Japanese American Committee for Democracy

The Japanese American Committee for Democracy (JACD) was an anti-fascist civil rights and social organization that united New York's wartime Japanese community. Heavily influenced by the Communist Party, its members were engaged in both politics and the arts.

The JACD was founded in New York in 1940 as the Committee for Democratic Treatment for Japanese Residents in Eastern States under the leadership of Reverend Alfred Akamatsu, pastor of Manhattan's Japanese Methodist Church. Due to resistance by the pro-Tokyo leadership of New York's organized Japanese community, the group remained largely dormant until December 1941. It was then revived at a mass meeting of 150 people shortly after Pearl Harbor, and renamed the Japanese American Committee for Democracy. Its goals were to inculcate pro-democratic sentiment among ethnic Japanese and to mobilize outside public support. Although the founding group had many Nisei members, its leadership (like the surrounding community) was predominantly Issei . Its initial board was composed of prominent liberals such as ACLU director Roger Baldwin and writers Lin Yutang and Pearl S. Buck . Within a few weeks, a constitution and by-laws were approved and a monthly newsletter founded. Yoshitaka Takagi, a radical Issei, rapidly became executive secretary and the actual leader of the group.

The issuing of Executive Order 9066 placed Committee members in a dilemma. Like the JACL , the JACD counseled obedience to the government as vital to national defense. Meanwhile, its members deplored discrimination. In May 1942 JACD members approved a resolution by the Communist-backed American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign-born demanding hearing boards for all government detainees, and formally opposed a bill sponsored by Tennessee Senator Tom Stewart to intern all people of Japanese ancestry. The JACD's inner conflict exploded in June 1942 at a public meeting organized by Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas , a longtime foe of the Communists. There Thomas presented a resolution calling for the establishment of hearing boards to determine the loyalty of "evacuees" and protesting the "military internment of unaccused persons in concentration camps." Although the text resembled the official JACD position, a Committee delegation denounced Thomas and offered a counter-resolution endorsing army claims that "evacuation" resulted from military necessity. Although the counter-resolution was defeated, the JACD's intransigent attitude blocked effective action. Its actions led several board members, including Roger Baldwin, to resign. The JACD gained more positive publicity that same month when it was banned from New York City's official Victory Parade by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia on the pretext that its presence would lead to violence. While JACD leaders urged acceptance of the ban in a spirit of unity, the visible injustice helped the group attract public sympathy.

The JACD was principally active in two areas. First, it worked to build support for the war effort. Committee members organized a well-publicized blood donor brigade for soldiers, and made public statements calling for victory over Japan. Meanwhile, JACD members joined forces with the Office of War Information to make pro-allied radio broadcasts and pamphlets. In December 1942, the group held a Remember Pearl Harbor victory rally which several hundred people attended. In 1943, the JACD produced a Japanese translation of a book by Joseph Grew, former U.S. ambassador to Japan.

Meanwhile, the JACD worked to aid community members and protest inequality. Under the leadership of Rev. Akamatsu, the group organized a social study of the community, collected information on aid for the unemployed, wrote letters to businesses in cases of discrimination and testified before officers of the Fair Employment Practices Commission. By the end of 1942, as the confinement of Japanese Americans was completed, JACD members, relieved of defending mass removal, concentrated their efforts on finding sponsors and housing to help camp inmates resettle.

In early 1943, Nori Ikeda Lafferty (a prewar Bay Area activist who had been fired from her job at the Communist Party newspaper People's World after Pearl Harbor) migrated to New York and was hired as the first paid JACD staffer. She in turn inspired a group of fellow Nisei activists, including Ernest and Chizu Iiyama, Karl Akiya, Eddie Shimano , Kazu Iijima, and Dyke Miyagawa, to join her in New York. All soon became leaders of the JACD. In 1944, Yoshitaka Takagi and the other Issei board members resigned, and Nisei were elected to the JACD's leadership. Meanwhile, the distinguished artists Yasuo Kuniyoshi and Isamu Noguchi helped found the JACD Arts Council to produce prodemocratic propaganda. A satellite JACD group formed in Cleveland. Under Nisei leadership, the JACD became a social as well as political group, hosting group outings and dances (the celebrated folksinger Leadbelly entertained at different events). The celebrated performers Sono Osato and Yuriko Amemiya attended JACD events.

Even as they embraced resettlement , JACD leaders reached out to other groups and brokered coalitions for equality. Together with the Chinese Laundrymen's Alliance, JACD members rallied for repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act as well as an unsuccessful bill to legalize naturalization for all Asian immigrants. In 1944, JACD affiliated itself with the Chinese People's Emancipation League, formed by Japanese Communists exiled in Yenan, China. The JACD accorded particular emphasis to equality for African Americans. In fall 1944 JACD members invited the Communist-sponsored National Negro Congress to join a rally supporting the re-election of President Franklin Roosevelt.

As the war went on, the JACD Newsletter expanded from its previous role as a record of JACD activities to addressing outside issues. For example, in April 1944 the JACD newsletter ran a special legislative bulletin on an anti-poll tax bill. The Newsletter also featured book reviews and other material of interest.

After the Allied victory in summer 1945, JACD activities tapered off, though its newsletter continued publication and remained a crucial source of information. In 1947, a JACD contingent marched in the city's annual May Day parade. In January 1948, JACDers held a dance to raise money for lobbying against the poll tax. It was one of the Committee's last events. In Spring 1948, the group morphed into the Nisei for Wallace campaign to support Henry Wallace's third party Presidential candidacy. Following the election, the group reformed as the Nisei Progressives , before disbanding in late 1950.

The Japanese American Committee for Democracy (JACD) has been effectively ignored in the history of Japanese Americans. This is due partly to the group's relatively short life and its base in New York City, far from other Japanese population centers. It also results from the role of the Communist Party in shaping JACD leadership and policies, though the number of actual Party members in the group was apparently small. On the one hand, the Party's platform of equal rights inspired Committee members to reach out to other groups, notably African Americans. More negatively, the Party's doctrine of full support for the anti-axis struggle led JACDers to approve mass removal of West Coast Japanese Americans.

Authored by Greg Robinson , Université du Québec À Montréal

For More Information

Robinson, Greg. "Nisei in Gotham: The JACD and Japanese Americans in 1940s New York." Prospects: An Annual of American Cultural Studies , vol. 30 (2005): 1–16.

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

Last updated June 13, 2024, 3:09 p.m..