THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: A tribute to Dr. Setsuko Matsunaga Nishi, sociologist, activist and race relations advocate


This week’s column focuses on the distinguished sociologist and activist Dr. Setsuko Matsunaga Nishi, a pioneering scholar of race relations who died Nov. 18, 2012. Unlike virtually all the people I write about in “Great Unknown,” I got to know her personally. Because of our friendship and my knowledge of her career, I helped the Nishi family put together an obituary for her. I will draw from that obituary and some other materials in telling her story here, and then in a future column will take the liberty of offering some personal glimpses.

Setsuko Matsunaga was born in Los Angeles on Oct. 17, 1921, the second of four children and the eldest of three sisters. Her father, Tahei Matsunaga, was an unusual Issei — after taking sociology classes at the University of Southern California during the 1920s with the renowned scholar Emory Bogardus, he graduated from Woodbury Business College, then become a local real estate dealer and hotel owner.

Because of his ability to work among white elites to resolve discrimination and open up opportunities for other Issei, the elder Matsunaga was dubbed the “mayor” of Little Tokyo.” Setsuko’s mother Hatsu was an educated woman. The Matsunagas were a musical family — Ernest, the oldest child, was an avid singer, while sister Helen Haruko later became a professional violinist. Setsuko dreamed of becoming a concert pianist. She joined a Nisei girl’s club, the Tartanettes (she later recounted how the poet Chiye Mori had invited the club to her house to instruct them on the art of makeup!).

Meanwhile, she became politically aware — she later recounted how her friend Joe Oyama, a progressive Nisei writer, took her to her first union meeting, which fascinated the naïve teenager! She also distinguished herself for her skills as a public speaker. In June of 1939, she received first prize in an oratorical contest sponsored by the YMCA-YWCA at the Union Church. Kashu Mainichi reported that she had succeeded in “Impressing both the audience and the judges with her sincere and inspired delivery.” Her prize was a free trip to the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco. Future Japanese American Citizens League stalwart Masao Satow, the general secretary of the Little Tokyo YMCA, drove Setsuko and her runners-up to the fair.

After graduating from high school, Setsuko enrolled at USC, her father’s alma mater, as a music major, with a minor in education. During her junior year, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor led to war between the United States and Japan. (Setsuko credited Occidental College president Remsen Bird, a friend and supporter of Helen Matsunaga, for intervening with the authorities to save their father from incarceration in a Justice Department camp). In contrast to many Japanese Americans, Setsuko moved to take action against the government policy. Joining her friend Masamori Kojima, plus liberal minister Rev. Fred Fertig, and a group of sympathetic brothers at the Maryknoll Mission in Boyle Heights led by Theophane Walsh, she organized a speakers’ bureau and developed “information” meetings in various locales (Masao Satow not-too-helpfully advised them to counter rumors about fifth column activity in Hawai‘i by insisting that mainland JAs were different from those in Hawai‘i).

As the shadow of mass removal drifted over the community, Setsuko wired President Franklin D. Roosevelt to urge him not to take arbitrary action. Her telegram, located decades later in White House files, read: “LOS ANGELES, FEB. 10, 1942. THE PRESIDENT: WE NISEI AMERICANS LOYAL. PROTEST INTERNMENT AS UNDEMOCRATIC CURTAILMENT OF CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES. SETSUKO MATSUNAGO [sic].”

In the wake of Executive Order 9066, Setsuko and her family were forced into confinement. Just before removal, Emory Bogardus, her father’s onetime instructor, contacted Setsuko to inform her that she had been admitted to the Phi Beta Kappa fraternity. Since she would be removed before the official ceremony, Bogardus arranged a special induction for her in the office of USC President Rufus von KleinSmid. (Setsuko later recalled that she was given the PBK key by a sometime boyfriend, a white student who carefully concealed their dating from his conservative American Legionnaire father).
Bogardus continued to correspond with her while she and her family were confined at the Santa Anita Assembly Center. Under his guidance, Setsuko became interested in sociology. (Just before being removed, Setsuko was also stricken with pleurisy, which was aggravated by the dusty camp conditions — the damage to her bronchial tubes led to her being hospitalized in the postwar years).

In the fall of 1942, after spending several months at Santa Anita, Setsuko and her sister Helen were among the first students to leave camp under the auspices of the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council — she later stated that release involved clearance by five different agencies! Following a harrowing journey across the country, she arrived in St. Louis and enrolled in the master’s program in sociology at Washington University.

