belief that it is the embodiment of the American Dream: A start from immigrant hope and imagination, struggles against racism, advocacy for over five generations, an icon of community justice, and now a place for unique and ongoing learning and creativity.

Julia Morgan: Risk Taker

Do you know what the Greek Amphitheater at U.C. Berkeley, the Hearst Castle at San Simeon, and 1830 Sutter Street all have in common? Julia Morgan designed all of them.

Julia Morgan graduated from U.C. Berkeley in 1894 as the first female to earn a degree in civil engineering. In her senior year, she was influenced by renowned architect Bernard Maybeck to go into architecture. The center of western culture and intellect in the late 1890s was Paris, France. She moved to Paris and applied to L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts, School of Architecture. Morgan was stunned to find her application was refused because the French school did not accept women and discriminated openly against Americans.

She persisted by apprenticing for an architect in Paris and entering open design competitions. She overcame the discrimination she faced by winning several awards, which led to L’Ecole des Beaux Arts accepting her. Julia Morgan then became the first woman architect ever to graduate from L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts.

In 1904, she came to San Francisco and started her design career. Two years later, her office was destroyed in the Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906. Julia Morgan was one of many to be displaced that year. Japanese immigrants had generally been concentrated in three different sections of San Francisco prior to this natural catastrophe. Most chose to build their new lives in what we now call the Western Addition neighborhood. Thus, in 1906, San Francisco’s Japantown was created. The earthquake/fire also motivated many Issei and Nisei families to leave San Francisco and start communities in the East Bay, the Peninsula, and South Bay.

Morgan Works Free for Issei Women

Famous for her attention to detail and exquisite craftsmanship, Julia Morgan would design over 700 buildings throughout the world. By 1919, she commanded the highest salary as the architect of William Randolph Hearst’s palatial castle in San Simeon. Around 1930, she was approached to design three YWCA buildings in San Francisco, including the young Issei women’s Japanese YWCA. Remarkably, this world-famous architect did her work pro bono (for no charge) for these Issei women.

We can only imagine that she might have done her work for free because she related to these young women from Japan. Like her, they had crossed an ocean of adversity and faced the challenges of living amidst a whole new language; like her, they were female and denied the opportunities open to men. She might have sympathized with the fact that since the mid-1920s, their family and friends had been barred from immigrating to America by racist legislation. Or it could be because she knew the Issei women, who had worked so hard to raise money from the community, could not own the property outright due to the racist Alien Land Law. Regardless of what we may guess as to her motivations, it is clear that Julia Morgan supported the Christian fellowship of providing low income housing and programs to the poor and less fortunate.

Comparing 2009 to 1933

Today we are each experiencing the second worst recession in the history of the United States. I’d like to help you appreciate our time compared to the era of the Issei women. After the “Black Tuesday” crash on Wall Street in 1929 (which was only a few months before Julia Morgan was first contacted by the Issei women), stocks fell another 89% over the next four years. To imagine just how profoundly difficult fundraising must have been for these women, just look at the Dow Jones average, which was recently around 9,000 in mid-2009: It would have to fall below 990 sometime in 2013 to be comparable to the stock market losses suffered in the era of the Great Depression.

Now try to imagine what would be our contemporary costs for purchasing a lot in the heart of San Francisco, on which we would construct an authentic 10,000 square foot Noh theater, a dormitory, and several conference rooms. Further, imagine that we planned to undertake this task by raising funds door-to-door alone, without contributions from corporations and foundations. As I went through this thinking process, I began to understand the strength of character and determination these young Issei women shared with each other in order to pursue their dreams.

Why did they have to build their own YWCA in the first place? Because all YWCAs at the time were segregated (another form of overt discrimination that continued until 1946). The young Japanese women did not allow the multitude of restrictions of their era to dampen their aspirations to benefit future generations. Nor should we allow the shadow of our recession to dampen ours.

Keep the Legacy Alive

Your contribution to Nihonmachi Little Friends’ Capital Campaign will help keep the legacy of both our Issei pioneers and Julia Morgan alive. Your contribution will also help fulfill the dream of providing a living, learning environment for young children in Japantown for generations to come. Aren’t those compelling reasons to contribute now? In subsequent articles I will share with you the powerful spirit that has existed inside and around this building. Through uncovering many untold or forgotten stories, I hope to help you map the history of Japanese in America and to create a trajectory for our future.

To learn more, visit NLF’s website at or contact NLF at Contributions to the Capital Campaign can be sent to NLF, 2031 Bush Street, San Francisco, CA 94115 or online at All donations are tax-deductible.

Dr. Gary Kono is a hospice volunteer. He is a retired surgeon in dentistry, recipient of two humanitarian awards, guest of the China Medical Association, and Regent Scholar of the University of California. He resides in Oakland, Calif. with his wife Qin Lu. He can be reached at (510) 658-9898.

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