Home Community The Legacy Project by the Seattle Japanese American Citizens League

The Legacy Project by the Seattle Japanese American Citizens League

The Legacy Project by the Seattle Japanese American Citizens League

By Kyle Kinoshita
For The North American Post

May is Asian American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Among the many celebrations, we look back on how our Japanese ancestors met and overcame the challenges they encountered upon landing here, and the generations after them. The Legacy Project of the Seattle Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) captured many of these stories in documenting its 100 year-plus history.

The Seattle delegation poses for a group photo after parading through the streets of Kobe for the Kobe Matsuri on April 22

Picture being a member of the Seattle’s Nikkei (Japanese American) community in 1921. If you were born in Japan, you were not legally allowed to own your own house or the land it sits on. If you wanted to make this country your home and become a naturalized citizen, you would be told that only Whites are allowed to have this dream. You might manage to finish the University of Washington law school, but you would not be allowed to take the bar exam. Even if you were American-born living in Seattle. If you were told, “we don’t allow your kind” at a restaurant, swimming pool or any establishment, -it was perfectly legal.

This was the impetus behind the Seattle Progressive Citizens League in 1921 formed by 19 Issei (first generation Japanese immigrant) and Nisei (American-born second generation). Today, it is known as the Seattle Chapter JACL. The founders of the 1921 organization were instrumental in forming the national Japanese Americans Citizens League in 1929 and sponsoring its first convention here in Seattle in 1930.

Saving a buried history—The Legacy Project. Since then, the Seattle JACL has been involved in more than 100 years of advocacy and activism supporting Japanese Americans and other communities. Fast forward to 2021—how to celebrate the centennial of this pioneering Asian American civil rights organization,especially when the memory of our current members only goes back several decades? To top it off, try to pull it off in the middle of a global pandemic.

This is where the creative vision of Bill Tashima, longtime Seattle JACLer and past chapter president,kicked in. What followed was the inception of The Legacy Project, initiated in 2021 capturing the rich (and for many members, unknown) history of Seattle JACL. It was only after the completion of its three major components did it sink in. To its participants, without it a century of history might have been lost for future generations.

The beginnings of the project were anything but straightforward. Much of Seattle JACL’s history lay buried in dozens of boxes in the basement of the University of Washington’s (UW) Suzallo Library. Still, more of it was contained in the unwritten memories of the Seattle JACL leaders of past decades.Thanks to several grants and almost 30 diligent community members (Densho staff, University of Washington faculty, Suzallo librarians and college student interns) who collaborated on the project, there is now a huge treasure trove of knowledge about the Seattle JACL history and the many individuals who created the life of the chapter.

100 Years of Seattle JACL—A History of Advocacy and Activism for All. The first of three components ofThe Legacy Project is a nine-panel, traveling display detailing the significant events and people in the century-long history of the Seattle chapter. The panels detail the 1921 origins, the World War II incarceration, the building of a post-war community organization, connections to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, the role of strong women and youth leaders, and present-day support of social justice causes.

Community artist Erin Shigaki created a captivating format with text and photographs that draw in observers. The panels are designed to be very portable and can be quickly set up and taken down. Since the display was completed in fall 2021, the display has appeared at dozens of events, ranging from the Seattle Cherry Blossom Festival, colleges, city halls, school district central offices, and celebrations in the Asian-Pacific Islander community. Viewers are in awe of the vast amount of history contained in each of the panels, and presented in an attractive eye-catching format.

Oral histories from the past and present. Video interview recordings of the lives and activism of 21 Seattle JACL leaders are featured in a digital warehouse. Many are currently active or have been in the past three decades.Family memories of iconic Seattle JACL leaders who have passed on such as Phil Hayasaka, Aki Kurose, and Cherry Kinoshita were taped and included. These giants of our community were active in the civil rights and successful redress for the World War II incarceration. Through a partnership with Densho.org, the oral histories are housed on the website.Like the many other recordings on the site, there is an index of topic links so that rather than listening to the entire one and a half hour tape one click will take you directly to the part of their story you want to hear. The recorded interviews were conducted by student interns from UW professor Vince Schleitwiler’s Asian American Studies class. Debriefing afterwards about the experience, the student interns marveled at the amount of living history they learned from the JACL leaders. The 21 legacy oral histories have now joined over 200 other recordings of past JACLers.

A repository of decades of Seattle JACL newsletters. The third component of The Legacy Project is a fascinating window into bygone decades. A vast collection of Seattle JACL newsletters (some dating back to 1941 before the incarceration) have been scanned into a digital file accessed on the Densho.org website. A partnership of Densho.org staff and UW student interns painstakingly went through hundreds of newsletters and inputted the topics of articles into an accessible database. Even more remarkable, the name of every single person mentioned in any newsletter was entered. This feature allows, for example an interested, young community member to look up every time a grandparent was mentioned in a JACL newsletter in the 1960’s, ‘1970’s or ‘1980’s. A student could also conduct research on Seattle JACL’s involvement in the Japanese American redress or other civil rights issues. We are only beginning to realize the possibilities of how this resource can be beneficial.

Next steps. Seattle JACL continues to work on ways to share The Legacy Project (see inset). We hope in the future to highlight interesting stories from our history and of the dozens of individuals highlighted in The Legacy Project materials.

Accessing the Seattle JACL Legacy Project

▪️To arrange for our “100 Years of Activism and Advocacy” panel display, contact the chapter president Kyle Kinoshita at kinoshitakyle@hotmail.com.

▪️To listen to The Legacy Project oral histories, go to the Densho Digital Repository (https://ddr.densho.org) and enter “Seattle JACL” into the search box. Look at the “Format” box and select “Oral History” and then “Apply Filters”. Selecting “List View” will present all the names of the Seattle JACL leaders over past decades who have oral history recordings.

▪️To look at the Seattle JACL newsletters, go to the Densho Digital Repository (https://ddr.densho.org), and enter “Seattle JACL” into the search box. Look at the “Genre” box and select “Periodicals”, and then “Apply Filters”. Selecting “List View” will display the newsletters.

▪️To find a mention of an individual in the newsletters, go to the Densho Digital Repository (https://ddr.densho.org) and enter the name of the person you wish to find. Look at the “Genre” box and select “Periodicals”, and then “Apply Filters”. Selecting “List View” will provide a listing of the places the person is mentioned in any newsletter.

▪️For questions, contact chapter president Kyle Kinoshita at kinoshitakyle@hotmail.com.