Center for Japanese American Studies

The Center for Japanese American Studies (1969-98) was an innovative grassroots organization based in San Francisco. Although multifaceted in nature, the CJAS's critical exploration of Japanese Americans' incarceration and its long- and short-term impact during and after the war was a key dimension of its foci from its beginning.

Roots of the CJAS

The roots of the CJAS were the sustained protests of the San Francisco State College strike of 1968-69, which aimed to establish the field of ethnic studies in higher education. A small group of Japanese American students, faculty, and staff from that campus, along with concerned community members who both supported and criticized the strike, decided to call a series of town hall meetings in order to inform Bay Area Nikkei about what was at stake.

In the aftermath of these meetings, key participants thought that the town hall-style discussions had been quite fruitful. They determined that they would work together to stage educational forums so that Japanese Americans could meet to explore other pertinent issues facing the Nikkei community. In this fashion, educational forums and programs became a hallmark of the CJAS's activities. Soon these programs were held regularly on the third Friday of the month and were free and open to the public.

If this was the public face of the center, there was a lively and ongoing interaction on the part of a dozen to three dozen participants who vetted possible topics that might be of interest to the larger Nikkei community. Quite open-ended, and somewhat freewheeling in the beginning, participants were largely self-selected and, especially over the first decade, came and went freely. Largely self-funded, coordination and management duties were eventually handled by an informal committee made up of George Araki, Jim Hirabayashi, and Clifford Uyeda .

Foci of the CJAS

As the Center took shape and began to evolve, three broad foci began to emerge as principal concerns. The issue of Nikkei ethnic identity was paramount in the sense that participants were continually asking: who are we, as Japanese Americans, and what does having a Japanese American identity actually mean in theory and in practice? A related focus had to do with crafting a Japanese American perspective on our ethnic history, experiences, and on current community issues and debates. A third focus had to do with unmet needs in the Japanese American community as well as a desire to see what could be done tangibly to meet them.

In the final analysis, whether implicitly or explicitly, the exploration of these three broad foci was framed vis-à-vis the West Coast Japanese Americans' history and experiences, especially the World War II removal, incarceration, and postwar dispersal of Nikkei. Overall, it was tacitly assumed that what of this history had not been hidden, was distorted by dominant society perspectives: in other words, careful, critical self-examination in light of Japanese American history was necessary to build a viable foundation to work from.

CJAS Programming and Conferences

As might be expected, CJAS programs often focused on the Japanese American experience, including consideration of how Nikkei identities were shaped by variables such as generation, gender, class, and interracial marriage. Although participants explicitly recognized the impact of immigration and US history on Nikkei, programs consistently interrogated Japanese roots, exploring the nature of being Nikkeijin as opposed to Nihonjin. Features of CJAS programming include the following characteristics.

One was the consistent effort to present leading scholars of the Japanese American experience. Two, CJAS programming was dialogic in nature, so many of the center's educational events self-consciously promoted audience questions, interaction, and debate. Three, no particular set of rules, hierarchical relationships, or dogmas (whether political or otherwise) held sway in CJAS decision-making in regard to topics and/or speakers. Meetings and decision making were democratic, open ended, and revolved around mutual respect, civility, and growth—both that of the individuals involved, as well as the community at large.

It is not possible to summarize the Center's almost thirty years of programs in this context. In concert with the orientation of the Densho Encyclopedia, and as an illustration, pride of place will be given to the first complete decade of CJAS programs that had to do with the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans.

From its inaugural year of 1969, the center often featured speakers and topics relating to the camps. That year, for example, a multi-faceted program on the Japanese American perspective featured speakers and an exhibit on art in the War Relocation Authority camps. In 1970 programs featured Gordon Hirabayashi , Alexander H. Leighton, and Anne Loftis as speakers. In 1972, three documentary films on the camps were shown and discussed at a CJAS program. In 1974 Jeanne and James Houston, and cartoonist Jack Matsuoka, discussed their books, the former focusing on Manzanar , and the latter on Poston . Similarly, a program in 1975 brought authors Toshio Mori and Yoshiko Uchida to a community audience. In 1977, programs featured No-no boys from Tule Lake , three European-American staff members who worked in WRA camps, and Nisei men who volunteered from camp to join the 442nd Regimental Combat Team during World War II. In 1978 community leader Dr. Clifford Uyeda organized a forum on reparations for Japanese Americans who had suffered removal and incarceration during the 1940s. Programming in 1979 included a presentation by anthropologist Rosalie (nee Hankey) Wax, who was a Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study fieldworker at the Tule Lake camp; the CJAS also participated in a Day of Remembrance program at Tanforan as well as the Tule Lake Pilgrimage.

Finally, a unique center endeavor was the evolution of a CJAS theater group. In the 1970s and 1980s, The Center Players produced short and full-length plays about life in and after camp written by Nisei poet and author Hiroshi Kashiwagi . Acting, crewing, lighting and sound design were all handled in house and any center member, whether experienced or not, could take part. In line with CJAS priorities, The Center Players always had an educational emphasis: productions were themselves a vehicle for participants to explore what camp experiences meant for diverse Japanese Americans. Concomitantly, whenever possible, plays were taken on the road and staged in community venues so audiences could watch and then discuss the center’s free public performances.

In sum, and as the specific recounting herein suggests, programming that had to do with "camp" made up twenty- and twenty-five percent of all of the CJAS's educational forums, and these kinds of events brought to local Nikkei community audiences many of the most important authors who lived and who studied Japanese American experiences during the 1940s.

Grassrooting the System, Building Community

Beyond its programming efforts, the CJAS's philosophy made it an ideal launching pad for a wide range of initiatives that basically spun off into related but sometimes institutionally-separate organizations. Two entities were an integral part of the CJAS. One was the conversational Japanese language classes offered by Miyako Sueyoshi and Yuko Franklin for almost thirty years. A second, a resource center, evolved to become the Japanese American National Library, which also took over key center holiday events such as the annual mochitsuki once the center disbanded. Separate groups that were founded by center members include Go For Broke, a Nisei veterans organization (via Chet Tanaka), the Japanese American National Museum (via Nancy Araki and Jim Hirabayashi), the National Japanese American Historical Society (via Clifford Uyeda), and the Grateful Crane Ensemble (via Soji Kashiwagi).

Perhaps in part because it was so successful in helping members pursue their evolving interests, the Center for Japanese American Studies began to lose steam by the late 1990s. By mutual consensus, remaining members met for one last closing meeting, and the center officially shut its doors on May 23, 1998.

In summary, the Center for Japanese American Studies embodied the philosophy of self-identity/self-determination coming directly out of the San Francisco State College strike. Specifically, the Center pioneered the push to develop Japanese American perspectives on Nikkei history and the Nikkei experience as a foundation for grassroots organizing to meet the evolving needs of the post-strike Japanese American community.

Authored by Lane Ryo Hirabayashi , UCLA

For More Information

Primary documents related to the history and activities of the Center for Japanese American Studies are held in the collections of the National Japanese American Library, San Francisco and the Japanese American National Museum, Los Angeles.

Last updated June 26, 2024, 6:06 p.m..