Resettlement in Philadelphia

Philadelphia had fewer than 50 residents of Japanese ancestry according to the 1940 census. This population would expand dramatically as a result of resettlement , reaching approximately 7,000 at its peak in 1946. Philadelphia became the first major city on the East Coast to welcome Japanese American students to continue their education at local schools amidst the incarceration of WWII. This paved the way for a significant community of resettlers into the region both during and after the war.

In the postwar era, many Japanese Americans returned to the West Coast or left Philadelphia for other East Coast cities, resulting in a shrinking population of approximately 3,000. Those who remained became deeply involved in local business, politics, education, and other fields that have given this relatively small community a prominent position in local affairs. Among these were prominent Nisei leaders of the Redress Movement including Grayce Uyehara and Judge William Marutani .

Prewar Issei Community

Despite the region's relatively small population of Japanese Americans, Philadelphia has maintained a continuous Japanese presence since the Meiji Era when the Iwakura Mission first visited the city in 1872. A few years later at the Centennial Exposition of 1876, the Empire of Japan sent a dozen craftsmen and architects who designed and built a Japanese style dwelling, garden, and cultural pavilion formerly located in current day West Fairmount Park.

By the 1880s several dozen Japanese students from upper-class former samurai households began enrolling at the University of Pennsylvania. Popular fields of study included medicine, dentistry, architecture, and engineering, which greatly shaped the development of these fields in Japan. In 1889 Kei Okami became the first Japanese woman to obtain a degree in Western medicine when she graduated from the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania.

From the 1880s until 1924, the largest population of Issei were university students who mostly returned home to Japan after completing their studies. However, pioneering Issei Yosuke W. Nakano left a major impact on the landscape of Philadelphia through his work as an architect. After graduating with an MA in engineering from University of Pennsylvania, in 1919 Nakano was employed as chief engineer at the firm Wark & Company. There he worked on many significant projects such as the Sun Oil Building, Presbyterian Hospital, Bell Telephone Building, Lankenau Hospital in Wynnewood, and the iconic Jefferson Hospital main building. Another Issei Penn graduate and contemporary of Nakano was Tadafumi Mikuriya, who earned his degree in civil engineering and worked for Baldwin Locomotive Works before starting his own business, the Tada Engineering Company in 1948. Although his company was based in Trenton, Mikuriya remained involved with the Philadelphia community throughout his life, serving on the chapter board of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) along with Nakano in the 1950s.

Issei entrepreneurs Shingo Shimamura and Tamekichi Takagi established "oriental goods" import stores in 1890 and 1897, respectively. A later venture established in 1915 called the Okamoto Bros and operated by brothers Yosaburo and Tokizo Okamoto had two locations in center city Philadelphia where they sold Japanese art goods, silks, and other items.

With the commencement of hostilities between the U.S. and Japan, the lives of Philadelphia Issei changed dramatically. Although they were not forcibly removed from their homes, Issei were still subject to a curfew, had their assets frozen, and were restricted from traveling more than five miles from their residence without express permission from the FBI. Philadelphia's Issei community was forced to close their businesses and some found work as bakers' helpers or domestic servants.

Others like architect Nakano were able to weather the storm due to their technical expertise and deep roots within the community at-large. Nakano's employer Wark & Company was able to successfully petition the Army Corps of Engineers to approve Nakano's security clearance to allow him to continue overseeing the construction of the Philadelphia Quartermaster Depot and other war manufacturing building projects.

World War II

In the 1940s Philadelphia was the third largest city in the United States, making it an obvious place for Japanese Americans to consider moving to after camp. Resettlement into the region was met relatively favorably by Philadelphians largely due to the advocacy efforts of the Quaker-led American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) headquartered in Philadelphia, but also the Presbyterians and other Pennsylvania-based faith groups.

Quakers in Philadelphia went out of their way to support the resettlement of Japanese Americans into their city. Even before the incarceration began, the AFSC had opposed the forced removal of persons of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast. At the behest of the AFSC, the WRA agreed to allow the creation of the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council (NJASRC) in May 1942, which became headquartered in Philadelphia.

One of the first East Coast institutions to accept and actively recruit Japanese American university students was Swarthmore College, a small liberal arts school founded by Quakers in the Philadelphia suburbs. College President John Nason was a Quaker and AFSC member who served as national chair of the NJASRC. Under his leadership, Swarthmore enrolled their first Japanese American students in fall 1942. Overall about a dozen students of Japanese descent attended Swarthmore as a direct result of this program.

Not all Philadelphia schools were welcoming, as the Nisei daughter of architect Yosuke Nakano would find out in the spring of 1944. Despite already being enrolled as an undergraduate student of philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, Naomi Nakano was barred from graduate studies due to a racially restrictive policy that forbid new enrollments from Japanese students, regardless of their citizenship. In the wake of Penn's decision another Quaker institution, Bryn Mawr College, offered Nakano a graduate fellowship in sociology.

