Community-based organizations make up the backbone of the Japanese American community. But where did they come from? 

Community-based organizations make up the backbone of the Japanese American community. They're the keepers of history, the stewards of culture, and the centers of activity. But where did they come from? 

When it comes to our community's not-for-profit organizations, it's easy just to assume that they've always been here. More importantly, this assumption can lull us into a false sense of security around their future prospects. But there's a storied history of growth, challenge, adaptation, and a countless amount of volunteer hours behind each of our organizations. Let's explore the story that showcases our community's resilience and take an honest look at what continued adaptation we need to move into the next chapter.

A Home Away From Home

Our first organizations were meant to provide a semblance of continuity from a previous life in a new environment. As Japanese Americans immigrated to the US from 1860 to 1924, early organizations served as centers for language, religion, and cultural arts. Colbert Matsumoto, a founding director of the US-Japan Council and long-time board member of various Hawaii-based nonprofit organizations, described how cultural practitioners arrived with the first wave of immigration to the island, even holding a Kendo demonstration for King Kalākaua soon after arriving. As the Japanese made their way to the mainland, this period also saw the formation of Japanese American enclaves across the west coast, the building of the first Buddhist Churches, and a variety of schools in language and cultural arts. 

Rampant anti-Asian sentiment and pervasive discrimination prevented Japanese American families from widespread settlement, accumulating wealth, and obtaining basic services. As the community looked toward its long-term societal prospects and basic survival, economic and citizenship support were immediate needs. Colbert described "mutual support organizations," or as many others call them, tanomoshi's, which pooled together community money to provide rotating loans to establish businesses, purchase homes, or much-needed family support. In 1929, the Japanese American Citizens League was formed as a national organization promoting citizenship and civic participation.

While the incarceration and hysteria of World War II led to the uprooting of families and the decimation of community wealth and property, these early community organizations, both formal and informal, remained critical to the economic, social, and cultural establishment of Japanese living in America.

The Great Society

The 1960s and early 70s were a watershed moment for all nonprofits in America. President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society Initiative recognized the government's responsibility in fulfilling the American promise for all communities. Deborah Ching, a long-time executive and community leader in Los Angeles, described the opportunity in detail." The government took an interest in what roles they could play in poverty and economic circumstances," she said. "But there was also a recognition that they couldn't reach all those communities." As a result, funding became available to support community social services; the catch was that only formally organized groups could access the funds. 

Enter Asian American service-based organizations. It's not a coincidence that organizations like the Little Tokyo Service Center in Los Angeles and the Japanese Community Youth Council and Kimochi in San Francisco were founded during the same decade. In other areas of the United States, organizations previously serving Japanese Americans also saw an expansion of social service-based programs during this period. Organizations like the Japanese American Service Committee in Chicago also launched a number of direct services as a result of Great Society programs. 

One noteworthy difference in this period of time: a new generation of leaders was entering the scene. As 3rd generation Sansei began to come of age, their energy, paired with a new empowerment stemming from the civil rights and student movement, helped provide essential services in translation, addiction recovery, job-readiness, housing, and more to community members in need. 

But that's also not meant to minimize the continued and elevated involvement of 2nd generation Nisei. While they continued to found and support critical community institutions, unique to the post-war period was their contribution to the community's political clout. As Colbert Matsumoto told the story of post-war Hawaii, he described the new sense of empowerment that Japanese American veterans felt as a result of their wartime heroism."1954 was really a watershed year in Hawaii politics," he said. "That was the year the Republican oligarchy was ousted from the legislature and Democrats, largely led by Japanese American political leaders, took control." For Japanese Americans, these are household names, like Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga. But even on the mainland, leaders like Mas Fukai were moving into key administrative positions opening new conversations and access to funding for organizations.As Ching described political support during the 70s, she stated, "There were key Japanese Americans in government positions. They felt government was a steady profession, but could also bring the voice of the community to those positions."She described how the Nisei's political involvement preceding the service movement was a significant boon to their establishment and growth. ‍

Community Legacy

The late 70s presented new challenges and opportunities for the burgeoning Japanese American nonprofit community. For service-based organizations, the devolution of federal funds to the state and county level required new sophistication for the acquisition and proper reporting needed for government funding." Evolution came from necessity and survivability," Ching stated when describing the evolution of community nonprofits during that period. "The Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) had banks invest in communities, and the corporate sector began to look at nonprofits, so we had to learn how to deal with that relationship. Foundations were there but never paid much attention to the Asian community, so we needed to court them as well." Ching described how leaders and organizations were driven at their core by service to community. Though individuals differed in styles and tactics, they shared commonalities and helped one another develop the sophistication needed to grow and develop. This sophistication was now added to the knowledge base of community knowledge in nonprofit management.

