Charles Kikuchi

Name Charles Kikuchi
Born January 18 1916
Died 1988
Birth Location Vallejo, CA
Generational Identifier


Charles Kikuchi (1916–88) was born in Vallejo, California, on January 18, 1916.  He is best known for being the author of The Kikuchi Diary: Chronicle from an American Concentration Camp (1973), a collection of Kikuchi's first nine months of incarceration edited by historian John Modell. Kikuchi penned over 100,000 pages in his diary over forty-seven years (1941–88). He married Yuriko Amemiya, famed dancer for the Martha Graham Company in 1946, and the couple raised two children, Susan and Lawrence. Kikuchi died of cancer at seventy-two in September 1988, in the midst of completing a Peace March in the Soviet Union.

Orphaned in 1924 at the age of eight years old by his Issei parents, Kikuchi began his unconventional journey as a Nisei in northern California, living in a multiracial orphanage seventy miles north of San Francisco. He would go on to work as a migratory farm laborer, fish scaler, art store clerk, and domestic, among other few, limited, low-end jobs available to Japanese American men during the mid-century. Graduating from San Francisco State College in 1939, Kikuchi would eventually matriculate to the School of Social Welfare at the University of California, with a conscious focus on becoming a social worker—an occupation his Nisei classmates derogatorily viewed as feminine and unintellectual. Undeterred by such chauvinism, Kikuchi averred his desire to be an activist, not solely an intellectual, someone who would be able to affect lives on the ground and in an immediate manner. Such an approach led to Kikuchi's ultimate completion of his master's at the New York School of Social Work in the postwar era, and a twenty-four-year career as a psychiatric social worker in Veterans' Administration Hospitals where he predominantly counseled African American veterans of the Viet Nam War.

The wartime diaries were part of Kikuchi's contribution to the Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study (JERS), led by the noted demographer Dorothy Swaine Thomas of the University of California. Kikuchi was an indispensable analyst, alongside the budding Nisei intellectual cadre that included Tamotsu Shibutani , James Sakoda, and Tamie Tsuchiyama . This was a natural outgrowth of Kikuchi's intellectual circle at Cal, the center of which was Kikuchi's best friend Warren Tsuneishi, the future head of the Asian Division of the Library of Congress, fellow social worker Kenji Murase, and future University of Connecticut professor, Lillian Ota. Kikuchi was also a minor celebrity in California Nisei society, as he had been the "Anonymous" author of " A Young American with a Japanese Face, " a narrative incorporated into From Many Lands (1940), a collection of essays edited by the Slovenian American writer and immigrant activist Louis Adamic . Through his friendship with Adamic, Kikuchi met and briefly interacted with luminaries of the 1940s, like future editor of the Nation Carey McWilliams , novelists John Fante and William Saroyan, and journalist Herb Caen. These writers strongly encouraged Kikuchi to write his own story, as a symbol of the "new Americans" Adamic viewed as key challengers to the staid and xenophobic culture of the "old Americans." Before Kikuchi could write anything of consequence, however, he faced the trauma of rejoining his family in concentration camps at Tanforan , (San Bruno, California) and Gila River , (Rivers, Arizona).

Charged with being "head of household" after his father had been severely debilitated, Kikuchi led his fractured family through the ignominy of imprisonment over an eleven-month period. Simultaneously, he continued work on Thomas' JERS team, which ultimately afforded Kikuchi (and two of his younger sisters) the opportunity to leave Gila River and resettle in Chicago to continue his own graduate work (and his sisters their own high school and college studies). Now working more directly with principals of the Chicago School of Sociology, most notably Dorothy Thomas' husband, W.I. Thomas, Kikuchi grew to become an expert in the methods of both "participant observation" and the recording of  "life histories." Tutored by W.I. in the taking of "life histories," Kikuchi managed to document the lives of sixty-four Japanese Americans who had "resettled" to Chicago during the war. (See Resettlement in Chicago .) Fifteen of these interviews made Dorothy Thomas' The Salvage (1952), the second of three volumes associated with JERS.

