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Dr. T.T. Yatabe, the American Loyalty League, and the Birth of the JACL

Today, the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) is the largest Japanese American community organization in the United States. Founded in 1929, the organization has evolved over the course of the 20th century from a small group of community leaders to a national civil rights organization with chapters across the U.S. Yet before the JACL existed, Issei and Nisei community leaders in several West Coast cities formed local political organizations to demonstrate the loyalty of the Japanese community to the U.S. In Seattle, future JACL president Clarence T. Arai formed the Progressive Citizens League, and in San Francisco the New American Citizens League helped steer Japanese immigrants towards political engagement.

Pacific Citizen, Nov. 25, 1977

One such organization that formed the basis of the JACL was the Fresno-based American Loyalty League. Started in 1923 by dentist Thomas Tamotsu “T.T.” Yatabe, the group began with the mission of fighting racial segregationist policies that targeted the Japanese American community. Within six years, the organization merged with the Progressive Citizen’s League, by then head by James Sakamoto, and Saburo Kido’s San Francisco American Citizens League to form the JACL, of which Yatabe was elected as the first national president in 1934.

The story of the American Loyalty League is also that of its founder. Thomas Tamotsu Yatabe was born on May 3, 1896 in San Francisco, California. The son of Kozo Yatabe, a shoemaker, and his wife Rui, Tamotsu was the oldest of the five Yatabe children. The family resided on Church Street in San Francisco, while Kozo opened a shoe store in Petaluma in 1906.

Several key events in his childhood influenced Yatabe’s future political activism. In 1901, San Francisco mayor Eugene Schmitz campaigned for the removal of children of Asian ancestry from city schools. Schmitz vocally supported anti-Japanese sentiment in the city, and in 1906 the San Francisco school board ordered Yatabe and other ethnic Japanese to attend segregated “oriental” schools in the Chinatown district.

In December 1906, the Oakland Tribune listed Yatabe as a second-grade student at Marshall Primary School, along with other Japanese American students in San Francisco. Yatabe’s parents, along with other Japanese American families, resisted the segregation order and tutored their own children. These events would spark a diplomatic crisis between the U.S. and Japan. In 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt persuaded the school board to rescind its segregation policy on the promise that he would limit further Japanese immigration. The result was the so-called “Gentleman’s Agreement,” an informal treaty through which Japan agreed to end labor immigration against a pledge of equal treatment for existing immigrants.

After graduating high school in 1914, Yatabe enrolled in dental school. On May 15, 1918, Tamotsu graduated from the University of California School of Dentistry, the sole Asian American in his class. Later that year, he established a practice on Buchanan Street in San Francisco.

As a new graduate Yatabe found it difficult to secure clients in San Francisco. Yatabe described the early barriers of racism he and other Nisei faced as the group’s greatest handicap:

“We realized that our biggest drawback was that it sort of created a mental block in the minds of a lot of fellow Americans. We needed something to counteract this, to ‘educate’ and to get across the American public that we were loyal American citizens.”

That ‘something,’ for Yatabe, would be the American Loyalty League. In 1918, Yatabe and several Nisei professionals decided to form the American Loyalty League after a lunch meeting where they discussed the discrimination they faced. As Bill Hosokawa detailed in Nisei: The Quiet Americans, the group decided to organize speaking tours that would encourage the Nisei to take advantage of their citizenship and fight back against discrimination through political engagement. One of the group’s goals was to encourage the Nisei to register to vote and participate in elections. When Yatabe attempted to register as a voter, he was confronted by a clerk who asked to define his race as either “white,” “black,” or “Mongolian.” Yatabe then argued with the clerk that he was an American of Japanese ancestry. After deliberating with her manager, the clerk allowed Yatabe to write-in his race as Japanese. 

Nichibei Shinbun, August 5, 1925

Although the initial League organized several events, the group soon lost momentum and dissolved. At the same time, anti-Japanese movements continued to gain momentum. In 1919, the California Oriental Exclusion League pushed Congress to enact a constitutional amendment that would prevent the native-born children of immigrants illegible for citizenship from holding citizenship. This, and the passage of an amended California Alien Land Law in 1920, pushed Yatabe towards founding an organization that gave Japanese Americans a political voice.

In 1922 Yatabe moved to Fresno to start a new practice. Pacific Citizen editor Harry Honda noted in an interview with Yatabe that the move to Fresno reinvigorated his desire to continue the league. On May 5, 1923, Yatabe held the first American Loyalty League meeting at the Tanigawa Hotel in Fresno. Later in the summer of 1923, Yatabe gathered new members of the League, mostly teenagers encouraged by their parents to go, at the YMCA building in San Francisco to establish a national organization. While Yatabe told the young members to “sleep on it,” the new members later agreed on establishing chapters of the League among Japanese communities throughout California, and elected Yatabe as their first president.

On August 5,1925, the American Loyalty League made their first media appearance in the Nichi Bei Shinbun. League member (and future JACL leader) Kay Nishida argued in the article that “for many years thoughtful American citizens of Japanese parentage have felt the growing need of an organization to create a better understanding between the Japanese and the Americans.” The American Loyalty League, Nishida claimed, was the organization that would serve as the platform for Japanese American political engagement.

Over the years, the American Loyalty League established several small chapters throughout Northern California, including San Francisco, San Jose, Florin, Salinas, Stockton, and Marysville. In 1926, the League announced new chapters in Portland and Seattle, and in 1927 a Petaluma chapter was formed. In May 1928, Yatabe announced that the national meeting of the American Loyalty League would be held in Fresno in November of that year. The Nichi Bei announced that members of the newly-formed San Francisco New American Citizens League would send delegates. In September 1928, Clarence T. Arai spoke before the Fresno American Loyalty League as a representative of his Progressive Citizens League of Seattle.

