Home History Discover Nikkei Illinois Japanese Unknown Heroes Chapter 1: Introduction

Illinois Japanese Unknown Heroes Chapter 1: Introduction

Chicago Daily News collection, Chicago History Museum (DN-0051702).

By Takako Day

The first Japanese domestic servant to be recorded in the 1880 Illinois census was J. Yanada, a twenty-one-year-old single man who served Ulysses S. Grant, 18th President of the United States, in Galena, Illinois. (1) Grant was very satisfied with Yanada, who was assigned to Grant’s service by the Japanese government when Grant toured in Japan in 1879, (2) and once reported to a friend: “I have become so accustomed to travel with my little Jap, who looks after everything, that being without him on my last visit I come off leaving my baggage at the station without think to get it checked.” (3)

There were no Japanese servants recorded in the 1890 Illinois census; but ten years later, the 1900 census reported thirteen Japanese servants, all male, who comprised 19% of the adult male Japanese population of sixty-seven. Three out of the thirteen lived outside Chicago, in places such as Evanston, Illinois.

downtown Chicago skyline Photo Chicago city view Yuchienning creative commons cropped

However, newspaper articles from before 1900 reveal that there were a few more Japanese domestic workers reported before the turn of the century. For example, a man named S. Abo was involved in the murder of his employer and had to stand as witness in court. (4) A Japanese woman stayed in Chicago after the 1893 Columbian Exposition ended and worked as a servant at an American home. (5) In 1907, a photographer from the “Chicago Daily News” caught sight of two Japanese women in kimono, Chiyo Kanako and Fusa Umatani, who were walking across Michigan Avenue with Betty and Teddy Baldwin, children of Captain T. A. Baldwin, (6) and it is assumed that Kanako and Umatani worked as nannies for the Baldwin children.

Among the Japanese who worked as domestic servants in Illinois, some came to Chicago as servants for American businessmen whom they met in Japan. One of these was Sam Kanjiro Onishi, who opened a restaurant in Rockford, ninety miles northwest of Chicago, in the 1910s. Onishi, then twenty-two years old, came from Otsu, Shiga, to Chicago in December 1903 (7) with Fracias Fernald, who ran a tea business at 25 South Water Street in Chicago. (8) Onishi started working in the restaurant business around 1911 at 203 S. Main Street in Rockford, continued in the business for the next twenty years, and became one of the many supporters of the Chicago Japanese community.

In the 1910 census, there were ninety-four domestic workers; of them, five were female. Eighty-nine male domestic workers made up 38% of the adult Japanese male population of 235. Thirty-three domestic workers worked outside Chicago, two of whom were female. They worked not only in the suburbs of Chicago (such as Evanston, Elgin, and Aurora), but also in central and western Illinois cities such as Peoria, Decatur and Galesburg. Frank Lloyd Wright, the well-known Oak Park architect who designed the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo in 1915 and collector of Japanese “ukiyo-e”, also had a Japanese servant, named Satsu. (9) The high number of Japanese domestic servants in the 1910 census reflects the fact that numerous Japanese moved to Chicago following the April 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. Many had moved to escape anti-Japanese sentiments, which had escalated after the quake.

Chicago Tribune May 14 1905

Generally speaking, Japanese people could find employment fairly easily by placing an ad in the newspaper. For example, in 1911, the “Chicago Examiner” ran the following “situation wanted” ads; “By butler, valet and cook: experienced; Japanese, private family, city or country, good refs,”/10 “As Japanese cook, rest or hotel,”/11 and “houseman, porter, cook, any work, sober, experience, Japanese, references.”/12 The May 14, 1905 “Chicago Tribune” ran twenty-three “Situations Wanted for House Servants” ads and ten of those were from Japanese looking for housework and butler jobs. One of the most interesting ads might have been placed by a former Japanese sailor: “Japanese steward, club or yacht. First class experience.” On the same day, seven “Wanted” ads for house servants were published in the “Chicago Tribune” and three ads were specifically looking for experienced Japanese for general housework. (13)

In the peak years, Japanese servants were very popular and in high demand as cooks, valets, and house “maids” (14) because they were “polite, careful and intelligent” (15) and “clean, clever and ambitious.” (16) They were also paid much higher in Chicago than on the West Coast, in comparable big cities such as Seattle. (17)  It was said that good cooks received 80 dollars a month and regular house workers usually earned more than 35 dollars a month. (18) One newspaper published a short story about an American who came to the Japanese consulate to look for a Japanese cook and failed to find one; this reflected the great demand for Japanese help. (19) But then, Japanese consul, Seizaburo Shimizu, as if throwing cold water on the popularity of Japanese servants, commented in another newspaper article that “consular officers make no attempt to meet the demand for them because the visible supply is so woefully insufficient” and denounced “these affectations (for true Nippon fashioned supper with Japanese butlers) as obsolete.” (20)