More significantly, Kikuchi cultivated ties and friendships with many African American South Siders as he lived on the eastern edge of what St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton famously dubbed "the Black Metropolis." While certainly not Kikuchi's first exposure to interracial interactions (e.g., he often worked alongside Mexican American and Filipino American migratory laborers throughout the San Joaquin Valley in his early twenties), he developed a remarkably strong affinity and respect for African Americans who waged the democratic struggle diagnosed by sociologist Gunnar Myrdal as "an American dilemma," or the failure of white America to live up to its creed and afford its African American population the human rights of equality and justice. Through his diaries, interviews with other Japanese Americans, and his close contact with African Americans in wartime Chicago and then in postwar New York City as a VA counselor, Kikuchi consistently demonstrated this intellectual and emotional investment in African Americans as the " model minority " for other racialized and ethnic minorities in America. He viewed African American inclusion in the American family as the key to fulfilling his own vision of a multiracial American democracy, but he also recognized the nearly but not impossibly intractable structural, cultural, and social forces militating against such an ideal of democracy.

While hardly alone in his support of African American causes (e.g., other wartime Nisei intellectuals like Mary Oyama Mittwer , Ina Sugihara, and Larry Tajiri ), Kikuchi was certainly unique in his experiences and close relationships with African Americans, from his time in San Francisco, to his studies in Chicago, to his decades-long work with African American veterans during the 1960s and early 1970s. In the end, Kikuchi's confidante, Tsuneishi, would eulogize his best friend by stating:

As Nisei, Charlie and I had come a long way. From being outcasts in American society before and during the Second World War, we joined the American mainstream in the post-war era. We lived to see basic American attitudes transformed through the civil-rights movement, and we took a certain pride in the fact that we had been optimistic about American society changing and moving toward the ideals it espoused.

He conceded, however, that even though they had come a long way, "Charlie saw that we as a nation still had a long way to go in alleviating the plight of Afro-Americans and other minorities in finding their rightful place in American society." [1]

Authored by Matthew M. Briones , University of Chicago

For More Information

Briones, Matthew M. Jim and Jap Crow: A Cultural History of 1940s Interracial America .  Princeton: Princeton UP, 2012.

Charles Kikuchi Papers (Collection 1259). Charles E. Young Research Library. Department of Special Collections, UCLA. .

Hansen, Arthur. "Political Ideology and Participant Observation: Nisei Social Scientists in the Evacuation and Resettlement Study, 1942-1945." In Guilt by Association: Essays on Japanese Settlement, Internment, and Relocation in the Rocky Mountain West , edited by Mike Mackey, 119-144. Powell, WY: Western History Publications, 2001.

Kikuchi, Charles. "A Young American with a Japanese Face." In From Many Lands , edited by Louis Adamic, 185-234. New York: Harper and Bros., 1940.

———. The Kikuchi Diary: Chronicle from an American Concentration Camp .  Edited by John Modell. 1973. Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

———. "Through the JERS Looking Glass: A Personal View from Within." In Views from Within: The Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study , edited by Yuji Ichioka, 179-195. Los Angeles: Asian American Studies Center, 1989.

Takagi, Dana Y. "Life History Analysis and JERS: Re-evaluating the Work of Charles Kikuchi." In Views from Within: The Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study , edited by Yuji Ichioka, 197-216. Los Angeles: Asian American Studies Center, 1989.

Thomas, Dorothy Swaine, Charles Kikuchi, and James Sakoda. The Salvage . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1952.


  1. Warren Tsuneishi, "In Memoriam: Charles Kikuchi, 1916–1988," in Views from Within: The Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study , ed. Yuji Ichioka (Los Angeles: Asian American Studies Center, 1989), vii.

Last updated June 12, 2024, 8:50 p.m..