In addition to his advocacy for Japanese Americans, Yatabe became involved in city politics- a role that both boosted his own image and that of the American Loyalty League. In 1925, the Fresno Bee listed Yatabe as serving as chairman of the city’s Boy Scout troops. In August 1927, Yatabe served as a host for 23 Japanese students visiting Fresno. In April 1928, Yatabe helped organize the West Fresno Central Committee as the voice of the Japanese American community. The committee, which included representatives of Fresno’s various ethnic communites, lobbied city hall to improve conditions in the impoverished Western districts of the city. The committee planned city events such as the Raisin Parade, organized political rallies, and influenced city plans regarding the development of roads and airports. As a part of the committee, Yatabe served as treasurer and secretary, and joined members of the committee on trips to Sacramento to meet with state officials. At the same time, Yatabe used his power as a part of the committee to muster city support for the American Loyalty League and, later, the JACL.

Yatabe’s advocacy on behalf of Japanese Americans attracted the attention of the greater Fresno community. In 1926, The Cosmopolitan Club of Fresno State College invited Yatabe to speak on the future facing second-generation Japanese Americans in California. In March 1929, Yatabe gave a lecture before Fresno’s Commercial Club, in which he declared that the Japanese of California are “American in all things” and owed a debt to the United States for opening their country in 1853. Yatabe gave a similar speech before the Sanger Chamber of Commerce in April 1929, where he declared the motto of Japanese Americans to be “America first, America last, and America forever,” and made similar comments to the Fresno Kiwanas Club in June. Mentions of Yatabe’s speeches on the Nisei, in addition to his work for the city, appeared regularly in the pages of the Fresno’s two newspapers: the Fresno Bee, and the Fresno Morning Republican. Yatabe’s participation in city politics and speaking tours served as a model for the civic engagement that was later encouraged by the JACL.

Although Yatabe and the American Loyalty League made a concerted effort to enlist the support of Japanese Americans, most attempts at forming outside chapters failed. At the November 1928 convention, the question of formally uniting the various West Coast Japanese American organizations was discussed. A year later, in April 1929, Yatabe, Saburo Kido, and Clarence Arai of Seattle met in San Francisco to discuss the formation of a new organization. The three agreed the organization would hold its first convention in 1930 and, after some debate, titled it the Japanese American Citizens League. While Yatabe’s Fresno chapter remained the sole survivor of the American Loyalty League by the end of 1928, the idea of forming a network of chapters among the West Coast Japanese American communities served as the basis for the structure of the JACL.

At the JACL national convention in San Francisco on October 20, 1934, the delegates elected Yatabe as the first national president – testimony to his influence upon the organization and a sign of the merger between his Loyalty League and the JACL. In accepting the presidency, Yatabe spoke before the convention about the need for undivided loyalty to the U.S., and the importance of unity within both the organization and the community. Yatabe called upon delegates to “make it our duty to enroll every eligible citizens as a member within our respective local chapters for the strength of our component chapters means the strength and unity of the JACL. Every individual member should become a salesman and sell the idea of the JACL to non-members.” Yatabe’s speech would later be reprinted in the February 1942 issue of the Pacific Citizen to bolster unity among chapters on the eve of the incarceration.

Nichibei Shinbun, September 2, 1935

Yatabe served from 1934 to 1936 as national president, presiding over the expansion of the organization and hosting the JACL convention in Fresno in September 1935. As president, Yatabe regularly wrote articles for the Japanese American newspapers in California and James Sakamoto’s Seattle newspaper The Japanese American Courier, where he called upon the nisei to engage in local politics.

Yatabe also backed a lobbying initiative in Congress for a bill allowing World War I veterans of Asian ancestry to bypass immigration restrictions and acquire citizenship. The law, enacted as the Nye-Lea Act of 1935, granted veterans such as Tokutaro Slocum U.S. citizenship. The campaign would serve as a model for future lobbying efforts by the JACL.

Over the years, Yatabe remained an advisor for the Fresno American Loyalty League. Although the League became the Fresno chapter of the JACL, the group continued its old tradition of electing a president and cabinet, who served as heads of the League. After being incarcerated at Jerome, where he was beaten by dissidents as a JACL stalwart, he resettled in Chicago, where headed the JACL Midwest Regional Office in January 1943. He lived in Chicago for the rest of his life, and remained an influential voice within the JACL until his death on November 25, 1977.

To honor Yatabe’s part in founding the JACL, Pacific Citizen editor Harry Honda declared him to be the “Grandad of the JACL” in his obituary for Yatabe. Bill Hosokawa later concluded in Nisei: The Quiet Americans that the JACL originated with Yatabe’s American Loyalty League, as it was the most active Nisei community organization until 1929. The national JACL later established the $1,000 Dr. Thomas Yatabe Memorial undergraduate scholarship to honor his memory.

Pacific Citizen, Nov. 25, 1977

To this day, the Fresno JACL prides itself as the oldest chapter of the organization and maintains the title of the American Loyalty League, a testament to their origins as the American Loyalty League and their part in forming the JACL.


© 2023 Jonathan van Harmelen

American Loyalty League (organization) California San Francisco Thomas Tamotsu Yatabe United States
About this series

This series examines the history of Nikkei in Fresno and their impact on the history of the city and California’s Central Valley. In particular, this series will examine how Japanese Americans shaped the culture of the Central Valley and the individuals who lived in it, whether through the arts, sports, or politics.

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About the Author

Jonathan van Harmelen is currently a Ph.D student in history at UC Santa Cruz specializing in the history of Japanese-American incarceration. He holds a BA in history and French from Pomona College and an MA from Georgetown University. He can be reached at

Updated February 2020

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