THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Anne Howden’s lifetime of human rights advocacy and public service


bioline_Greg RobinsonMich Kunitani, the subject of my last “Great Unknown” column, was not the only member of his family to make a name as a political activist. His first wife, Anne Saito Kunitani, later known as Anne Howden, was a lifelong human rights advocate who shifted her focus from advocacy to public service.

She was born Yaeko Saito on Oct. 9, 1913 in Kings County in California’s San Joaquin Valley, the first of two daughters of J-K and Umeo Saito. According to the 1930 census Mr. Saito also worked as a café proprietor in Hanford, Calif. Her father died young, and by the time Anne was a teenager, her mother had remarried. She attended Hanford High School, where she joined the honors society and served as editor of the school annual. Anne won distinction by offering an “Oriental” motif for the high school’s yearbook.

Following her high school graduation, Saito enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley. She joined other women to form the UC Japanese Women Students’ Club, and served as its social chairman. She also performed in Japanese theatricals. In 1931 she performed an odori as intermission entertainment for the club’s play. The following year she staged a production of “Urashima Taro,” a pantomime with music. Her performance in “Geisha no Makoto” attracted praise from a reviewer in Shin Sekai: “Anne Saito, who played the part of Yoshio Matsuda, a college student won the hero’s badge as far as dynamic acting and youthful spirit were concerned. Miss Saito had personality and poise in her part.” In 1934, she received her bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley. That same year, she became a resident of the Berkeley chapter of International House, as a representative of “Japanese” students. She continued her theatrical interests.

During this time, Anne Saito became absorbed in politics. In 1938, she joined the Oakland Nisei Young Democrats. In the mid-1940s, she was elected the group’s recording secretary. She also served as co-editor with Bob Iki of their newsletter, New Democracy. In September of 1940, during the time of debate over the military draft, she chaired a forum on the Burke-Wadsworth bill. Meanwhile, Saito met a fellow Nisei Democrat, Mich Kunitani. Late in life, she recalled: “I was a newly converted left-wing Democrat. He was more of a New Dealer. (I am sure) he found me dogmatic.” The two became closely involved, both personally and politically. They married in early 1941.

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese Americans in California faced prejudice. In response to popular San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, Anne Kunitani published a letter to the editor on Dec. 21: “(My husband and I) are both Americans of Japanese ancestry who have long condemned Axis politics and have manifested out disapproval through membership in appropriate organizations and activities in their behalf. In this recent phase of the war, we join with those who are determined to crush Japanese imperialism.” She deplored the injustice facing the Nisei. “As I have talked with them, I have seen the look of unhappy bewilderment on their faces as they tell me of how many of their families and friends face economic ruin. While they are anxious to have the so-called “Subversive” influences eradicated, they realize that public opinion is not always intelligent and not always just, and that they themselves, in spite of their Americanism, must suffer to some extent along with the guilty.”

Kunitani asked Caen to “keep this other side in mind” when attacking the Japanese enemy.

Kunitani continued her efforts to support Japanese Americans when she testified alongside her husband before the Congressional Tolan Committee in late February. In the face of a strikingly condescending interrogation from the chair, Congressman John Tolan, and Illinois congressman Laurence F. Arnold, she laid bare the issues at hand:

Mr. ARNOLD. I might ask Mrs. Kunitani the same question I asked an Italian lady this morning. Is your husband a 100 percent loyal American?
Mrs. KUNITANI. He is a Democrat and has been ever since I have known him. Does that make him a 100-percent American?……
Mrs. KUNITANI (interposing). I might tell you it was on the basis of his anti-Fascist activities that I met him and married him.…….
Mr. ARNOLD. Does that include anti-Japanese activity?
Mrs. KUNITANI. Oh, yes. We don’t discriminate among the Fascists.….
Mrs. KUNITANI. Yes. I want to bring out the fact that both the president of our organization [Ernest Satoshi Iiyama] and my husband have been to Japan and their reaction to what they saw there in the way of military activity did not affect them favorably. It had just the opposite effect. It was because of what they saw there that they have become especially ardent in championing the cause against the Axis Powers.
Mr. ARNOLD. I think perhaps your statement has more effect in the record than what these two gentlemen have said.
Mrs. KUNITANI. I think you are prejudiced.
The CHAIRMAN. Well, a woman must always have the last word.

In her testimony, she clarified the position of the Nisei Democrats on mass removal. Mich Kunitani had told committee members that his group would favor “evacuation” if the nation’s military authorities deemed it necessary. Anne Kunitani agreed that Japanese Americans “would be perfectly willing to abide by the regulations set down by the Federal government” — provided they were applied equally against all descendants of Axis aliens. This position resembled that later taken by the national American Civil Liberties Union — whose leaders conceded the constitutionality of Executive Order 9066, but contested its discriminatory application only to Americans of Japanese ancestry.

Kunitani, for her part, recognized that mass removal was likely inevitable, and set herself to work preparing communities for the future. In April 1942, the Nichi Bei Shimbun noted, “Anne Saito Kunitani of the “I” House (has) written a thesis on the following subjects: education, education for assimilation, vocational education and advice, political education and franchise, Caucasian teachers, teacher training program for nihonjin, and management of resettlement centers.”

In May of 1942, Anne and Mich Kunitani were confined at Tanforan in San Bruno, Calif., and then in August were sent on to Poston, Ariz. There Anne Kunitani taught high school. After several months in camp, the Kunitanis left in mid-1943 and resettled in Cleveland. Anne found a job with the National Consumers League, and resumed her political activities. She later stated that she had fond memories of her time in Cleveland. She recalled that she worked day and night to organize labor union support for Democrats in the fall 1944 electoral campaign, and got to know many people through such work. In fall of 1945 she became chairman of a new Cleveland branch of the New York anti-fascist group Japanese American Committee for Democracy.

In 1946 Mich Kunitani went into the Army. A year later, following Mich’s discharge, the couple reunited in the Bay Area. Once back in California, Anne Kunitani worked for many social and political causes, including the 1948 California Housing Initiative, James Roosevelt’s 1950 gubernatorial campaign, and the San Francisco Council for Civic Unity. In association with the Council for Civic Unity, Anne Kunitani served on the San Francisco Citizens Committee for Equal Employment, and lobbied for fair employment legislation. In 1951, she testified at a hearing of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, presenting the results of a study on the level of discrimination. Kunitani reported that of 10 Bay Area business colleges, only two admitted Black people.

While working with the CCU, Anne Kunitani became involved with its director, Edward Howden. On Dec. 24, 1953, a year after divorcing Mich Kunitani (with whom she nonetheless remained on friendly terms), Anne married Howden. The two remained together for more than 50 years, and they had a son, Jonathan.

In the 1960s, Anne Howden served as treasurer of the Golden Gate Japanese American Democratic Club, and was active with the Democratic Women’s Forum and ACLU.

After being appointed by Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown to the California Women’s Board of Terms and Parole (where she replaced future senator Dianne Feinstein), she supervised state prison terms and helped judge parole applications by women inmates.

In 1978 Howden was appointed by Feinstein, by then the newly installed mayor of San Francisco, to the San Francisco Fire Commission. Howden was one of the first women Commissioners. She successfully pushed for hiring of women and minority firefighters.

She was reappointed twice, in 1982 and 1986.

She received the annual Eleanor Roosevelt award from the San Francisco Democratic Women’s Forum. The award is given to “a humanitarian who exhibits tenacity in pursuing issues affecting the disenfranchised,” who is “articulate, outspoken, generous, and caring,” and who is “supportive of the rights of all individuals.” Howden noted that she was especially touched to receive the award because of her tremendous love and respect for Mrs. Roosevelt, which had been further fortified by Mrs. Roosevelt’s inviting Mich Kunitani to the White House.

Anne Howden died on Sept. 24 2006. Her death was reported in the San Francisco Chronicle and other mainstream media.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., 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 The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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