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The Heritage of an Issei Lady: Yonako Abiko’s Vision for Global Connections (1880-1944)


For the early Issei in this country, Meiji-era Japan and the U.S. were worlds-apart culturally, linguistically, and politically. Some, however, believed their role and their children’s future role was to be “bridges.” Yonako Abiko (1880-1944) [安孫子 餘奈子]—a San Francisco-based Issei and a distinguished woman leader—envisioned Japanese Americans as “bridges of understanding” to connect the United States and Japan during a time of rising hostilities between the two nation. In many ways, she herself played important roles as a bridge between Japan and the U.S.; between her ethnic community and the larger American society, and between feudal and modern Japan.

courtesy of Abiko Family

Samurai Lineage: Yonako’s Background

Coming from a samurai family, Yonako was a lady of cultural sophistication. For her, Japanese heritage was not “baggage,” but a treasure to preserve and pass on. She had excellent social skills and was well connected to networks of both influential Japanese and Americans, especially Christian women leaders.

Yonako was born the fifth daughter of Sen and Hatsuko Tsuda in 1880, thirteen years after the end of the feudal Tokugawa system. Sen, a samurai who foresaw Westernization, studied English and Dutch, became an interpreter and visited the U.S. on a government mission in 1867. In 1874, he and his wife became the very first Japanese Methodist Christians.

Yonako’s second eldest sister, Umeko (or Ume), was one of nation’s pioneer English educators. Sent to the United States at age 6, Umeko spent eleven years on the East Coast. In July 1900, with support from American (especially Quaker) women, Umeko established a private boarding school called Joshi Eigaku Juku (later renamed Tsuda Juku or Tsuda College) to train Japanese women as English teachers. Yonako made her first journey abroad in 1907. It was a year-long trip to accompany Umeko, visiting many cities in the United States, Europe, and Asia. They even visited President Theodore Roosevelt at the White House and received a warm welcome.

In Northern California, where anti-Japanese sentiment was rising, the sisters experienced racial discrimination. To Umeko’s outrage, they were denied the use of a guest dining room at one hotel. Despite the unpleasant experience, Yonako decided to marry an established California Issei, Kyutaro Abiko, and emigrate within a year after she finished the trip.

Yonako’s Immigration to America: Global Connections through Kyutaro

Yonako’s marriage to Kyutaro was a big turning point in her life. The founder of the Japanese language Nichibei Shimbun newspaper, Kyutaro was a charismatic Issei leader and entrepreneur in his own right. As an advocate of permanent Japanese settlement in the United States, he later organized a settlement community in Livingston. Kyutaro was also devout Protestant and a founding member of the Japanese Methodist Church in San Francisco. How they initially met is not clear, but they got married in Tokyo in February of 1909 while Kyutaro was visiting. The newlyweds left for San Francisco in July.

After the immigration, Yonako’s world opened up. She acculturated quickly to life in San Francisco. In the early years of their marriage, when Kyutaro’s business was going well,

Yonako enjoyed a comfortable standard of living. The Abikos’ accounting books, preserved at UCLA, show that Kyutaro gave Yonako monthly allowances ranging from $100 to $850, which was considerable at the time.

Besides managing the house and helping her husband’s newspaper company, Yonako socialized with Japanese, as well as American, ladies of status and was active in church-related work and community service. According to some Nisei women’s reminiscence, Yonako was a natural “leader” who could deal with white women on an equal footing. Even after she gave birth to a son, Yasuo (1910-1988), her social life remained active.

In April 1912, Yonako and some other Japanese women leaders established the Joshi Seinen Kai, a boarding house for Issei women. This coincided with the tide of “picture bride” immigration that led to a rapid increase in Issei women in the 1910s. Most of these women from rural Japan were not prepared for American life. To assist the newly-arrived in their acculturation, the Joshi Seinen Kai offered temporary accommodations and various classes such as English language and American-style sewing and cooking. The demand for these services became high, as hundreds of picture brides arrived each year in San Francisco, a major port of entry.

In the 1920’s, the organization became more oriented to the Nisei generation, because the Japanese and American governments made the informal “Ladies’ Agreement,” barring the immigration of picture brides. Yonako and other leaders turned their independent ethnic organization into part of the San Francisco Y.W.C.A in 1920. Yonako took part in activities and meetings at the Institute, as well as the Joshi Seinen Kai. Representing the Japanese, Yonako sometimes officiated meetings and gave speeches in English.

In March 1921, Yonako and her friends acquired a building on 1826 Sutter Street to accommodate more activities, but even that soon became too small. The Japanese raised funds and, with help from the San Francisco Y.W.C.A, the building was rebuilt in 1932, coinciding with the organization’s 20th anniversary. The new building, designed by a renowned female architect, Julia Morgan, allowed for many classes, ranging from Japanese flower arrangement and tea ceremony to American/ British law, economics, swimming, fashion, art, music, and interior design. This became an important and very special place for young Nisei women to enjoy activities and socialize until the war-time evacuation.

