Nisei Progressives


Political organization that evolved out of Nisei for Wallace, a national organization formed in 1947 to support Henry Wallace as a third party presidential candidate for the Progressive Party. The Nisei Progressives advocated reparations for Japanese American who were put into United States concentration camps during World War II, citizenship and naturalization rights, repeal of the anti-miscegenation and alien land laws, elimination of housing discrimination, commercial fishing rights and a ban on nuclear weapons, all of which were added to the platform of the national Progressive Party in 1948. These ideas were radical for their time, when Japanese Americans were just beginning to rebuild their lives after spending the war in camps, and the nation, as a whole, was headed towards a Cold War and McCarthyism. At its height, the Nisei for Wallace/Nisei Progressives numbered about 200 members with chapters in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and New York.

Beginnings

The Los Angeles chapter of the Nisei for Wallace started in 1947 in the living room of Sakae "Sak" and Fumiko Okanishi Ishihara. The couple put out an advertisement in the Rafu Shimpo newspaper, inviting people interested in supporting Wallace's bid for president to attend a meeting at their home. Wallace's presidential campaign broke several historic firsts such as outreach to communities of color and insisting on desegregated audiences. Estimates vary about how many showed up for the first meeting but there seems to be a consensus that the living room of the Ishihara's apartment was full. Unlike the accepted norm of the time, women in the group were not expected to be mere refreshment servers but active participants. Sak Ishihara also contacted his friends in San Francisco and encouraged them to form a San Francisco chapter. In addition, Ishihara, Art Takei and Wilbur Sato traveled throughout California in an effort to garner support for the Progressive Party.

On October 2, 1948, Nisei for Wallace members met with Wallace in Los Angeles and participated in a rally at Gilmore Stadium where they marched with banners supporting Wallace and other placards that read "No More Hiroshimas," "Democratize Immigration Laws," "Broaden Evacuee Indemnities," etc. When the House Un-American Activities Committee began persecuting liberals in Hollywood, Nisei for Wallace came out in support of those working in the industry. Ishihara became good friends with the likes of Paul Jarrico, one of the infamous Hollywood 10, who was blacklisted but honored more than four decades later.

The New York chapter of the Nisei for Wallace started around the same time as the Los Angeles chapter. Many of the members came from the Japanese American Committee for Democracy (JACD), a New York-based group that had made headlines in 1947 when they held a press conference following a racially offensive remark made by then-New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. The JACD's press conference captured the attention of the Progressive Party, and a group of Caucasian Progressives visited a JACD meeting, inviting them to join the Progressive Party. In 1948, Ernest and Chizu Iiyama, New York Nisei for Wallace members, moved to Chicago, where the Progressive Party was holding their convention. By that time, there was a core of about 20 people who comprised the Nisei for Wallace in Chicago. The Iiyamas became active members in Chicago and helped register voters.

Japanese Americans who joined the Nisei for Wallace movement gave various reasons for their third party affiliation but in general, the camp experience had an enormous impact on their political activism. Some felt Japanese Americans had to become involved in the political process in order to have a voice in the government and to prevent another racially based exclusion. Others were angry and/or disillusioned with both the Democratic and Republican parties for allowing the forced removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans to occur. Some joined strictly to support the issues.

For the most part, mainstream Japanese American newspapers did not publicize Nisei for Wallace/Nisei Progressives activities. As a result, the Los Angeles Nisei for Wallace group self-published a newsletter titled, the Independent, while the Nisei for Wallace in New York came out with the Bandwagon newsletter. Several Nisei for Wallace members also headed Crossroads, a Los Angeles-based, all-English newspaper that started around 1947. Nisei for Wallace members included Crossroads editor Tom Komuro; art editor Chris Ishii, who also created the Li'l Neebo character during World War II (Li'l Neebo stood for Little Nisei boy); and associate editor Art Takei. At that time, the publication was printed at the facilities of now defunct African American newspaper the Los Angeles Tribune, headed by Almena Lomax, who had hired on Hisaye Yamamoto as a staff writer. Komuro, Ishii and Takei were all fired from the Crossroads after the publisher started getting complaints about stories on Wallace and the upcoming 1948 presidential election.

