Setsuko Matsunaga Nishi

Name Setsuko Matsunaga Nishi
Born October 17 1921
Died November 18 2012
Birth Location Los Angeles
Generational Identifier


Setsuko Nishi (1921-2012) worked as a researcher for the Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study and as a community activist before going on to a notable career as a scholar of race relations.

Early Life and Wartime Incarceration

Setsuko Matsunaga was born in Los Angeles on October 17, 1921, the second of four children. Her father, Tahei Matsunaga, was an unusual Issei —after studying at University of Southern California with the renowned scholar Emory Bogardus, he become a local real estate dealer and hotel owner in Los Angeles's Little Tokyo district. Because of his community leadership, Tahei Matsunaga was informally dubbed "the Mayor of L'il Tokyo."

After attending Roosevelt High School, Setsuko Matsunaga enrolled at the University of Southern California as a music major. Her junior year was interrupted by the outbreak of war, then by the growing public and political pressure for mass action to repress Japanese Americans. Under the guidance of Emory Bogardus, she switched her major to sociology and was elected to the honor fraternity Phi Beta Kappa. Meanwhile, in contrast to many Japanese Americans, she moved to take action to defend the group. Joining her friend Masamori Kojima, plus liberal minister Rev. Fred Fertig and a group of brothers from the Maryknoll mission in Boyle Heights, she organized a speakers' bureau and worked to organize "information meetings" to shape public opinion about Japanese Americans. As the shadow of mass removal drifted over the community, the young Setsuko wired President Roosevelt to urge him not to take arbitrary action. Her telegram, dated Los Angeles, Feb. 10 1942, and preserved in White House files read "THE PRESIDENT: WE NISEI AMERICANS LOYAL. PROTEST INTERNMENT AS UNDEMOCRATIC CURTAILMENT OF CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES."

Despite Setsuko's efforts to avert mass removal, in spring 1942 the Matsunaga family was confined at Santa Anita Assembly Center . In fall 1942, after spending several months at Santa Anita, Setsuko and her sister Helen were among the first students to leave camp under the auspices of the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council . Following a harrowing journey across the country, she arrived in St. Louis and enrolled in the M.A. program in sociology at Washington University. While in St. Louis, Matsunaga made two important contacts. First, she was visited by sociologist Tamotsu Shibutani , who recruited her as an "Assistant Research Coordinator" for the UC Berkeley-based Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study (JERS). Meanwhile, she met P.L. Prattis, editor of the African American newspaper the Pittsburgh Courier , who remained an important supporter.

Resettlement in Chicago

In 1943-44, following graduation from Washington University, Setsuko Matsunaga moved to Chicago , where her parents had settled, and enrolled as a doctoral student in the famous University of Chicago sociology department. There she participated in JERS seminars led by director Dorothy Swaine Thomas. When Robert Cullum was putting together the materials for People in Motion , the official study of resettlers done for the WRA's successor agency, he corresponded with her for information on conditions in Chicago.

Once arrived in Chicago, Matsunaga also became attached to Ken Nishi , a California-born painter who was then serving as a non-commissioned officer in the U.S. Army. The two were married in 1944. In the years that followed, the couple had their first child, Geoffrey. Despite her burden of childcare, Setsuko nonetheless took employment outside the home, and served as chief family breadwinner.

Meanwhile, Prattis hired Nishi as an assistant (and ghostwriter) for the Pittsburgh Courier , and she worked as a research editor for the Chicago Defender . In 1944, Prattis introduced her to the celebrated African American sociologist Horace R. Cayton, who became a longtime friend and collaborator. Cayton engaged her as a staffer at Parkway Community House, a settlement house he directed in the city's South Side Black Belt. While at Parkway, Nishi organized community forums. With Cayton's guidance, she helped found the [[Chicago Resettlers Committee/Japanese American Service Committee | Chicago Resettlers Committee]], a social service agency now known as the Japanese American Service Committee, for which her father Tahei served as president. Meanwhile, with funds from the American Council on Race Relations (arranged through Robert Weaver, later the first African American to serve as a cabinet secretary in the Executive Branch), she wrote an extended pamphlet, "Facts About Japanese Americans" (1946), which received wide distribution. She simultaneously authored a review of Miné Okubo 's graphic memoir Citizen 13660 , for the American Sociological Review .