House Servants Japanese for general housework Chicago Tribune March 8 1905

Of course, there were “bad” Japanese servants as well as exemplary ones. For example, Ritsuzo Sakai, who was recommended by Japanese consul Toshio Fujita, was fired due to suspicion of drug use although he had worked for two years and was well-liked by the family. In revenge, he returned to his employer’s house and threatened their maids by shooting a revolver several times. With the last bullet, he shot himself (21) and died three months later, in April 1902. He was only twenty-five years old. (22) In another example, a Japanese cook sampled his employer’s wine cellar stock, including the champagne, and was discovered. When confronted, he drew a knife, the police were called in, and the Japanese man was deported. (23)

The growing Japanese population in Chicago created competition among themselves to find the best jobs. One Japanese worker shared his experiences in a newspaper article as follows: “A few years ago if one posted ad for domestic works once in a newspaper, one could receive more than ten offers every time. But now newspaper ad is not effective at all. If you are lucky enough to have an offer and visit an employer, you see several Japanese already there and the employer tests all of them to choose one. It is very difficult to find an employer even if you are much experienced unless you have reference from Chicago resident.” (24)

Live-in domestic workers who were also students, aka “school boys,” also competed for employment in Chicago. Was T. T. in this ad “Situation wanted: young Japanese, light general housework, T.T. 3219 Groveland,” (25) a student looking for a “school boy” position? It was probably the same “young Japanese” from the same address who asked for “$20 a month” to do “light general housework or waiter on housework.” (26) 3219 Groveland Avenue was the address of the Japanese YMCA, which was led by Reverend Misaki Shimadzu (27) and was where many Japanese immigrants lived.

When Yasuhiko Niimura came to Chicago from Japan in 1916 to study art, he looked for a “school boy” position. However, according to Niimura, people in Chicago did not understand the term “school boy,” which was commonly used on the West Coast, and found that very few of the Japanese in Chicago were employed as “school boys.” (28) A similar comment came from Masuto Kono, who was very ambitious, and came to Chicago in er“schoolboy.” (29) Although he did find work with a white Catholic family, (30) Kono had to give up the schooling part after realizing that being a “school boy” was almost impossible in Chicago. But at least one “school boy” was recorded in the 1910 census, a Tamezo Takimoto from Nagasaki, who was a graduate student at the University of Chicago from 1909 and a live-in servant at 208 East Erie Street in Chicago.


1. 1880 census. 2. “Chicago Tribune,” Nov. 2, 1880. 3. Grant’s letter to General Beale, dated Oct. 26, 1881, Ulysses Grant Papers Vol 30, page 280. 4. “Chicago Tribune,” Nov. 8, 1892. 5. “Chicago Tribune,” Apr. 21, 1895. 6. DN-0051702, Chicago Daily News Collection, Chicago History Museum. 7. California, Arriving Passenger & Crew Lists. 8. 1904 Chicago City Directory, 1905 Chicago City Directory. 9 – 12. “Chicago Examiner,” Jan. 12, 1913; June 19 – 22, 1911; Nov. 20 – 25, 1911; Nov. 23, 1911. 13 – 16. “Chicago Tribune,” May 14, 1905; Apr. 17, 1904; Aug. 5, 1894; Apr. 17, 1904. 17. Ito, Kazuo, “Shikago Nikkei Hyakunen-Shi” (SNHS; Chicago Nikkei 100-Year History), page 164. 18. “Shin Sekai,” Jan. 11, 1907. 19 – 21. “Chicago Tribune,” July 29, 1901; Apr. 17, 1904; Jan. 18, 1902. 22. Illinois, select death index, 1877 – 1916, for Ritsuzo Sakai. 23. “Chicago Tribune,” June 20, 1913. 24. “Nichibei Shuho, Feb. 6, 1909. 25 – 26. “Chicago Examiner,” June 26 – 29, 1914, June 22, 1914. 27. Day, Takako, 2021, Japanese “Christians in Chicago — Chapter 1: Introduction,” discovernikkei.org. 28. Ito, “SNHS,” p. 164. 29. Day, Takako, 2022, “Suspicious Points of Contact in Pre-War Chicago — Japanese Affinity with African American Communities, Part 5,” discovernikkei.org. 30. Ito, “SNHS,” p. 177.

© 2022 Takako Day

Editor’s notes. This series is ongoing on DN, where chapters 2 to 5 have also been posted to date of six to seven planned in all. The interested reader may find it and other related topics by entering “Illinois Japanese” at the DN search box. Seattle readers may also find it interesting that Kazuo Ito, who “wrote the book” on Seattle-area Issei, did the same for Chicago Issei (note 17).

Takako Day, originally from Kobe, Japan, is an award-winning freelance writer and independent researcher who has published seven books and hundreds of articles in the Japanese and English languages. Her latest book, “Show Me the Way to Go Home: The Moral Dilemma of Kibei No-No Boys in World War II Incarceration Camps” is her first book in English. Relocating from Japan to Berkeley in 1986 and working as a reporter at the “Nichibei Times” in San Francisco first opened Day’s eyes to social and cultural issues in multicultural America.Since then, she has written from the perspective of a cultural minority for more than 30 years on such subjects as Japanese and Asian American issues in San Francisco, Native American issues in South Dakota (where she lived for seven years) and most recently (since 1999), the history of little known Japanese Americans in pre-war Chicago. 

This article was originally published in discovernikkei.org, which is a project of the Japanese American National Museum, Los Angeles.