Post-1948

In the November 1948 election, the Wallace campaign received a little over a million votes. Supporters had been hoping for at least 4 million. The disappointing results, however, did not deter the Nisei for Wallace members, who announced plans for a "Founding Conference for the Nisei Progressives" shortly after the November election. With this announcement, the group became the Nisei Progressives, rather than Nisei for Wallace.

The conference was held on January 26, 1949, at the First Unitarian Church in Los Angeles. Ishihara served as conference chair; Sue Kunitomi Embrey as secretary; and Art Takei as organizer. At the conference, the organization adopted a platform that included issues on naturalization, immigration, equitable employment, fair housing, abolishment of the House Un-American Activities Committee, etc. Carey McWilliams, writer and human rights activist, gave the keynote speech.

When the government began rounding up radical and/or Communist-affiliated Issei for deportation, the Nisei Progressives joined with the Committee for the Protection of Foreign Born and fought their deportation. The Nisei Progressives was also the only Japanese American group, among other civil rights organizations, to oppose the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952, which promised naturalization to the Issei but perpetuated unequal status on immigration matters for Asian countries and included anti-Communist provisions that many found objectionable.

In 1952, the Progressive Party made a second attempt at a third-party movement. Vincent Hallinan, an attorney, was nominated as their presidential candidate, and his running mate was Charlotta Bass, publisher and editor of the African American newspaper the California Eagle. By that time, Art Takei served as national field organizer and spoke at the 1952 Progressive Party National Convention in Chicago. The Progressive Party, however, attracted a mere 140,023 votes in the November 1952 election.

At the same time, Nisei Progressive members, like other left-wing affiliated people, were getting hounded by the FBI. The FBI harassed them at home and at work, and openly trailed them in public, making it difficult for Nisei Progressive members to hold down a job. Ishihara was called to testify before HUAC. Nisei Progressive members were becoming pariahs within the Japanese American community, as well. As an example, the Ishiharas received a letter from JACL Executive Secretary Mike Masaoka that they were being kicked out of the East Los Angeles chapter of the JACL. As a result, FBI harassment and media attacks characterizing the Progressive Party as a front for the Communist Party, coupled with the disappointing election results of 1952, contributed to the demise of the Progressive Party and the Nisei Progressives.

Legacy

The political activism of former Nisei Progressive members did not end with the termination of the organization. Many continued their activism, mainly through different labor unions and Democratic clubs. Others such as Embrey, who was a member of a teachers' union, would go on to co-found the Manzanar Committee, which spearheaded the preservation of the former Manzanar camp site. Takei would go on to found the Alliance of Asian Pacific Labor and take the lead in forming the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, the first national labor organization for Asian American workers.

During the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements of the 1960s and the redress movement of the 1970s and 1980s, former Nisei Progressive members continued to be involved but few shared their past affiliation with the Nisei Progressive, an organization whose reputation had been marred by the intense Communist witch hunt of the McCarthy era. Not until the late 1990s was the story of the Nisei Progressives resurrected. By then, the USSR had dissolved, the Cold War was over, and the mainstream Japanese American community had come to embrace many of the goals the Nisei Progressives had pursued almost alone fifty years prior.

Authored by Martha Nakagawa

For More Information

Carpenter, Tim. "Nisei Progressives: A Link in the Chain of Social Democratic Movements in Twentieth Century America." Master's thesis, California State University, Fullerton, 1998

Masaoka, Mike, and Hosokawa, Bill. They Call Me Moses Masaoka. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1987.

Nakagawa, Martha. "Rebels With a Just Cause." Rafu Shimpo, Dec. 11, 1997.

---. "Sakae Ishihara: A Marked Man." Rafu Shimpo, Dec. 12, 1997.