Support a ‘Living’ Legacy of Japanese American Culture (Part 3)


Nihonmachi Little Friends (NLF) Capital Campaign has already raised 95 percent of its $2,200,000 goal. NLF retired the mortgage on the 1830 Sutter St. building in 2007 and is currently in the process of much needed retrofitting and upgrading. My purpose in writing is to encourage more supporters to find inspiration in the many extraordinary stories related to NLF and 1830 Sutter St., formerly home of the San Francisco Japanese YWCA. Significantly, it is among a mere handful of pre-World War II buildings created for and still supporting San Francisco’s Japantown community.

Two Sets of Footsteps on the Sand

Edward R. Murrow, the first great television journalist, was once asked what he had learned about people and projects from 30 years of doing one-on-one interviews. He thought pensively for a moment and responded, “I’ve learned that it takes a long, long time to gather all the details and minute facts… it takes longer to learn the obvious.”

Most all of us have learned the Christian parable where a young man walks on the beach with the Lord, looks back and sees there are two sets of foot prints in the sand. But after a great storm passes over them the young man confronts the Lord with the question, “Why did you leave me all alone? I looked back during the storm and only saw one set of footprints.” The Lord responded, “When you needed me most, that is when I carried you!”

In my previous articles, I’ve revealed a multitude of small details and facts that occurred in Japantown (specifically regarding 1830 Sutter) through the past 100 years. But what is now obvious to me (and I am a Buddhist) is how much Christian faith and the Soko Bukai churches have quietly carried many Japanese, Japanese Americans and supporters of Japanese American culture through their darkest times in San Francisco. After all, the young Issei women who struggled against oppressive and racist legislation to build 1830 Sutter in the worst of economic times, were members of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA).

What Is the Soko Bukai?

The Soko Bukai is the organization of the San Francisco Japanese American Christian churches. Its most active members are the Christ United Presbyterian, Pine United Methodist and Christ Episcopal Churches. Although today’s Nihonmachi (Japantown) emerged after the 1906 earthquake and fire, the first Japanese institution in the United States, the Japanese Gospel Society, was born in San Francisco in the 1870s. Meeting in a basement in Chinatown for years, from this group arose the first members of all three churches and the forming of the Soko Bukai.

Young Issei women from the Soko Bukai churches gathered to support each other. They saw the value of what was going on in other YWCAs, but because of segregation, they weren’t allowed full access. In 1912, these Issei women founded their own independent Japanese YWCA. By the late1920s, they saw the need to have a permanent home. With the support of the Soko Bukai churches, the women pursued their ambitious plan to raise money to build their own facility. They completed their goal in 1932. The Issei women used their new facility for less than a decade until the wake of World War II, when they were interned with all others of Japanese descent. After the War, the Soko Bukai played a significant leadership role in helping the returning Japanese Americans to regroup and reestablish their community in San Francisco.

Christian, Buddhist and Shinto Churches Shaping Today’s J-Town

The Soko Bukai has also influenced J-town beyond the Japanese YWCA as a member of the Japanese American Religious Federation (JARF): The eleven Buddhist, Shinto and Christian churches in San Francisco. JARF founded both Nihonmachi Terrace for independent senior living as well as the Japanese American Religious Federation Assisted Living Incorporated (JALFI).

In 1999, JALFI hired me as its first Capital Campaign coordinator, in charge of raising $1 million of community funds in one year’s time. An immediate priority was that JALFI, already in existence for a decade, needed a fresh name change. I asked Reverend Donald Drummond of the Christ United Presbyterian Church to consider two Japanese words related to essence or spirit: “tamashii” and “kokoro.” As a linguistic expert, Rev. Drummond picked the latter. Thus, JALFI became Kokoro Assisted Living. Having reached the fundraising goal in 10 months, I resigned my paid position, donated the remaining salary, and served as a member of the Kokoro Assisted Living board of directors.

The Quakers Helped Too

Digressing for a moment, when the Issei women were forced into internment camps in 1942, a Quaker group called the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) rented the vacated space at 1830 Sutter. They established their West Coast regional office to oppose the internment and provide assistance to Japanese Americans. At the end of World War II and the closing of the internment camps, the AFSC assisted over 6,000 Nisei to get into colleges across the country. They also helped scores of Nisei returning from their incarceration to find jobs and housing. For many years these Nisei enjoyed programs, movies and dances held at 1830 Sutter.

The Kokoro of Japanese America

I was surprised to find that the word kokoro is difficult to translate into English.

When asked, one might say it means “heart,” another “mind,” and yet another “core.” Apply this term to our Japanese American culture, which once was highly visible and which today has dwindled down to a few handfuls of institutions. Our collective kokoro, no matter how small our physical presence, lives in our hearts, minds and in our core. For that reason, we can embrace our kokoro by supporting any of our remaining institutions.

A perfect expression of this is when the Soko Bukai v. SF YWCA lawsuit was suddenly settled after six years of contentious litigation. Bill Hirose (philanthropist, consultant at Minami Tamaki LLP, mentor and friend) and I had raised funds from the Japanese American community to support the Soko Bukai legal team. With the settlement, however, those litigation funds were no longer needed. Unselfishly, the Soko Bukai then transferred that $30,000 to become the initial contribution to NLF’s Capital Campaign, in a true spirit of “one-for-all-and-all-for-one”!

The Interconnection of Your Gift

I’ve shared some of my fundraising activities for 35 years in Japantown (most alongside Bill Hirose) to underscore my unique view of the continuing evolution of Japanese American culture. Rather than disjointed or disconnected from each other, over time I’ve come to appreciate that they have all been interconnected. I believe if you reflect on your life you too are connected to this evolution, whether it be by your generational tree, by the sadness of justice denied, by the pride of justice served, by your relationship to the Soko Bukai, to the American Friends Service Committee, or to 34 years of NLF’s staff and students.

You can express your commitment to our Japanese American kokoro by supporting Nihonmachi Little Friends as it raises the final five percent of its $2.2 million Capital Campaign.

Established in 1975, Nihonmachi Little Friends (NLF) is a bilingual, multicultural childcare organization located in San Francisco’s Japantown. To learn more or to view the full series of editorials, visit NLF’s Web site at or contact NLF at Contributions to the Capital Campaign can be sent to NLF, 2031 Bush St., San Francisco, CA 94115 or made 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 with his wife Qin Lu. He can be reached at (510) 658-9898.

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