Recapturing the lost world of Nisei youth

CITY GIRLS: THE NISEI SOCIAL WORLD IN LOS ANGELES, 1920-1950

CITY GIRLS: THE NISEI SOCIAL WORLD IN LOS ANGELES, 1920-1950

CITY GIRLS: THE NISEI SOCIAL WORLD IN LOS ANGELES, 1920-1950

By Valerie J. Matsumoto

(New York: Oxford University Press, 2014, 312 pp., $34.95, hardcover)  

I have known Valerie J. Matsumoto for several years now, and she has shared with me numerous anecdotes about her research into Nisei women’s culture in the period surrounding World War II. However, it was still a shock for me to actually read her new book “City Girls: The Nisei Social World in Los Angeles, 1920-1950” — the work is so consciousness-altering that it really should be a controlled substance! 

In this volume, Matsumoto sets out to recapture the lost world of Nisei youth culture in Los Angeles by examining the activities of the women’s social organizations that were active in the years surrounding World War II, groups that bore such evocative names as the Tartanettes and the Blue Triangles. While this may sound like a rather tame exercise, it actually forces us to reconsider our comfortable images of prewar Japanese communities as male-centered and patriarchal. Matsumoto’s research allows us, for once, to see Nisei women’s experience as normative.

What does Matsumoto come up with? Nisei women in midcentury Los Angeles faced some particular burdens. Hampered by racial discrimination and sex-stereotyping, especially in the job market, many also struggled at home. Issei parents often favored sons over daughters. While they offered boys greater freedom and educational opportunities, they put daughters to work on household chores and sought to control them closely to preserve their reputations for marriage and ensure family “respectability.” 

In response, Nisei women developed a particular urban culture founded on single-sex social and church organizations (both Christian and Buddhist). This galaxy of clubs — Rafu Shimpo estimated the total of youth clubs in Los Angeles at 400 to 600 — provided Nisei women havens from racial discrimination and parental control. 

Through these clubs, girls could attend theaters and skating rinks, and participate in sports. Their peers also supported their interest in pursuing literature and art, with the result that countless young girls published creative work in the fledgling ethnic press. 

Nisei women’s search for autonomy was most pronounced in the domain of sex. Issei parents (who themselves had generally gone through arranged marriages) disapproved of individual dating. However, by organizing mixed group events, notably dances, club members were able to overcome parental opposition to contact with the opposite sex and break out of isolation. 

Matsumoto makes intelligent use of memoirs and of sets of interviews with club members, notably the renowned activist Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga. Drawing from older works on ethnic women’s leisure, notably Kathy Peiss’ germinal “Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York,” she notes persuasively that through their social activities and consumption Nisei women could forge an American identity, and claim belonging in the larger society. Their networks would prove enduring and enriching. They offered an essential means of support for Nisei women confined in government camps during World War II, and provided an indispensable structure for rebuilding ethnic communities in Los Angeles after their release from camp — in some cases club members continued to meet for decades afterward. 

It is Matsumoto’s gift to us that we can look behind the makeup tips and sock hops to discover how a generation of accomplished and sophisticated women launched itself.

 

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