Japanese American Citizens League Is Founded Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Japanese American Citizens League was founded to advocate for the acceptance of Japanese Americans by portraying the members of this population as loyal mainstream Americans. Despite early legislative victories, the league’s cooperation with World War II internment and its promotion of assimilation and Americanization rendered it controversial within the Japanese American community.

Summary of Event

In the words of its own historian, Bill Hosokawa, the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) originated as “a civic and patriotic organization concerned with the well-being and political and economic progress of American citizens of Japanese ancestry.” Responding to widespread anti-Asian sentiment in the United States, the JACL promoted assimilation and Americanization as the most effective way for the Nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) to gain the approval of the general public. Initially a loose federation of loyalty leagues, the JACL had minimal influence until 1941, when it cooperated with the federal government in carrying out President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Roosevelt, Franklin D. [p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;internment of Japanese Americans Executive Order 9066, which ordered the internment of Japanese Americans in restricted camps during World War II. Because of that cooperation, the league lost the respect of many Japanese Americans. After World War II, the JACL achieved a positive public profile as it lobbied for civil rights legislation; however, it remained controversial for its insistence on accommodation rather than confrontation in the political arena. Now the largest and most influential Japanese American political organization, the JACL must deal with conflicts within its own ranks regarding its basic goals. [kw]Japanese American Citizens League Is Founded (Aug. 29, 1930) Japanese American Citizens League [g]United States;Aug. 29, 1930: Japanese American Citizens League Is Founded[07660] [c]Organizations and institutions;Aug. 29, 1930: Japanese American Citizens League Is Founded[07660] [c]Social issues and reform;Aug. 29, 1930: Japanese American Citizens League Is Founded[07660] Arai, Clarence Takeya Yatabe, Thomas T. Sakamoto, James Y. Slocum, Tokie Sugi, Suma Masaoka, Mike Masaru Myer, Dillon S. Collins, Wayne Mortimer

The roots of the JACL can be traced to 1918 in San Francisco, when Thomas T. Yatabe and a small group of his college-educated friends met to discuss the future of the Nisei in the United States. Calling themselves the American Loyalty League, American Loyalty League they were well aware of the racism blocking the economic progress of Asian immigrants and their families at that time. The Issei (first-generation Japanese Americans) hoped their children, the Nisei, would have opportunities for economic and social advancement. Japanese Americans, discrimination However, as scholar Ronald Takaki has documented, widespread discrimination made it very difficult for them to find employment other than manual or menial labor. Yatabe and his friends were among the fortunate few who had achieved professional success; a recent dental school graduate, Yatabe drew into his circle another dentist, a doctor, and an attorney. They realized that Nisei in general still faced an uncertain future. In their view, the best way to gain acceptance by the general public was to define themselves first and foremost as loyal Americans dedicated to advancement of democratic ideals. Individual enterprise, fair play, and respect for law and order were cornerstones of this philosophy.

In 1922, James Y. Sakamoto founded a similar group, the Seattle Progressive Citizens League. Seattle Progressive Citizens League In 1923, Yatabe established the Fresno American Loyalty League, Fresno American Loyalty League the first statewide league. In 1928, he and Saburo Kido founded the San Francisco New American Citizens League. San Francisco New American Citizens League All of these groups shared a commitment to being “100 percent American” in their outlook. Realizing how much more effective they would be if they joined together, Clarence Takeya Arai, who was elected president of the Seattle group in 1928, proposed a national meeting of delegates. He envisioned the formation of a national council of Japanese American citizens’ leagues that would present a positive public profile. This four-day meeting, called to order by Arai on August 29, 1930, in Seattle, Washington, became the founding convention of the JACL, the first national political organization of Japanese Americans.

The Nisei leadership at the convention represented a special group of college-educated professionals with economically secure, middle-class, urban backgrounds. Mostly in their late twenties and early thirties, they were strikingly unlike the majority of Nisei in the United States at that time, who were younger (with an average age of seventeen) and from rural, working-class backgrounds. Moreover, they were distinctly different from the Issei, who still held political, economic, and social power in local Japanese American communities through the Japanese Associations, which provided legal aid and other services for immigrants.

The Issei usually chose (or were forced by racism) to remain within their own communities; their English skills often were minimal, and their direct interactions with outsiders were limited. Through the Japanese Associations and other local organizations—such as prefectural associations, merchants’ and farmers’ mutual-aid societies, vernacular newspapers, and Japanese-language schools—the Issei maintained their communities as best they could within the larger American society. The Nisei leadership of the JACL, however, insisted on a completely different approach to finding a secure place for Japanese Americans in the United States. Above all, they stressed assimilation, not ethnicity, underscoring their American aspirations rather than their Japanese heritage.

Therefore, one of the first items of business at the founding convention was to remove the hyphen from “Japanese-American,” on the basis that any Japanese aspect of Nisei identity had to be subordinated to the group’s American destiny. More than one hundred delegates from five states (Washington, Oregon, California, Illinois, and New York) and the territory of Hawaii approved resolutions asking that Congress address two timely issues: the constitutionality of the 1922 Cable Act Cable Act (1922) and the eligibility of Issei veterans of World War I for citizenship. Suma Sugi became their lobbyist for amendment of the Cable Act, which stripped citizenship from any American woman who married an “alien ineligible to citizenship”; through Sugi’s efforts and those of the League of Women Voters, League of Women Voters Congress changed the law in 1931, so that citizenship could not be revoked by marriage. Tokie Slocum became the JACL lobbyist for veteran citizenship, which finally was secured by the Nye-Lea Bill in 1935.


The Japanese American Citizens League helped pass two important pieces of legislation within five years of its foundation. These laws prevented American women from losing their citizenship if they married Japanese men and allowed Japanese men who had fought for the United States to become U.S. citizens. Despite these accomplishments, however, the JACL had little direct effect on the Japanese American community at large during the first decade of the group’s existence. This situation changed dramatically in 1941, when President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, authorizing the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

Under Roosevelt’s order, the federal government imprisoned virtually all Issei leaders of businesses, schools, and churches on the West Coast. The JACL then took over, directing Japanese Americans not to resist relocation. In fact, the JACL cooperated with the War Relocation Authority War Relocation Authority (WRA) in identifying community members who might be subversives. Dillon S. Myer, WRA director, worked closely with JACL official Mike Masaru Masaoka in administering the camps—a relationship intensely resented by the majority of Japanese Americans. Attorney Wayne Mortimer Collins, who stood against popular opinion to defend Japanese American civil rights during and after World War II, went so far as to blame the JACL for much of the suffering that internees endured.

The JACL succeeded in building a positive public profile after the war by lobbying for civil rights legislation such as amendment of the McCarran-Walter Act McCarran-Walter Act (1952)[Maccarran Walter Act] in 1952, thereby guaranteeing the right of all Issei to naturalized citizenship. To this day, however, the JACL has remained a controversial organization, especially because of its conservative political stance. The JACL now must deal with interfactional conflicts between its “old guard” and younger members who question the league’s basic goals. Japanese American Citizens League

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chan, Sucheng. Asian Americans: An Interpretive History. Boston: Twayne, 1991. Carefully researched investigation of Asian American socioeconomic, political, educational, and cultural realities. Provides contexts for assessing JACL achievements. Extensive bibliography, index, and black-and-white illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Drinnon, Richard. Keeper of Concentration Camps: Dillon S. Myer and American Racism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987. Painstakingly researched revisionist history of Myer’s administration of the War Location Authority, including his collaboration with Mike Masaoka and the JACL. Extensive bibliography, index, and black-and-white illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hosokawa, Bill. JACL in Quest of Justice. New York: William Morrow, 1982. History book commissioned by the JACL to record its accomplishments. Mainly covers the 1930’s and 1940’s, emphasizing the organization’s patriotic nature. Index, black-and-white illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ichioka, Yuji. Before Internment: Essays in Prewar Japanese American History. Edited by Gordon H. Chang and Eiichiro Azuma. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2006. Detailed study of Japanese Americans in the first four decades of the twentieth century. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Niiya, Brian, ed. Japanese American History: An A-to-Z Reference from 1868 to the Present. New York: Japanese American National Museum and Facts On File, 1993. Invaluable resource including narrative historical overview, chronology of Japanese American history, and dictionary entries for that history. Scholarly research accessible to general audience. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spickard, Paul R. “The Nisei Assume Power: The Japanese Citizens League, 1941-1942.” Pacific Historical Review 52, no. 2 (May, 1983): 147-174. Argues that early JACL leadership represented Nisei who seized the historical moment to wrest political, economic, and social power from Issei.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Takahasi, Jere. “Japanese American Responses to Race Relations: The Formation of Nisei Perspectives.” Amerasia Journal 9, no. 1 (Spring/Summer, 1982): 29-57. Analyzes three major self- and group-concepts developed between 1920 and World War II: cultural bridge, American ideal, and progressive. Discusses JACL history in that context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Takaki, Ronald. Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. New York: Penguin Books, 1989. Groundbreaking investigation of Asian American contributions to socioeconomic and political development in the United States. Provides contexts for assessing JACL achievements. Index, black-and-white illustrations.

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