The Philadelphia War Relocation Authority (WRA) office opened in July 1943 and was operated under the direction of Henry Patterson, a Quaker from Swarthmore who was a vocal civil rights advocate for both the African American and Japanese American communities. This connection between the Quakers and Philadelphia WRA office would prove instrumental in relocating the community in a more thoughtful and integrated manner than many of the other areas selected for resettlement.

Another major factor in the resettlement effort was the Philadelphia Hostel , a dormitory style facility that welcomed individuals and families who were seeking permanent housing and employment in the city or surrounding areas. Funded by a coalition of faith-based organizations and private citizens, the hostel was initially operated by a Quaker psychologist named Victor E. Goertzel, and later, an Issei couple Saburo and Michiyo Inouye. The Philadelphia Hostel was both one of the longest running and most populous of the Japanese American hostels, thanks largely to the family-like hospitality afforded to new arrivals.

As resettlement in Philadelphia and elsewhere became more normalized, Japanese Americans gained further acceptance within the larger community of Philadelphia, opening businesses and finding employment opportunities in a variety of fields. The April 1945 edition of the Manzanar Free Press credited Miyo Tachihara Ota for starting "the first evacuee-owned business" in Philadelphia, a beauty shop and hair salon. Another entrepreneur was Issei Jimmy Kikushima, who operated one of the first Japanese restaurants in Philadelphia. Kikushima's "Oriental Restaurant" became a favorite gathering place for many of the Nisei college students.

Several Philadelphia resettlers were photographed in their new places of employment by WRA Photographer Hikaru Iwasaki , whose photos were featured prominently in WRA materials encouraging resettlement to the region. Among them were several medical professionals including Dr. George Wada, who became a resident physician at Stetson Hospital in North Philadelphia; Harold Arase, a lab technician at Lankenau Hospital (designed by architect Nakano); Rose Utsunomiya, a pharmacologist at Jefferson Hospital; and Mack Tsujimoto, an orderly at Philadelphia Women's Hospital. There were also many Issei and Nisei who found work in Philadelphia's manufacturing industry like Percy Fukushima who worked at the James G. Biddle Company or Shojiro Horikawa as a printer at the Message Publishing Company. Another prominent resettler was George Nakashima , the Nisei woodworker and architect who established his workshop in New Hope Pennsylvania where he lived and worked for the remainder of his life.

Many of the resettlers who came through Philadelphia would also go on to work at Seabrook Farms in nearby Bridgeton, New Jersey. At its peak in the late 1940s to early 1960s, Seabrook Farms employed several thousand Japanese Americans in their frozen vegetable packaging plant, where a Japanese American community that resembled a West Coast Japantown existed for several decades following resettlement.

Other Nisei farmers found work at smaller Quaker-owned farms closer to Philadelphia. In November 1945, the Rocky Shimpo announced, "Takashi Moriuchi has just purchased a 100-acre vegetable farm in Moorestown NJ, ten miles from the center of Philadelphia." Having relocated to Philadelphia in February 1944, Moriuchi worked as a foreman on the farm of Quaker Lewis Barton in Haddonfield, NJ, alongside other Nisei resettlers, some of whom he would later employ on his own farm. Moriuchi was also among the Nisei leaders who organized the Philadelphia Nisei Council along with Hiroshi Uyehara, Grayce Kaneda (later Uyehara), and several others. The Nisei Council helped to acquaint resettlers with local services and promote better integration into the existing community, collaborating with the WRA to produce a bilingual brochure encouraging resettlement into the region.

Farming would continue to be a major source of employment for many of the community members for decades to come. Kibei S. John Nitta was an agricultural entrepreneur who relocated his American Chick Sexing School from Terminal Island to Lansdale, PA, in 1941, which continuously operated until 1974. Located 30 miles northwest of Philadelphia, Nitta expressed a number of difficulties during the war years in a 1994 interview that was conducted as part of the Terminal Island Life History Project:

Within the community of Lansdale for a long time the restaurant waitresses would not come to take our orders except for one small restaurant owned by a Greek. No one would take in roomers except one aged Christian friend. Barbers would not cut our hair, saying they would lose customers. One Italian friend, who operated a barber shop was the lone exception. Certain church ministers asked us not to attend their church due to objections from some members of their congregation. Total strangers would come up to us and ask whether we were Chinese. Some sexors became discouraged and went back to join their families in the relocation centers. Our American competitors were saying "Why use Jap sexors?" During the war years such unfriendly things happened in many parts of the country.

