‘City Girls’ Looks at Nisei Social World in L.A.

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The JUGS (Just Us Girls), a club that formed in Manzanar, and continued to enjoy dancing and sports after the war. Photo taken in Boyle Heights, ca. 1946. (Courtesy of Sumi Hughes)

The JUGS (Just Us Girls), a club that formed in Manzanar, and continued to enjoy dancing and sports after the war. Photo taken in Boyle Heights, ca. 1946. (Courtesy of Sumi Hughes)

Oxford University Press will publish “City Girls: The Nisei Social World in Los Angeles, 1920-1950” by Valerie J. Matsumoto next month.

Even before wartime incarceration, Japanese Americans largely lived in separate cultural communities from their West Coast neighbors. Although the Nisei children, the American-born second generation, were U.S. citizens and were integrated in public schools, they were socially isolated in many ways from their peers.

These young women found rapport in ethnocultural youth organizations, a forgotten world of female friendship and camaraderie that Matsumoto recovers in this book.

Valerie Matsumoto (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

Prof. Valerie Matsumoto (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

Through extensive networks of social clubs, young Japanese American women competed in sports, socialized with young men, and forged enduring friendships. During the 1920s and 1930s, Nisei girls’ organizations flourished in Los Angeles, then home to the largest Japanese American population.

In clubs with names such as the Junior Misses and Tartanettes, girls gained leadership training, took part in community service, found jobs, and enjoyed beach outings and parties. Often sponsored by the YWCA, Buddhist temples, and Christian churches, these groups served as a bulwark against racial discrimination, offering a welcoming space that helped young women navigate between parental expectations and the lure of popular culture. Indeed, their dances, meetings, and athletic events filled the social calendars in the ethnic press.

As cultural mediators and ethnic representatives, these urban teenagers bridged the cultures of the Japanese American community and mainstream society, whether introducing new foods, holidays, and rituals into the home or dancing in kimono at civic events. Some expressed themselves as poets, writers, and journalists and took leading roles in the development of a Nisei literary network.

Women’s organizing skills and work would prove critical to the support of their families during World War II incarceration and community rebuilding in the difficult years of resettlement.

By bringing to life a dynamic and long-lasting world of friendship circles and clubs, “City Girls” highlights the ways in which urban Nisei daughters claimed modern femininity, an American identity, and public space from the Jazz Age through the postwar era.

Matsumoto is professor of history and Asian American studies at UCLA. She is the author of “Farming the Home Place: A Japanese American Community in California, 1919-1982” and a co-editor of “Over the Edge: Remapping the American West.”

Some advance praise for the book:

“City girls indeed! A determined, spunky, hard-working, fun-loving group of women who endure hardship but also just wanted to have fun. Valerie Matsumoto brings their lively world to life through vivid and sympathetic prose. The Nisei women were simultaneously so American and so non-American, familiar and surprising. A wonderful recovery of history!” — Gordon H. Chang, Stanford University

“‘City Girls’ provides a vibrant, complex, and insider’s view of Nisei women’s social world before and after wartime incarceration and resettlement. It is a stellar tribute to the Nisei women who were adept at building ethnocultural networks while, at the same time, pushed against racial, ethnic, and gender boundaries in their pursuit of modern femininity and American status. It is historical scholarship and feminist writing at its best.” — Judy Yung, author of “Unbound Feet: A Social History of Chinese Women in San Francisco”

To preorder, go to http://global.oup.com/academic and do a search by author or title.

The charter class of the Chi Alpha Delta sorority in front of the Ambassador Hotel in 1928. They were the first Japanese American and Asian American sorority, established by UCLA students. Courtesy of Aiko Mizue Sugita.

The charter class of the Chi Alpha Delta sorority in front of the Ambassador Hotel in 1928. They were the first Japanese American and Asian American sorority, established by UCLA students. (Courtesy of Aiko Mizue Sugita)

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  1. Regarding Japanese Americans, there just aren’t that many in the United States. You’d be very lonely most of the time if you were Japanese American and lnmitiig yourself to other Japanese Americans. Additionally, I think Japanese Americans and asian immigrants in general in previous generations tried to assimilate more. There was the idea at some point that they were relocating to the US for good.Which leads me to Vietnamese people. The Vietnamese diaspora did not begin until roughly 1975 making us one of the newer Asian american immigrant groups. Additionally, the majority of Vietnamese in this country are refugees and relocated with the intention that at some point, they would be returning back to Vietnam (something less and less likely as time goes on). I read somewhere a few years ago that 55% of Vietnamese immigrants would go back to Vietnam if it became a democratic country. Perhaps that is why the Vietnamese community doesn’t really assimilate.Assimilation is probably the key right? I mean, does it matter if a couple is Japanese/Korean, Korean/Chinese, Chinese/Vietnamese, etc? If they’re second generation they’re all really American right?

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