Larry Tajiri


Name Larry Tajiri
Born May 7 1914
Died February 7 1965
Birth Location Los Angeles, CA
Generational Identifier

Nisei

Larry Tajiri (1914–65), editor and columnist for The Pacific Citizen, was the leading Nisei journalist of World War II, as well as a litterateur and political thinker. He was born Taneyoshi Tajiri in Los Angeles on May 7, 1914, the oldest of seven children of Ryukichi Tajiri, a wholesale produce salesman and farm group spokesman, and his wife Fuyo. The young Tajiri attended Maryknoll Catholic School, where he took the English names Lawrence Stephen after a pair of Catholic saints, and never thereafter used his Japanese name.

While attending Los Angeles Polytechnic High School, he joined the school paper, The Poly Optimist, and rose by senior year to the position of editor. After graduation, he briefly attended Los Angeles City College, but in the Great Depression economy was unable to afford further schooling. Instead, in March of 1932, he joined Kashu Mainichi as writer and assistant English editor. Within a year, at age 18, Tajiri became chief English editor. He added a regular sports page and a weekly literary page. Soon after, he began a daily column, "Village Vagaries," composed of squibs combining gossip, Nisei news, and social/political commentary.

In late 1934, Tajiri left Kashu Mainichi, and was named columnist and English editor of the San Francisco Nichi Bei Shimbun, the premier ethnic Japanese newspaper. His hiring bonus was a five-week, expenses-paid reporting trip to Asia, which he toured in summer 1936. During his tenure at Nichi Bei, he again opened up sports news and a literary page, and began a column, "Nisei USA." After moving to San Francisco, Tajiri fell in love with and married a local journalist, Guyo Okagaki. In addition to journalism, he became active in politics. A passionate New Dealer, in early 1938 Tajiri organized the Nisei Young Democrat clubs in San Francisco and Oakland.

In mid-1940 the Tajiris left San Francisco for New York, where Larry became a correspondent for Japan's Asahi newspaper chain. He reported from New York for eighteen months, which he later referred to as the happiest in his life. In the wake of Pearl Harbor, the Asahi New York office folded, and Tajiri lost his job. He and his wife then returned to San Francisco. Once there, he joined forces with Isamu Noguchi to create the Nisei Writers and Artists Mobilization for Democracy, which campaigned vainly during early 1942 to avert mass removal. In mid-February 1942 Tajiri helped organize a mass meeting of Los Angeles to oppose removal. His campaign was interrupted by the issuing of Executive Order 9066, which persuaded him that mass removal was unstoppable.

In spring 1942 Tajiri was offered a job with Office of Facts and Figures (precursor of the Office of War Information). He was ready to accept when JACL president Saburo Kido suddenly invited both spouses to move to Salt Lake City, outside the restricted zone, and turn the JACL newsletter The Pacific Citizen into a full-fledged newspaper to replace the abandoned West Coast press. Feeling a duty to Japanese Americans, the Tajiris accepted, and left the West Coast just before "voluntary evacuation" was banned. Once they arrived in Utah, they opened an office in three rooms downtown as the new JACL headquarters, which they took charge of until their colleagues appeared, and created a newspaper bureau.

The revamped weekly—later biweekly—version of The Pacific Citizen began appearing on June 4, 1942. From its first issue onwards, the Tajiris put together the entire newspaper by themselves. At first, it was primarily composed of reprints of JACL bulletins, official releases and outside news reports. Both spouses wrote an enormous amount of original material themselves, and wrote letters asking friends and government bureaus to provide information. The Pacific Citizen initially attracted few outside subscriptions, and most of its production was mailed to the camps. Its operating budget had to be subsidized by JACL membership dues (primarily from the handful of chapters in Utah and Idaho whose members had not been removed).

As time went on, Tajiri extended somewhat the range of the journal and its audience beyond Japanese Americans. His columns addressed national policy issues. While Tajiri demanded a free hand from the JACL to present his own views and to mold public opinion in the Pacific Citizen, his role as editor was clearly to interpret rather than to set JACL policy. Tajiri did not hesitate to weigh in on controversies within the Nisei community, notably that over military service—he was an outspoken critic of the Heart Mountain draft resisters. In addition to his work as editor, Tajiri toured widely, gave lectures, and wrote articles on the problems of Japanese Americans for outside magazines such as Common Ground, Asia and the Americas, and The New Leader. He also wrote a regular column for the interracial race relations journal NOW.

Once the war ended, The Pacific Citizen lost the near-monopoly on the ethnic press that it had enjoyed during the war. The Tajiris responded by adopting a focus on nationwide civil rights news, and added regional reports by such correspondents as Roku Sugahara and John Reinecke as well as columns by Koji Ariyoshi, Mike Masaoka, and even folksinger Woody Guthrie. Beyond his support for racial equality, Larry was a stalwart defender of civil liberties and an early and forthright critic of McCarthyism as a peril to democracy.

By the end of the 1940s, Guyo Tajiri had withdrawn from The Pacific Citizen, and Larry was facing burnout. Despite his acknowledged brilliance, he attracted criticism within the JACL for his independent management style and uneven financial management, as well as for his liberal politics, which displeased conservative group members. In mid-1952, after passage of the McCarran-Walter Immigration Act brought most legal discrimination against Japanese Americans to an end, Tajiri decided he had done enough, and he announced his resignation as editor.

After leaving The Pacific Citizen, Tajiri went through a period of flux. Finally, in 1954 he was hired as a staffer by the Denver Post, and two years later became the Post's drama critic and entertainment columnist. In the following years, he reviewed plays and films for the Post and also wrote a daily (later thrice-weekly) entertainment column, "The Spectator"—Tajiri was one of the first nonwhites to be given a byline at a mainstream newspaper. Meanwhile, drawing on his years of poker playing, he co-wrote a gambling guide, Poker: How to Win the Las Vegas Way (1965). He continued to produce a semiweekly column for The Pacific Citizen that centered on entertainment news. However, his career as a Nisei civil rights activist had passed.

On February 7, 1965, Tajiri was hospitalized due to chest pains. Five days later, while still in the hospital, he suffered a massive stroke and died. In honor of his dramatic criticism, a Denver theater prize, the Larry Tajiri award, was created.

Authored by Greg Robinson, Université du Québec À Montréal

For More Information[edit]

Robinson, Greg. Pacific Citizens: Larry and Guyo Tajiri and Japanese American Journalism in the World War II Era. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012.

Yoo, David K. Growing up Nisei: Race, Generation, and Culture among Japanese Americans of California, 1924-49. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.