By MARTHA NAKAGAWA
Many may be familiar with prewar Nisei male groups in Los Angeles such as the Cougars, the Olivers and the Golden Bears, but how many have heard of prewar Nisei female clubs such as the Tartanettes, Blue Triangles, Les Jeune Filles, Queen Esthers or the Swansonettes?
For those unfamiliar with these various female Nisei clubs in Los Angeles, Valerie Matsumoto’s new book, “City Girls: The Nisei Social World in Los Angeles 1920-1950,” is worth a read.
Matsumoto’s well-researched book reveals that urban Nisei gals, to quote a popular song lyric, “were doing it for themselves.”
Through ethnic newspaper articles and oral history interviews, Matsumoto shows that urban Nisei girls and women weren’t merely being prepped to be a quiet, subservient “oku-san,” (wife), which literally means “person in the back.”
Matsumoto introduces the readers to Nisei female social clubs, baseball and basketball teams, literary and performance groups and a whole slew of other active female organizations.
In fact, Rafu Shimpo’s very own J.K. Yamamoto’s mother, Yuriko Tanino Yamamoto, although not profiled, would be one of these typical urban Nisei gals that Matsumoto writes about. She had friends from other ethnic groups, roller-skated and took up tap dancing and ballet at a studio on 4th and Broadway, along with dance mate Miiko Taka, who later went on to star in the film “Sayonara” with Marlon Brando.
Matsumoto, however, doesn’t merely rehash the prewar social calendars of the urban Nisei female. She delves deeper by analyzing how these organizations helped nurture leadership and organizational skills and provided a space where Nisei women could experiment and learn to navigate between the dominant hakujin and Nikkei communities; between the Issei and more Americanized Nisei worlds; and between the evolving male and female roles.
Matsumoto points out the critical role Nisei women played in smoothing over race relations once World War II broke out. Since Nisei women tended to be viewed by the dominant hakujin society as less threatening, larger percentages of Nisei women were first given leave clearances from the War Relocation Authority camps to resettle in the Midwest and East Coast.
When the government considered reopening the West Coast to Japanese Americans towards the end of the war, it was a Nisei female, Esther Takei Nishio, who became the test case. It was also a Nisei female, Mitsuye Endo, whose Supreme Court case led to the closure of the camps.
After the war, Nisei women continued to play a critical organizational roles that helped Japanese Americans re-establish their lives after camp imprisonment.
Certainly, the redress movement wouldn’t have gotten any traction without the leadership roles taken on by various Nisei females. Some of those Matsumoto highlights include the contributions of Michi Nishiura Weglyn, whose landmark book, “Years of Infamy,” woke up Japanese America to the injustices of the World War II camps; Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga, whose research was critical in the National Council for Japanese American Redress class-action lawsuit, the coram nobis cases and ultimately, the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988; and Sue Kunitomi Embrey, who was one of the early Nisei women willing to speak publicly about the camps and who, along with Rose Matsui Ochi, spearheaded the preservation of Manzanar as a National Historic Site.
Thankfully, Matsumoto’s book is not bogged down by academic jargon, making this a fun, readable romp, and unlike some books, which don’t bother to provide maiden names, Matsumoto includes both maiden and married names.
In particular, those from the Southern California area will recognize a lot of the female clubs and women profiled such as Hisaye Yamamoto De Soto (J.K. Yamamoto’s aunt), Toshi Nagamori Ito, Toyoko Kataoka Kanegai, Mary Yuriko Nakahara Kochiyama, Katsumi Hirooka Kunitsugu, Mary Oyama Mittwer, Setsuko Matsunaga Nishi, Lily Arikawa Okura, Dr. Sakaye Shigekawa, and the Suski sisters, to name just a few.
In the epilogue, Matsumoto touches, very briefly, upon the darker side of urban Nisei female life, but since her research cuts off at around 1950, she does not go into the more contemporary postwar female clubs such as the Darlin’ As or the Deserets who were known to hang out with postwar Nikkei gang members such as the Black Juans. Perhaps Matsumoto may consider writing another book?
Meanwhile, “City Girls” is definitely worth a read as Matsumoto shows how the contributions of the urban Nisei women continue to impact the Nikkei community today in ways we take for granted such as the food we eat, the holidays we celebrate, the different places we socialize and in many, many other aspects.
(City Girls: The Nisei Social World in Los Angeles, 1920–1950 by Valerie J. Matsumoto. Oxford University Press, 2014, 308 pp, $34.95 hardback)
Matsumoto will be having book-signings at the following locations:
Saturday, Sept. 13, from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute, 1964 W. 162nd St., Gardena
Saturday, Sept. 20, at 2 p.m. at the Japanese American National Museum, 100 N. Central Ave., Los Angeles