Ina Sugihara


Name Ina Sugihara
Born September 7 1919
Died September 16 2004
Birth Location Las Animas, CO
Generational Identifier

Nisei

A leading Nisei activist in the 1940s, Ina Sugihara (1919–2004) was a frequent contributor to the press, both Japanese American and outside, and built coalitions for civil rights across racial lines.

Early Life and Activism

Ina Sugihara was born in Las Animas, Colorado, on September 7, 1919, one of four children of W.B. (William Bonsaku) and Takeyo Sugihara. She grew up in Colorado, then during the 1930s moved to Long Beach, California, where her parents ran a produce market. Ina Sugihara stated later that she was scouted for a scholarship at UCLA, but was rejected because she wanted to be a lawyer rather than a nurse, which was considered more appropriate for an Asian girl. Instead, she attended Long Beach Community College (today's California State University, Long Beach) then moved to Oakland and enrolled at University of California, Berkeley, where her brother James was already a student.[1] While at college, she supported herself by doing domestic work, and also attended meetings of both the pioneering political group Oakland Nisei Democrats and the Pacific Coast Labor School.[2] In late 1941, following graduation from Berkeley, she found a job working as a secretary to Ernest Besig, attorney and director of the Northern California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.

In Spring 1942, with help from Besig and social worker Ruth Kingman, Sugihara was able to migrate "voluntarily" to the East Coast and thereby avoid confinement in the War Relocation Authority camps.[3] After attending business school to improve her typing, in June 1942 Ina was hired as a secretary by John Thomas of the American Baptist Home Mission Society in New York, who detailed her to help Japanese Americans leave camp and resettle. In 1943, after Thomas's stipend for her position ran out, she switched to a similar post with the Protestant Welfare Council's Human Relations division, which morphed into a job with the Federal Council of Churches. In both positions, she worked in the publicity department, and wrote articles and press releases for the Religious News Service.

After the prejudice she had experienced in California, Sugihara enjoyed the cosmopolitan climate of New York. Soon after settling in the city, she grew acquainted with Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas, the only national political figure to oppose mass removal of Japanese Americans. Her talks with Thomas, building on her own experience, inspired her to become active with the Socialist Party. She organized the Minorities Workshop within the SP's New York local, joined the staff of the Party organ The Call, and attended the 1944 Socialist National Convention. Meanwhile, after briefly considering enrolling in graduate school at University of Wisconsin, she decided to stay in New York and throw herself into civil rights organizing. In 1943 Sugihara became a founding member of the New York branch of the non-violent civil disobedience group Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). The director of CORE, African American activist James Farmer (whom Sugihara and a boyfriend put up in their apartment for several months following Farmer's divorce) later marvelled at the fierce intelligence and lively humor with which she confronted bigots. The following year, Sugihara helped organize the New York branch of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), the organization's first multiracial chapter. Sugihara meanwhile became a frequent contributor to the JACL newspaper Pacific Citizen.

Even before the war, Sugihara had spoken publicly in favor of the assimilation of Nisei. In November 1939 she insisted that "clannishness" was responsible for the lack of overall social consciousness of the Nisei. In a meeting the following year, she added that young people should mingle more with Caucasians and when necessary agitate through organizations.[4] During the war she toured New York State to advocate aid for resettlers, in the belief that normal life was only possible for the Nisei if they remained dispersed and centered on the East Coast. In an article for the Catholic magazine Commonweal, she insisted that, while Japanese Americans certainly should have the right to return to their homes after the war, the resettlement of masses of Nisei in California would not only spark racial discrimination but would place them at odds with other minorities: "If Japanese Americans return in large numbers to Los Angeles's international ghetto... tighter restrictions in the rest of the community against all minority groups will crowd them into an extremely limited territory, and lack of privacy, together with the search for a scapegoat, will cause bloodshed."[5]