Yonako’s Vision: Bridges of Understanding

Yonako had a clear vision for the future Japanese Americans. In the face of anti-Japanese racism, she advocated that the Nisei should build good U.S.-Japan relations and create a fusion between the East and the West by learning values and uniqueness of Japanese culture and having a pride in their ethnic roots. To aid the Nisei in this mission, Yonako and Kyutaro created the “Nisei Kengakudan” program. Under Nichibei Shimbun’s sponsorship, they sent select Nisei to Japan on an extended tour to absorb the best of the country and its culture. Yonako headed and chaperoned both tours, utilizing her connections to reach Japanese nationals in high places.

In her 1925 speech about the tour, Yonako stated “furtherance of peace” as its objective. She said: “We are not mere sightseers; we have come with the serious purpose of studying the country of our ancestors. Probably for the first time a group of Japanese students, American born of Japanese descent, is visiting Japan for the express purpose of building themselves into a bridge between the two countries.”

The Kengakudan tours had deep influence. Participants, such as Miya Sannomiya Kikuchi and Ruth Nomura Tambara, became solid leaders, serving as “bridges” between the U.S. and Japan. Also, the tours set the precedent for many other such study tours for the Nisei generation that instill in them a greater ethnic pride and promoted the “bridges of understanding.”

After the Manchurian Incident of 1931, according to Yuji Ichioka, the change in political climate between Japan and the U.S. started having an adverse effect. Yonako herself played a role as a bridge. She took part in a disarmament conference in November 1921 and stayed in touch with Japanese women leaders, such as Michiko Kawai and Tsuneko Gautlett, hosting them when they came to the United States.

As a believer in women’s education, Yonako is said to have helped exchange students. When a Japanese girl wanted to study at an East Coast school, for example, Yonako wrote letters to acquaintances and negotiated with schools.

Across the Pacific, Yonako gave support to Tsuda College. When the school lost all its buildings in the Great Kanto Earthquake of September 1923 and the fire that followed, Yonako went to Philadelphia, Boston, New York, Chicago and other cities for several months to raise funds, giving speeches dressed in a traditional Japanese kimono. She received donations, including $100,000 from the Rockefeller Foundation and $10,000 from the Carnegie Foundation. After her return to San Francisco in March 1924, she continued fundraising. These donations allowed Tsuda College to resume its classes as early as in January 1924 and build a new campus later.

Yonako’s Later Years

Despite the anti-Japanese movement, the 1920s were a relatively good period for Yonako. In the 1930s, and until her death in 1944, she faced many challenges. Besides the deteriorating U.S.-Japan relations and the Depression, personal and business difficulties came continuously. Serious labor disputes in the early 1930s were a big blow. After Kyutaro’s death in 1936, Yonako practically ran the Nichibei Shimbun with their son Yasuo. In 1939, a fire destroyed the Nichibei building, which took half a year to rebuild. Following the Pearl Harbor attack, the Nichibei’s publication was suspended for weeks. However, Yonako kept her positive attitude and remained thankful.

On January 1, 1942, she appointed Yasuo the new president. In her diary, she wrote that although it was a tumultuous New Year’s, she had a peaceful and meaningful day, worked for her company, and was grateful for her health, despite some serious medical issues. According to her daughter-in-law, Lily Tani Abiko, Yonako was treated for breast cancer at UC Medical Center even before her evacuation. For this reason, even though she was taken to the Tanforan Assembly Center, her Quaker friends got her out within a week by pleading to the authorities.

Yonako spent the last few years of her life in Philadelphia, where Yasuo and Lily joined her in 1943. Yonako Abiko passed away at age 63 on March 4, 1944, without seeing the end of the war.

In the early Japanese American community, Yonako became an influential woman leader, not because she aspired to gain power but rather because her distinguished skills and background were needed for connecting the peoples of Japan and America. In return, American life gave her challenging but fulfilling tasks not available for women in Japan. Yonako took part of the women’s movement of her time to pursue social reform, especially through the Y.W.C.A.

In 1996, the San Francisco Y.W.C.A. unexpectedly announced its plan to sell the building that Yonako and other leaders had acquired for the Joshi Seinen Kai. Thanks to the efforts of mobilized Nisei women, younger generation Japanese Americans and their supporters, the dispute was settled in 2002. Hopefully, Yonako’s “bridge” will remain effective for future generations as an Issei heritage. ✺

* This article was originally published in Nikkei Heritage Vol. XIX, Number 1 (Spring 2008), a journal of the National Japanese American Historical Society.

© 2008 National Japanese American Historical Society

California generations immigrants immigration Issei Japan Livingston media migration newspapers Nikkei media San Francisco symposiums United States women Yonako Tsuda Abiko
About this series

This series republishes selected articles from Nikkei Heritage, the quarterly journal of the National Japanese American Historical Society in San Francisco, CA. The issues provide timely analysis and insight into the many facets of the Japanese American experience. NJAHS has been a Discover Nikkei Participating Organization since December 2004.

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About the Author

Eriko Yamamoto is a historian specializing in Japanese American history and currently a professor at Aichi Mizuho College.  She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Hawai`i at Manoa and an MA from Claremont Graduate University History Department.  Her past affiliations include the East-West Center (EWC grantee), Sugiyama Jogakuen University (professor of American Studies), the UCLA Asian American Studies Center (1998-99 Fulbright Visiting Scholar), and the Japanese American National Museum (Nikkei Legacy Project manager).  She is a life member of Oral History Association (U.S.) and one of the founders of Japan Oral History Association.

Updated January 2016

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