In addition to serving with the Chicago Resettlers' Committee, in the late 1940s Nishi assumed the position of acting head of the Chicago Council Against Racial and Religious Discrimination, a coalition of civil rights and labor groups. She went on speaking tours, and lobbied for a statewide Fair Employment Practices Bill, testifying at hearings in the state capitol in Springfield.

Although Setsuko Nishi completed her comprehensive doctoral exams at University of Chicago by 1951, and was able to draw on the research she had conducted with William Caudill for her dissertation, she was obliged to put off completion of her dissertation because of paid employment and growing family responsibilities. Ken Nishi underwent extensive hospitalizations, and even after his recovery, he struggled to support himself as an artist. In addition to working outside the home, Setsuko served as business manager and assistant in the greeting card business he created.

New York Scholar and Activist

At the start of the 1950s, the Nishis moved to Tappan, New York, outside New York City, which would remain their home base. They also established a summer home on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, Canada. During these years, the Nishis had four more children.

Once in New York, Setsuko Nishi was named to a position in the Research Department of the National Council of Churches. She in turn hired Horace Cayton, as research adviser, and they collaborated on a book, The Changing Scene (1955), part of a two-volume study of churches and social service.

In 1963, Setsuko completed her dissertation and received her long-delayed doctorate. Her dissertation, "Japanese American Achievement in Chicago: A Cultural Response to Degradation," studied the resettlement and adaptation of Japanese American former inmates in postwar Chicago. While Nishi's text celebrated the community structures that enabled Japanese Americans to reestablish themselves, she was impatient with cultural determinism as reductivist, and bitterly criticized " model minority " notions of Asian American success as simplistic and biased. In 2005, the dissertation was at the center of a controversy between Nishi and a young scholar, Jacalyn Harden, who claimed that Setsuko and other Nisei social scientists had presented Nisei as culturally superior to African Americans. Setsuko bitterly opposed any such contention, and called on the author and her publisher to issue a retraction.

In 1965, Setsuko Nishi was appointed professor of sociology at Brooklyn College. She was subsequently admitted as well as a faculty member at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. During her tenure at Brooklyn College, Nishi taught the first courses on Asian American Studies and served as a mentor to a generation of scholars.

She did not engage in much academic publishing during the following years. Instead, as in Chicago, she pursued work as a self-described "scholar/advocate." Her most significant affiliation was with the Metropolitan Applied Research Center, the noted think tank of the civil rights movement led by Dr. Kenneth B. Clark and Dr. Hylan Lewis.

In the 1970s, Nishi was appointed to the New York State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. She served for three decades on the Advisory Committee, including six as its chair. She also was active in Japanese community activities. In 1981 she testified before the U.S. Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians . In 1998 she joined a delegation of Japanese Americans in New York who met with Jewish community leaders to discuss the use of the phrase "concentration camps" in connection with the Japanese American National Museum's America's Concentration Camps exhibition at Ellis Island.

In 1999, Setsuko Nishi retired from Brooklyn College. Two years later, Ken Nishi died. In her last years, Setsuko Nishi organized and served as director of the Japanese American Life Course Survey, a large-scale investigation into the long-term effects on Japanese Americans of their wartime incarceration, though it remained unfinished at her death. She received some important honors over these years. In 2007, she was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Association for Asian American Studies. In June 2009 she was conferred The Order of the Rising Sun with Gold Rays and Neck Ribbon by the Government of Japan. In May 2012, six months before her passing, she returned to USC as one of the Nisei former students who received honorary degrees in place of the diplomas they had been unable to complete due to mass removal.

Authored by Greg Robinson , Université du Québec À Montréal

For More Information

Matsumoto, Valerie. City Girls: The Nisei Social World in Los Angeles, 1920–1950 . New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Matsunaga, Setsuko. "Japanese American Achievement in Chicago: A Cultural Response to Degradation." Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Chicago, 1963.

———. "An Open Letter to Jacalyn D. Harden." Amerasia Journal 31.3 (2005): 179–95.

Wu, Ellen D. The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority . Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014.

Last updated April 25, 2024, 2:29 a.m..