During her months in St. Louis, Setsuko made two important contacts. First, sociologist Tomatsu Shibutani visited her to recruit her to report on local communities as an “assistant research collaborator” for the UC Berkeley-based Japanese Evacuation and Resettlement Study (JERS). Meanwhile, she was invited to speak about Japanese Americans to the Twentieth Century Club, a group of black elite men in Saint Louis. (Setsuko later recalled that she was the first woman ever invited to speak to the group. Since the members met in formal evening clothes, and asked her to do the same, she could not wear any of the clothes she had brought from camp, and she had to scramble to fix up something that would pass as an evening gown!) At her talk, she met P.L. Prattis, editor of the Pittsburgh Courier newspaper, who was impressed by her speech.

Following graduation from Washington University, Setsuko moved to Chicago, where her parents had settled, and enrolled as a doctoral student in the famous University of Chicago sociology department.

There she participated in JERS seminars with director Dorothy Swaine Thomas and such eminent staffers as Shibutani, S. Frank Miyamoto, Charles Kikuchi, Togo Tanaka, and Louise Suski. While at the University of Chicago, she teamed up with social scientists George DeVos and William Caudill to launch the interdisciplinary Japanese American Personality and Acculturation Study to study the life experiences of resettlers.

Once in Chicago, she also became attached to Ken Nishi, a California-born painter who was then serving as a non-commissioned officer in the U.S. Army. The two were married in 1944. In the years that followed, the couple had their first child, Geoffrey. Despite her burden of childcare, Setsuko nonetheless took employment outside the home. P.L. Prattis hired her as an assistant (and ghostwriter) for Pittsburgh Courier, and she worked as a research editor for the Chicago Defender. In 1944, Prattis introduced her the celebrated African American sociologist Horace R. Cayton, who became a longtime friend and collaborator.

Cayton engaged her as a staffer at Parkway Community House, a settlement house he directed in the city’s Black Belt. (The announcement of Setsuko’s hiring was accompanied by a glamorous photo of her in the Chicago Defender). While at Parkway, Setsuko organized community forums on such topics as Gunnar Myrdal’s celebrated study of racism, “An American Dilemma.” With Cayton’s guidance, she helped found the Chicago Resettlers Committee, a social service agency now known as the Japanese American Service Committee, for which her father Tahei served as president. With funds from the American Council on Race Relations, Setsuko wrote a short book, “Facts About Japanese Americans” (1946), which received wide distribution. She simultaneously wrote a review of Miné Okubo’s graphic memoir “Citizen 13660” for the influential American Sociological Review.

A Cross-Cultural Bridge
Through her efforts, she became both a bridge between the black and ethnic Japanese communities, and a visible activist in favor of racial equality. In the late 1940s, she assumed the position of acting head of the Chicago Council Against Racial and Religious Discrimination, a coalition of African American, Jewish, Catholic, protestant, Japanese American, and labor organizations that lobbied and ran educational campaigns for civil rights legislation. She went on speaking tours, and lobbied for a statewide Fair Employment Practices Bill.

Setsuko later claimed that the work had been an important learning experience for her in building coalitions, as the leaders of each group were aware that if they banded together they would gain more attention for their concerns, but that competing over who was the most oppressed was self-defeating. As she later put it, “I’ve had a career advocating that minorities (in Louis Wirth’s comprehensive meaning) should coalesce in dealing with their common sources of oppression and be aware of and protect against their vulnerability to the ‘divide and conquer’ institutionalized arrangements and practices of those in power. These who-suffered-the-most arguments are counter-productive of our joining forces in holding on to and really enforcing our hard-won civil rights laws, themselves a result of the historic coalition of African Americans, Jews and other minorities.”

Although Setsuko completed her comprehensive doctoral exams at University of Chicago by 1951, and was able to draw on the research she had conducted with William Caudill for her dissertation, she was obliged to put off completion of her doctoral project because of paid employment and growing family responsibilities. Ken Nishi was stricken with a life-threatening infection, one that arose from an untreated injury he had sustained while in the Army — he spent years in a veterans hospital being treated for his condition, and would be hobbled by a frozen knee for the rest of his life. Setsuko relied heavily on her friends Ernest and Chizu Iiyama, who earned her unending gratitude by moving in with the Nishis and helping care for their young son.

Even after his recovery, Ken struggled to support himself as an artist. In addition to working outside the home, Setsuko and other family members assisted Ken in producing greeting cards, by which he helped support the family. The couple soon had four more children: Lisa, Paula, Stefani and Mia. As Setsuko later described, “(Ken’s) paintings from that time are imbued with deeply contained emotion, like his harlequins in quiet repose. We worked hard together as well as separately, supporting each other with plenty of space. Sometimes I wonder who else would have found a way to put up with me.”

In 1949, the Nishis visited Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. They were so enchanted by the land that in the years that followed, they bought land in the village of Mabou and built a house. Setsuko would spend summers in Mabou for the rest of her life. The Nishis meanwhile moved to New York City. They built a home and art studio in Tappan, New York, which would remain their home base during the rest of the year.