By the end of WWII, the community of Japanese Americans in the Greater Philadelphia area had expanded from a mere handful of families to encompass a sizeable minority population that extended across all industries and age groups. The community members came from disparate socio-economic classes and regions across the U.S., each coming to Philadelphia under very different circumstances. Perhaps the only commonality was that the Quakers had in some way touched each of their lives, and would continue to pave the way for their peaceful coexistence in the postwar years.

Postwar years

Eventually about half of the Japanese Americans who resettled in Philadelphia would return to the West Coast, but those who stayed became deeply entrenched in their local communities and also became integrated with the prewar Issei community. As the Philadelphia Nisei Council sought to establish a more permanent organization in which to continue their work, the Philadelphia Chapter of JACL was chartered in 1947 with the help of Mas Satow and Mike Masaoka .

JACL Philadelphia became actively involved in advocacy for progressive immigration reform, which resulted in the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952. Many of JACL Philadelphia's members became further politicized during the Civil Rights Movement. Born in Poston, Sansei Masaru Ed Nakawatase grew up in Bridgeton, New Jersey where his parents worked for Seabrook Farms. In the summer of 1963, Nakawatase dropped out of college at Rutgers University and took a Greyhound bus to Atlanta where he joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He would later become a labor organizer before joining the staff of the AFSC as the national representative for Native American affairs.

Another Philadelphia resettler, Nisei William Marutani spent several summers doing pro-bono legal work in the Jim Crow South. Formerly incarcerated at Tule Lake , Marutani settled in Philadelphia after graduating from law school when he accepted a position with the firm of MacCoy, Evans and Lewis in 1953. He also served as JACL national's legal counsel from 1962–70 and was the first person of Japanese ancestry to speak before the Supreme Court when he presented an amicus brief in support of interracial marriages in 1967 during the landmark Loving v. Virginia case that struck down anti-miscegenation laws nationwide. In 1975 William Marutani became the first Japanese American judge in the state of Pennsylvania, and would later serve as the only person of Japanese ancestry on the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians .

Nisei Grayce (Kaneda) Uyehara also served in a leadership role during the Redress Movement as Executive Director of the Legislative Education Committee, a 501(c)4 lobbying group established in 1985 by members of the JACL to advocate for the enactment of HR 442. Uyehara was among the first prominent women leaders at JACL national and helped to manage Lillian Kimura's campaign when she was elected in 1992 as the JACL's first female national president.

Amid the redress campaign, JACL Philadelphia members undertook several projects to engage the general public in cultural diplomacy and historical education. In 1982 Nisei leaders Mary and Warren Watanabe, Hiroshi and Grayce Uyehara, Louise Maehara, and Reiko Nakawatase Gaspar founded Friends of the Japanese House and Garden, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the restoration and upkeep of Shofuso. The Shofuso site hosts a variety of educational and cultural programs, and remains an important symbol of US–Japan friendship as the only physical structure that is identifiably Japanese in Philadelphia.

Many of the same individuals were also involved with the curation of a 1985 exhibition at the Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies titled, "The Japanese American Experience," which was the first major exhibit on the East Coast telling the story of wartime incarceration and postwar resettlement in the region. Given the overlap of the U.S.-Japan trade wars and the Redress Movement, these cultural and educational activities that Philadelphia's Nisei community engaged in during this period helped other Philadelphians empathize with their struggles, and built support for redress among the public at-large.

Current Day

Although most of the Nisei have now passed away, the few who remain are largely congregated around Medford Leas, a retirement community established by Tak Moriuchi with proceeds from his farm.

While the population of Japanese Americans who can trace their lineage to the forced removal has steadily shrunk in the decades after resettlement, hundreds of Japanese expats have immigrated to Philadelphia since the 1980s. Japanese companies with offices in the region include Subaru of America (headquartered in nearby Cherry Hill, NJ) and Philadelphia Insurance (a subsidiary of Tokio Marine). In 2016, the Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia merged with the Friends of the Japanese House and Garden and currently oversees operations of Shofuso in addition to their U.S.-Japan citizen diplomacy and business programs.

The JACL Philadelphia chapter remains the main convener of the Japanese American community, in addition to Japan Association of Greater Philadelphia (フィラデルフィア日本人会) which fulfills a similar role for the Shin-Issei.

Authored by Rob Buscher

For More Information

The Balch Institute. " The Japanese American Experience " exhibition.

Buscher, Rob. " A Philadelphia Story ." Pacific Citizen , Dec. 15, 2017.

Japan American Society of Greater Philadelphia. " Shofuso History ."

" The Third Space: Japanese American Resettlement in Greater Philadelphia " exhibition

Japanese Association of Greater Philadelphia website:

Philadelphia JACL website:

Last updated Jan. 29, 2024, 1:44 p.m..