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Japanese American Women and Activism within the JA Community: Redress, Reparations, and Gender

When the Issei arrived in the United States, they knew there was a good chance they would not be readily accepted by white society unless perhaps they were able to prove themselves worthy and useful. So in order to be able to achieve full assimilation into American society, the Issei adopted American ways and eagerly succumbed to American demands.

Part of this obedience to the “American way of life” was manifested in the gender roles that played out. As a result, Japanese American women were groomed for a life of domesticity. These roles continued into future generations, and subsequently into the Redress and Reparations era. This project highlights the stories and experiences of Tsuyako “Sox” Kitashima, Aiko Yoshinaga Herzig, Cherry Kinoshita, and Lorraine Bannai, who were key contributors to the Redress campaign. But how those gender roles played out for these women were also dependent on generational differences, as becomes apparent with the different experiences of Sox, Aiko, and Cherry, who are Nisei women, versus those of Lorraine, a Sansei. Although each of these four women, not entirely conscious of the norm gender dynamics that existed in the contexts of their own community, carried out mainly support work and acted within the construct of a male-dominated system and campaign that to this day does not completely yield due recognition because of culturally-imposed restrictions, the passion, dedication, and courage with which all of them executed their “behind the scenes” work for the Redress and Reparations movement was indispensable to the passage and implementation of this legislation.

Each woman was directly affected by the values instilled in them by their families, who through actions and tradition, taught her the importance of Japanese American cultures and values. These cultures and values inherently contained those gender roles first ascribed by those Issei who defined and shaped the Japanese American experience from the beginning of that community’s history. For Sox Kitashima, a tight-knit family that practiced kendo, participated in various social, family-oriented community events, participated in hanamatsuri, and was involved in the local JACL chapter taught her the values of family and of being involved in the community (Morimoto, 23-27). Growing up, Sox, her mother and sister would carry out the more domestically-oriented chores around the house, while her father would complete the heavier, manual labor (Morimoto, 28-29). The carrying out of these kinds of roles in the household understandably shaped her understanding of the way gender works in the Japanese American community.

For Aiko Yoshinaga Herzig, who had worked extensively in clerical jobs before becoming the main archivist for the Redress and Reparations movement, gender roles were also prominent. As a Japanese American woman she was expected to not make waves, and when she did by protesting the Vietnam War, her actions were received with displeasure from her family (Densho interview). The kinds of family and community pressure derived from the expected place of Japanese American women in respect to authority and to others did not have room for women like Aiko to cause trouble for the rest of the community.

Cherry Kinoshita was not as close to her family, although she also learned from them the cultural values of Japanese American tradition. Her relationship with her parents were one of very little expression, as she described her parents as “stoic” and not approving nor disapproving of what she did. (Densho interview) Rather, it was a silent understanding of how certain things were to be done.

As someone very close to her grandparents and parents, Lorraine Bannai attributes much of the person she has become to her family. She was taught what it meant to be a “good little girl,” by working hard, listening to and respecting elders, and being aware of when it is appropriate to speak out (Densho interview). But even at a very young age she was aware of her self-identity as a Japanese American girl, and how that identity fit in with how other perceived her. Not so much focused on gender as she was race, Lorraine still managed to come through as a non-obedient Japanese American woman. Undoubtedly her profession in the legal field contributed to her assertiveness, and she says that she was attracted to law in the first place because of her outspoken nature (Densho interview). But this difference in gender dynamics can also be attributed to a difference in generation between Lorraine and the rest of the women, as in her youth, being aggressive in advocacy and becoming outspoken was a necessity to be heard in the Affirmative Action era.

Still, the long-lasting influences of Japanese American culture and Japanese roots were instilled in these women and the rest of the JA community, thus creating an environment where men participating in politics and public activities and women staying in the domestic sphere was a norm (Azuma, 8). There was no internal reason for any of these women to question their positions as related to gender as they carried out their work in the Redress and Reparations movement, because the way gender dynamics played out in this campaign was no different from what they had known and experienced their whole lives. According to Cherry, women were allowed to cry, but men could not (Densho interview). As far as everyone was concerned, the entire community was in it together as one race that had suffered unprecedented loss and injustice, and what sex carried out what task was of little to no consequence. There was a strong sense of community and unity around this issue, so why should this matter?