Academic Achievements
Once in New York, Setsuko was named to a position in the Research Department of the National Council of Churches. She in turn hired Horace Cayton, to be a research advisor, and she invited him as her collaborator on a book, “The Changing Scene” (1955), a two-volume study of churches and social service. When Cayton, who was struggling with alcoholism, checked himself into Rockland Psychiatric Hospital for treatment, the Nishis invited him to stay at their house during his weekend furloughs. They also hosted the Nisei journalist Eddie Shimano, who had fallen on hard times.

In 1963, Setsuko was finally able to complete her dissertation and receive her long-delayed doctorate. Her dissertation, “Japanese American Achievement in Chicago: A Cultural Response to Degradation,” is a case study of the social movement from which the post-camp Japanese American community in Chicago emerged — in opposition to the “forced assimilation” policy of the War Relocation Authority and Caucasian “friends of resettlement.” It forms a notable contribution to the literature on Japanese Americans in its inquiry into the social and cultural factors that aided the postwar resettlement of the community.

However, while Setsuko celebrated the community structures that enabled Japanese Americans to re-establish themselves, she was impatient with cultural determinism as reductivist, and bitterly criticized “model minority” notions of Asian American success as simplistic and biased. Instead, she tried to explain variations in minority group achievement through a mix of culture-social structure minority achievement. In 2005, Setsuko would enter into a controversy with a young scholar, Jacalyn Harden, over Harden’s assertions that Setsuko and other Nisei social scientists had presented Nisei in their theses as culturally superior to African Americans. Setsuko bitterly opposed any such contention, and she went so far as to produce an open letter in the pages of Amerasia Journal in which she denounced Harden for distorting her work and strongly requested that the author and her publisher issue a retraction.

In 1965, with support from sociologist Alfred McClung Lee, Setsuko was appointed professor of sociology at Brooklyn College. She was subsequently admitted as well as a faculty member at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. During her tenure at Brooklyn College, Setsuko taught the first courses on Asian American studies and served as a mentor to a generation of scholars. In her later years, she organized and served as director of the Japanese American Life Course Survey, a large-scale investigation into the long-term effects on Japanese Americans of their wartime incarceration.

She did not engage in much academic publishing during the following years. Instead, as in Chicago, she pursued work as a self-described “scholar/advocate.” In collaboration with African American sociologist Hylan Lewis, she reported on methods and strategies for achieving school integration, and she subsequently served as an advisor on Dr. Kenneth B. Clark’s Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited – Associated Community Teams minority youth aid project. As a senior fellow at the Metropolitan Applied Research Center, the noted think tank of the Civil Rights Movement led by Clark and Lewis, she served as senior fellow and senior consulting associate. In the process, Setsuko collaborated in many studies, including methods and strategies for achieving school integration, institutionalized discrimination in foster care, and inequities in performance evaluation in corporate employment. One of her major interests was the problem of minority group drug use and abuse. She also served the coauthor of the 1976 work “Drug Use and Abuse Among Minorities: An Annotated bibliography.”

In the 1970s, Setsuko was appointed to the New York State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. She served for three decades on the Advisory Committee, including six years as its chair. Setsuko also served on the National Advisory Council of the Center for Women Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., and on the board of directors of United Way of New York City. In 1989, she co-founded the Asian American Federation, served as its first board president until 1995, and remained a most active board member through the years. She also was an active advisor for the Japanese American National Museum. In particular, in 1998 she joined the delegation of Japanese Americans in New York who met with Jewish community leaders to discuss the use of the phrase “concentration camps” at JANM’s Ellis Island exhibition.

Honors and Accolades
In 1999, Setsuko retired from Brooklyn College. Two years later, Ken Nishi died. Setsuko established a foundation to collect and preserve his work. In the decade that followed, she kept up her busy schedule of meetings with community and philanthropic groups, and presented at several academic conferences. She meanwhile plugged away on her study of Nisei life experiences, though she had difficulty making headway on it. She received some important honors for her work over these years. In 2007, the Association for Asian American Studies presented Setsuko with a Lifetime Achievement Award. In June of 2009, the government of Japan awarded her with The Order of the Rising Sun with Gold Rays and Neck Ribbon. In May of 2012, she returned to USC as one of the Nisei former students who received honorary degrees in place of the diplomas they had been unable to complete due to mass removal.

In the summer of 2012, as in previous years, Setsuko traveled to Nova Scotia for the summer. She planned to return to New York in early November, shortly after her 91st birthday. However, after receiving news of the destruction wrought by Hurricane Sandy, she decided to put off her return by two weeks. She was packing for her delayed trip when her aorta burst, and she apparently died rapidly and effectively painlessly.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., the author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. He can be reached at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *