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Kenjin-Kai: Overlooked in Nikkei History - Part 2 of 2

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In 1942, the Sacramento Hiroshima Kenjin-kai dissolved as members were separated and sent to different concentration camps.  Kenjin-kai members didn’t regroup until after World War II. 

 

In 1946, the year in which the first post-war meeting was held, virtually all the previous members came back to Sacramento and tried to pick up where the kenjin-kai left off before the war. 

 

The Hiroshima Kenjin-kai continued to offer the same types of assistance to members as it did prior to the war with a couple of minor changes that had evolved with the growing organization.

 

For example, more specific records were being kept of the club’s activities.  Prior to the war the kenjin-kai’s documented records (of which there were few because the kenjin based most of their dealings on trust) were kept by Mr. Kubo, the secretary at that time, in his store.  Unfortunately, the records were destroyed when a fire burned down Mr. Kubo’s store in Sacramento (the cause of the fire remains unknown).  Current documented records date form the 1946 to the present and have always been written in Japanese. 

 

In 1950, women were allowed to actively participate in the kenjin-kai which had previously been for men, the heads of the households. 

 

The event which spurred the sudden interest in single women was the festive New Year party of 1950.  For this event, men were charged $3 and women $2. 

 

The reasoning given for the price difference was that the men drank sake, so therefore, they were charged more.  Actually, the cheaper admission for women was instilled probably to entice more women to attend the party, said Jack Tsuchida of the Sacramento Hiroshima Nikkeijin-kai. 

 

The Sacramento Hiroshima Nikkeijin-kai has a women’s auxiliary, but is still mainly under the administration of men. 

 

 

Kenjin-Kai & JACL

 

Although diverse in nature, the Sacramento Hiroshima Kenjin-kai and the Sacramento chapter JACL have both played instrumental roles in aiding the Japanese community. 

 

When Issei immigrants needed a job or a place to stay, the kenjin-kai helped out.  When a Nisei faced job discrimination or a violation of human rights, the JACL responded. 

 

Today, on occasion, the present nikkeijin-kai and JACL pull their forces together for various social events.  However, even in today’s predominately acculturated society, many differences arise between the nikkeijin-kai and JACL that stem from far back in the past. 

 

The kenjin-kai have always extended a special closeness among members that can’t be compared with the JACL.  Being from the same part of Japan allows kenjin to share common interests and values among themselves.  They trust and help one another as if they were a large family. 

 

The JACL’s main objective as an organization, said Hosokawa in JACL in Quest of Justice, is to uphold their motto of promoting “a better American in a greater America.” 

 

Early kenjin-kai helped in any way possible to ease the harsh transition for Issei who held strong ties with Japan.  Educated with Meiji-era values and customs, it was difficult to break away completely and adopt American customs.  The language barrier also alienated many Issei from the greater Caucasian populace. 

 

Through the years, the kenjin-kai have maintained, if not close ties with Japan, at least cultural ties linked to Meiji-era Japanese values and traditions. 

 

Even though Issei may have benefited the most from belonging to a kenjin-kai, many Nisei and Kibei also find affiliation to a kenjin-kai very rewarding. 

 

During my recent visit to Sacramento, I was fortunate to interview members of the Sacramento Hiroshima Nikkeijin-kai.  While conducting the interviews, I noticed a sense of special warmth and appreciation in the way interviewees spoke about the Hiroshima Nikkeijin-kai. 

 

Mrs. May Kurimoto, a Kibei Nisei member, expressed gratitude which she felt towards the kenjin-kai by saying:

 

“…I don’t know about kenjin-kai, but the Hiroshima Kenjin-kai is especially helpful in taking care of funeral arrangements.  When my husband, one from the Hiroshima-ken, passed away, it was comforting to know that I didn’t have to worry so much about all the necessary arrangements.  The kenjin-kai helped with the program, collecting the koden, public notices, serving tea and food after the funeral and even mailing out thank-you letters to people who gave koden.” 

 

Jack Tsuchida, past present and current secretary of the Sacramento Hiroshima Nikkeijin-kai, reflects upon past experiences as being rewarding by mentioning the following:

 

“Well, I belong to other (Japanese-oriented) organizations, too.  And whenever I’m in charge of something and I need help, I always call on the kenjin-kai.  I can count on the kenjin-kai members to help me.  You can say that the kenjin-kai makes more closer friendships.” 

 

When asked if the current Sacramento Hiroshima Nikkeijin-kai will become more active politically like JACL in the near future, Tsuchida responded by saying assuredly, “No, we leave that up to them.” 

 

It is clear that the Sacramento Hiroshima Nikkeijin-kai is both satisfied and comfortable attending to the immediate needs of their own kenjin. 

 

 

* * * * *

 

Through the years, the Sacramento Hiroshima Nikkeijin-kai has become predominately a social organization.

 

After 1960, a rapid growth in membership was seen among Nisei.  In 1979, this nikkeijin-kai became incorporated as a non-profit organization under the category of mutual benefit. 

 

The present membership of the Sacramento Hiroshima Nikkeijin-kai includes approximately 500 families.  The exact number of members is unknown because membership is still based upon the number of heads of households (usually referring to husbands/fathers).  Of these members, 20 percent are Japanese-speaking only and 80 percent can speak English. 

 

The Sacramento Hiroshima Nikkeijin-kai is currently getting involved in more community-based activities. 

 

Secretary of State March Fong Eu often calls upon this nikkeijin-kai to demonstrate cultural talents like tea ceremony and flower arranging at exhibitions such as the annual California State Fair which is held at Cal Expo in Sacramento. 

 

This nikkeijin-kai also displays cultural arts at the Sacramento Crocker Art Museum.  Large memorial day services of remembrance for the victims in the bombing of Hiroshima are held annually.  Efforts are under way by the nikkeijin-kai to help raise funds to build the proposed Sacramento Asian American Nursing Home.  And many members are also preparing for the 80th anniversary of the Sacramento Hiroshima Nikkeijin-kai which will be in 1986, 

 

In looking towards the future, the Sacramento Hiroshima Nikkeijin-kai has high aspirations for continued success and effectiveness. 

 

When I asked Jack Tsuchida if he was concerned about a declining membership in the future, he responded by saying, “I’m not worried about that because we are the largest kenjin-kai in Sacramento.  Maybe other kenjin-kai have to worry, but our membership seems to be growing.”

 

I also asked him if he believes that Sansei members will carry on the traditional activities of the kenjin-kai.  He admitted, “Although we don’t’ have too many Sansei members…it’s up to us to teach the Sansei.” 

 

He also mentioned that they will have to start writing the minutes of the meetings in English, in addition to Japanese. 

 

Although kenjin-kai have been criticized for not changing with the times, this nikkeijin-kai has, at least, attempted to evolve with the changing needs and growing number of Nisei without losing the essential nature of being a kenjin-kai.  Success of this nikkeijin-kai is partly due to its large membership.

 

From what I have learned, the future looks promising for the Sacramento Hiroshima Nikkeijin-kai. 

 

Conclusion

 

Kenjin-kai, unique associations that still provide a cultural link between Japan and the United States, contributed greatly to the legacy of the early Japanese American experience.

 

The kenjin-kai took it upon themselves to help the Issei in any way possible.  As a support group, their overall contributions toward upward mobility of Japanese in America were a vital part of our past.  Without this support, many would not have been able to survive in the new land. 

 

The kenjin-kai have aided Issei and Nisei alike, but have kept a low profile.  They do not seek recognition from the general public because the kenjin are satisfied in knowing themselves the significant role their kenjin-kai has played in their lives. 

 

As in the past, public recognition of the kenjin-kai is not crucial because kenjin members hold some Meiji-era values and are thus very proud, but humble. 

 

The kenjin-kai are probably indirectly responsible for the unique blend of Japanese American values and customs that are still followed today. 

 

The importance of kenjin-kai in Japanese American history should not be passed over lightly.  With the minimal amount of literature available, their history may easily be buried or forgotten.

 

In a society where the vast majority of Sansei and Yonsei are becoming more assimilated, the kenjin-kai provide a refreshing sense that ethnic retention still survives. 

 

If kenjin-kai can successfully pass down traditional Japanese culture to the Sansei and Yonsei, then once again we will see kenjin-kai coming to the aid of Nikkei in America.  Only this time, a century later, it will be to keep Japanese culture from becoming extinct in the United States. 

 

*This article was originally written for the San Francisco State University Asian American studies class, “Japanese Americans in the United States,” taught by Prof. Lane Hirabayashi in 1985. It was published in the Hokubei Mainichi on October 22, 23, 24, and 25 in 1985 and is republished with their permission on Discover Nikkei.

 

© 1985 Hokubei Mainichi

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