This does become of consequence in my eyes, however, when equal recognition is not given to those who did equal (or more) work. The motivation behind this topic stems from the overall suppression of women’s voices in various social and political movements. The Japanese American community has been no different. There were numerous women involved in Redress efforts, but even in Brian Niiya’s Encyclopedia on Japanese American History, under the “Redress and Reparations” entry, only men like Dale Minami, Norm Mineta, and Fred Korematsu are mentioned (Niiya, 342-344). But Lorraine Bannai worked right alongside Dale Minami—why is she not included? This kind of absence is common within various resources. So how does this all tie in with the gender dynamics that were played out within the Redress movement as a whole?

For all four of these women, being in the limelight was not a theme. But it cannot be refuted that without their work, despite being absent in textbooks or encyclopedias written by their own community, the Redress and Reparations movement would not have been possible. Despite having to work within the gender construct of the Japanese American community, these women worked hard and suffered much for the betterment of everyone. Such courageous actions deserve recognition, such absence deserves critical analysis, and this is the purpose of this project.

In making production decisions for the Discover Nikkei postings, I wanted to find not only materials relating directly to woman, but also materials that set the context of their situation. As a result I chose various documents and photos of the Redress and Reparations movement, or even other events, that highlighted certain characteristics or situations that were important to the development and/or the gender realization of these women. While it was difficult to directly address the issue of gender via these materials, I chose those that I could strategically work into my overarching thesis. I decided on a an “overview” item that would more or less set the stage for and further describe the purpose of the project, and contain all items under a collection, with the title relaying the main message.

This was difficult, mostly because there was so much I wanted to include and so much that I had collected, but that in the end proved not to be useful or pertinent enough. For each item I wanted to make sure that I would have enough significant content, so that it would be a posting of quality rather than quantity. Overall, I aimed for a holistic look at these women, their experiences, and their work, to illustrate the impact they had on their own community through the Redress and Reparations movement, even if many people to this day do not realize it.

A general observation I made in the synthesis of this project was that there is an absence of Japanese American women’s stories everywhere. Even on the Discover Nikkei website, the tag “women” yields paintings of women, and other similar artwork, but not anything significant on the contributions or work of important women within the community. I hope that the start of these postings will begin to spark some agreement on the need for these resources, especially on sites like Densho. These are their stories, told from a gendered perspective, but also highlighted in a way that is laudatory and admiring of their endless courage, especially within a community that has not completely appropriately attributed the accomplishments of the Japanese American community to those women who deserve it most.

Click to view Candice’s Nikkei Album collection: Japanese American Women and Activism Within the JA Community: Redress, Reparations, and Gender

Complete List of Sources:
Azuma, Eiichiro, Between Two Empires: Race, History and Transationalism in Japanese America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Kitashima, Tsuyako Sox and Morimoto, Joy K., The Birth of an Activist: The Sox Kitashima Story. San Mateo: Asian American Curriculum Project, 2003.

Niiya, Brian, Encyclopedia of Japanese American History, Updated Edition: An A-to-Z Reference from 1868 to the Present. New York: Facts on File Inc., 2001.

Densho Website, various interviews and photo documents (See each posted item for more detailed information) http://www.densho.org

Online Archive of California, http://www.oac.cdlib.org/

Seattle Post-Intelligencer Reporter, http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/local/163082_kinoshita04.html


* This article was originally a term paper written for a class titled, “Japanese American Experience” Asian American Studies 131A instructed by Professor Lane Ryo Hirabayashi at the University of California, Los Angeles in the Winter Quarter, 2007. In lieu of a traditional term paper, students were given the option to create a Nikkei Album collection and write a short paper describing the collection and the creation process. -ed.

© 2008 Candice Shikai

Aiko Yoshinaga Herzig Cherry Kinoshita Lorraine Bannai redress Tsuyako Kitashima women World War II