Support a ‘Living’ Legacy of Japanese American Culture (Part 2)


The 1830 Sutter Street building is one of the few and most long-lasting of great Japanese American works destined to convey some knowledge of us to remote posterity. It is not a shrine, not a pagoda, not a garden, and not a bridge. Nor is it a museum or an historical organization looking backward at our past. It is instead a building inspired by Issei which has evolved with every following generation of Japanese Americans. While it has a rich history possibly unparalleled in Japanese American culture, through Nihonmachi Little Friends, this building thrives in our present and will continue to evolve into the future.

You may have never stepped into 1830 Sutter or heard of Nihonmachi Little Friends, but if you embrace Japanese American culture you must consider helping them both. You may now live far from San Francisco, yet if “Japanese America” is close to your heart, consider that your gift will enable our collective legacy to flourish.

A History of Advocacy and Inspiration

In Part 1 of this series I shared with you the birth of 1830 Sutter. Women in this country could not even vote until 1920. Japanese could not migrate to America in the mid-1920s because of racist laws. The YWCAs were segregated. The Issei women of the Japanese YWCA could not own the 1830 Sutter Street building outright because of the Alien Land Laws. They chose to build a place of their own after the Great Depression started, and they finished just before the Depression bottomed out. Because of their “audacity of hope” and their collective ‘yes we can’ spirit, the building was born against great odds. Their reward? They were in their building for less than a decade before being unjustly forced into internment camps.

Sixty years later, the Issei women’s actions became a model for our community advocates seeking to save 1830 Sutter. Generations after the Issei pioneers, the building was saved for our community because of a dedication to justice and community values. I want to share with you how this compelling and little known story unfolded.

The 1970s: A New Community Spirit

In the 1970s, third generation Japanese Americans, the Sansei, began forming organizations serving the Japanese American community, including Kimochi (1971), the Asian Law Caucus (1972), and Nihonmachi Little Friends (1975). The Sansei embraced the revolutionary nationwide student movements from the initial Free Speech Movement (FSM) at the University of California at Berkeley in 1964 and the beginnings of the Third World Strike a few years later at San Francisco State.

I was a student at Cal, along with Yuji Ichioka, a friend since our days in Berkeley’s all Japanese American Boy Scout Troop #26. Profoundly influenced by the FSM, Ichioka graduated from Cal in 1968 and soon after, coined the term “Asian American.” Until then, the term “Oriental” generically referred to the Chinese and Japanese (plus the few Koreans) who lived here. Ichioka’s concept recognized our American and ethnic heritages, enabling these groups to work together for larger political purposes and causes. To have these three cultures marching under one banner was unheard of. Consider this: In Asia, many of the diverse nationalities that include themselves today so comfortably as “Asian” or “Asian American” were more often adversaries than allies in the past. Like Julia Morgan, the architect of the 1830 Sutter Street building, Ichioka was a visionary.

By 1996, the groups begun in the 1970s were well-established and in the mainstream of the community. Also in 1996 the San Francisco YWCA – which took control of the 1830 Sutter Street building after the women of the Japanese YWCA were interned – announced their plan to sell the building for $1.65 million. The main tenant, Nihonmachi Little Friends, was among those who were given an eviction notice.

An Almost Forgotten History

The SF YWCA’s action brought advocates from a wide cross-section of Japantown’s community groups to a meeting at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California (JCCCNC), under the leadership of Paul Osaki. The threat to NLF’s services was discussed along with the likely demolition of the historic structure. There was faint hope of keeping the building in community service, since no one from the Japanese American community could afford the sale price set by the SF YWCA.

Fortunately, Steve Nakajo of Kimochi brought to light recollections of some seniors of community fund drives for the building and vague promises of a right to purchase the property. The SF YWCA allowed Kimochi volunteer Al Gordon to investigate the old archives of the “Y.” Gordon doggedly sifted through dusty stacks and boxes of old YWCA records. Imagine his joy when he discovered the SF YWCA’s promise, in their own board minutes, to hold 1830 Sutter in trust for the Issei women. These women could not hold title to the property due to the notorious Alien Land Law, which prohibited Japanese immigrants from owning property in their own names.

Hope, Frustration and Action

Discovery of the Japanese YWCA trust raised hopes that 1830 Sutter would be saved, but the SF YWCA stubbornly refused to acknowledge the trust. The community first reacted with disbelief, then drew together with a determination reminiscent of the courage and fortitude of the Issei women whose building they were now fighting desperately to preserve. A show of solidarity by NLF families and supporters then forced the SF YWCA to cancel the eviction of NLF from the building. Community representatives engaged unsuccessfully in mediation for months. The only recourse was for a principal party in the community to file a lawsuit against the SF YWCA. There was a major obstacle: Without any Japanese YWCA members, which disbanded after the interment orders during World War II, who could file the lawsuit?