Building Multigroup Coalitions

In contrast, Sugihara concentrated on multigroup coalition building. In 1945–46, Sugihara led the New York JACL in lobbying for Congressional reauthorization of the wartime anti-discrimination watchdog agency Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC). As part of her campaign, Sugihara joined forces with Black leaders, and she contributed an article entitled "Our Stake in a Permanent FEPC" to The Crisis (the first of three articles she would eventually publish in the NAACP organ). The article detailed the history and some of the successes of the FEPC. Referring obliquely to the government's mistreatment of Japanese Americans, she not-too-gently reminded her African American readers that they were not the only group in need of redress: "Perhaps the most notable accomplishments of the FEPC is its successful handling of cases involving Japanese Americans [in the face of] war hysteria, hidden circumstances and personalities, and other factors not found in the usual cases."[6] Sugihara concluded that it was in the direct interest of both groups to fight for a permanent FEPC. Beyond easing discrimination, she argued, the agency's efforts helped heighten the consciousness of minority groups about their fundamental interdependence, and fostered multiracial alliances to fight discrimination. "One of [the FEPC's] most important functions has been to prove to people, some of whom were previously concerned over the welfare of one community group or another, that the fate of each minority depends upon the extent of justice given all other groups."[7]

In mid-1947, she attended a conference called by the NAACP counsel Thurgood Marshall on legal strategies to fight restrictive covenants in the U.S. Supreme Court in the forthcoming Shelley v. Kraemer case. Sugihara then contacted the JACL's Anti-Discrimination Committee and arranged for the organization to submit a supporting brief. Later that year, she convened a meeting of civil rights and church groups in support of the JACL Supreme Court case Takahashi v. California Fish and Game Commission, which challenged anti-Issei discrimination, and she helped persuade NAACP counsel to submit a brief on behalf of that organization. In Summer 1948, Sugihara was invited by the Pacific Citizen to submit an article in which she publicly praised the Socialist Party and endorsed Norman Thomas for president.

Later Life

The respect Sugihara inspired by her work led her to be named JACL national secretary in 1950 and vice-president of the JACL's Eastern District in the 1950s. Still, she found herself increasingly marginalized within a Japanese American community she considered intolerant of blacks. In particular, in 1955 Sugihara married an African American, Willis Jones. She later stated that she and her husband were made to feel uncomfortable at community events, and she largely withdrew from Japanese American activities. In later years, she worked for Texaco, lived in Queens and supported open housing for African Americans. In 1977, the couple moved to White Plains, where Mr. Jones died in 1982. Ina Sugihara Jones retired from Texaco shortly afterwards. During the 1980s she worked with the Westchester Chapter of the seniors' activist group Gray Panthers. She died in White Plains on September 16, 2004.

Authored by Greg Robinson, Université du Québec À Montréal

For More Information

Robinson, Greg. After Camp: Portraits in Midcentury Japanese American Life and Politics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.

Farmer, James. Lay Bare the Heart: An Autobiography of the Civil Rights Movement. New York: Arbor House, 1985.

Footnotes

  1. James Sugihara (1918- ) is a pioneering chemist and educator, who would become the University of Utah's first-ever graduate Ph.D. in 1947, and would go on to become Dean of the College of Science & Mathematics at North Dakota State University.
  2. Ina Sugihara and George Hedley, eds. "Labor and the National Defense: Proceedings," Berkeley and Oakland, Labor Institute Pacific Coast Labor School, 1941.
  3. Ina was not the only member of the Sugihara family to escape camp. Her sister Edna, who had moved to Washington DC before the war, was employed by the Board of Economic Warfare, the start of an extended civil service career.
  4. "Action on Nisei Problems Urged During Symposium at UC," Nichi Bei, November 21, 1939; "Second Generation Course", Japanese American Courier, December 14, 1940, 2.
  5. Ina Sugihara, "I Don't Want to Go Back," Commonweal, July 20, 1945, 330-2.
  6. Ina Sugihara, "Our Stake in a Permanent FEPC," The Crisis, January, 1945, 15.
  7. Ibid.