To enforce the trust, the court required someone with legal connection to the property to file suit. The Soko Bukai, a confederation of Japanese Christian Churches, headed by Rev. Gary Barbaree, rose to lead the fight. The Soko Bukai recognized that the Issei women had been members of their churches and had been motivated by their Christian values to create the Japanese YWCA and its building.

Community Lawyering

The Soko Bukai’s legal team also grew from community roots. NLF Executive Director Cathy Inamasu had asked Karen Kai, a lawyer and parent on NLF’s Board, to attend the community meetings. Karen recruited her husband, Bob Rusky, to draft the lawsuit. Together, Kai and Rusky contacted attorneys Dale Minami and Don Tamaki. I knew Minami when he first founded the Asian Law Caucus (with Ken Kawaichi); met Tamaki when he was ALC Executive Director; and met Kai and Rusky when the four had worked together on Fred Korematsu’s coram nobis lawsuit that vindicated his historic challenge to the wartime internment of Japanese Americans. Minami led the group of 25 attorneys collectively known as the coram nobis legal team. Its success removed a major obstacle which, if left unchallenged, would have blocked Redress and Reparations for Japanese Americans.

Just as for the coram nobis cases, Tamaki led the public education and fundraising for the Soko Bukai against the SF YWCA (Before Redevelopment occurred in San Francisco where much of Japantown was destroyed to make way for new “development” and the Geary Boulevard thoroughfare, Tamaki’s Nisei father became the owner of a hotel through a land trust created by attorney Guy Calden. Mr. Calden helped many Japanese American families to work around the Alien Land Law). In the late 1990s, other attorneys were recruited to the cause of fighting the SF YWCA, including Tracie Brown, a passionate hapa attorney who is now an NLF Capital Campaign Committee member. Brown personally logged over 2,000 pro bono hours on the case. Eventually, 36 lawyers and several law firms, including Minami Tamaki LLP, joined the effort pro bono.

Roots of Advocacy in the Asian Law Caucus

Back in the mid-1970s, shortly after I started my surgery practice in Berkeley, I joined the Board of the Asian Law Caucus (ALC). At my first ALC meeting, I sat between Don Tamaki and Rev. Lloyd Wake, who 10 years ago succeeded Rev. Barbaree in leading the Soko Bukai. Little did I know my relationships with these legal advocates would involve me in two landmark cases in Asian American legal history. I later volunteered to be the lead fundraiser for Steven Okazaki’s movie on the Korematsu case, “Unfinished Business.” It was nominated for an Academy Award and shown to many members of Congress prior to Redress. I also had the privilege of chairing the inaugural Fred Korematsu Civil Rights Dinner recognizing the legal team’s over 50,000 donated hours on the coram nobis cases.

I don’t remember whether Don approached me to help support Soko Bukai’s legal effort or I asked him if help was needed. In any case, I didn’t hesitate to offer my support when I found out he was working again pro bono. While pro bono means doing something for free, working behind the scenes, I have found it is hardly the case. First, there are still hard costs of traveling, creating documents, depositions, phone bills, and so on which still must be paid. Second, the time spent doing pro bono work still necessitates working more to earn a normal living. I hope you can now appreciate that when you see “pro bono,” in reality, someone is expending time, effort, and money to do a good deed, to forward a cause which probably cannot be done otherwise.

For a Greater Good: Giving from the Heart

The Issei women were motivated by their love for and duty to their community. Julia Morgan wanted to help women who could not afford her fees. Although debilitated by throat cancer, Yuji Ichioka, then a professor at UCLA and the foremost authority on the Issei, donated his services as an expert witness. Yuji validated the trust with evidence linking the Japanese YWCA and attorney Guy Calden, the same lawyer who had helped Don Tamaki’s father. The Soko Bukai attorneys, leaders, volunteers from Japantown, and so many others, did so much of their work pro bono. Assemblyman Mike Honda worked with the Japanese American Citizens League and NLF to pass a unanimous California State resolution supporting the 1830 Sutter effort. Literally, pro bono means “for good” and that is what any donation from you to the NLF Campaign will be.

Why Donate to NLF?

As the trial neared, NLF’s Board, together with the Soko Bukai, made an important strategic decision: NLF would help settle the lawsuit by agreeing to take ownership of 1830 Sutter at a price far lower than what the SF YWCA sought. NLF demonstrated itself to be a dedicated and courageous organization, willing to keep and maintain the building as a community resource.

At the JCCCNC community rally celebrating the settlement, I warned, “[While] we could all deservedly celebrate the settlement, there can be no ‘victory celebration’ until NLF’s Capital Campaign is completed!” Pioneers have struggled to give birth to this building, and advocates have fought to keep the building as a cornerstone of Japanese American culture. The legal settlement only becomes secure for the future when the funds are fully raised. We need your help to put NLF’s Capital Campaign over the top! Yet again believe: “Yes we can!” Join us.

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).

To learn more or view the full series of editorials, 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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