By the 1980s, institutional funding was not the only source available during this period. In an interview with Jon Osaki, Executive Director of the Japanese Community Youth Council in San Francisco, he described an environmental circumstance that would serve as a key enabler of continued sector growth, establishing Nisei wealth." You had Nisei who were retiring and had accumulated property & assets," Osaki said. "This group was also concerned about the long term viability of their community." That concern, coupled with a desire to pass on community history and generational legacy, led to the individual contributions to existing nonprofits and the establishment of organizations like the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) and the Go For Broke Education Center to share the stories and legacy not just as a community-specific story, but as an American story. A new layer of organizations and new layers of sophistication in nonprofit growth and management.


The 1990s presented one of the most significant challenges for Japanese American nonprofits, a loss of a central galvanizing force paired with the community's continued geographic dispersal. While the achievement of Redress and Reparations in 1988 was cause for celebration, the years following left a void in a common cause. "Many families said 'okay,' let out a deep breath and said, 'now we're going to just live our lives," Osaki stated. He went on to describe how most families dispersed and centered their involvement around specific regional institutions. 

This geographic dispersal had been decades in the making. In an interview with Michael Takada, Executive Director of the Japanese American Service Committee (JASC) in Chicago, he described how an increase in monetary means directly correlated with a movement farther away from city centers. "That's exactly what my dad did. He moved us to the suburbs. Because our families had the means to 'move on up,' they did." 

Culturally, it is surmised that there was a concurrent practice that also had detrimental effects on the vitality of nonprofits during this period. "Organizations were struggling to convince a new cohort of successful wage-earning community members why they should maintain ties with organizations that were relevant to their grandparents," Takada stated as he described the challenging environment for nonprofits. Jon Osaki described the same phenomena, "The Nisei really encouraged their kids to assimilate. But, as you assimilate, you start to lose that connection to your ethnic identity and your obligation to support it." 

With regard to nonprofit sustainability, community assimilation had turned out to be a double-edged sword. While the sword was effective in carving out a path for Japanese American success in the United States, that same sword was potentially cutting out the support base for the organizations maintaining the community's services, legacy, and culture. For Japanese American organizations, especially those founded and based in civic centers like Downtown Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago, this period is widely described as one of significant financial, volunteer, and membership challenges. 

Challenges abound, sustainability in question. But this is a story of resilience, and the Japanese American community would find a way.


"Leaders in the community started to realize, we have to talk about it," Jon Osaki stated when describing the community-wide conversations that emerged at the turn of the century. In California, the early 2000s witnessed an unprecedented coming together of community leaders from various sectors specifically to address the issue of community sustainability. Through conferences like the Ties That Bind Conference, the Nikkei2000 Conference, and the formation of a statewide leadership council, the community began to address the evolution needed in topics like youth engagement, marketing, and demographic awareness, among others. 

Simultaneously, a growing sense of pride in personal identity and a desire for community impact created an increasing interest from Generation Y, also known as millennials, to sustain organizations, events, and programs through their generation to the next. Additionally, the realization of the mortality of community organizations presented an urgency and immediacy for next-generation involvement. This, paired with the new forms of involvement opportunities in the shapes of internships, staff positions, heritage & leadership programs, and board positions, created a revival and hope for the potential of community sustainability. 

The idea of sustainability itself and the importance that nonprofits held in providing the backbone of history, culture, service, and legacy became the movement of millennials. 

Unique to this generational movement was that it was no longer limited to descendants of pre-war immigrants but included individuals who developed roots in the US following the war. Thus, evolving how the community defined the term "Japanese American."

The Next Chapter is Untitled

In the history of community-based organizations in the Japanese American community, decades of needs were met with action and adaptation. As we look at the next decade, evolving culture, demographics, and interests will continue to present challenges for our nonprofits. Incorporating the histories, cultures, and needs of both pre-war and post-war Japanese Americans will be critical to building a holistic community. Michael Takada discussed how the community in the midwest had to work to "expand the definition of what it means to be Japanese American." The immigration break between 1924 until after the war presents a gap in the continuity of language, values, and customs between the two communities. Organizations will need to continue to genuinely listen and develop activity relevant to two distinct communities, rather than just one. 

Beyond that, embracing the community's ethnic diversity beyond singularly Japanese American is an issue that will continue to be present for community organizations. While organizations have long partnered and participated in broad-based coalitions, the acceptance of that diversity within organizations is a different story."

The strength of JCYC is that we were able to connect with other communities [within our organization]," Osaki said when asked to describe this challenge. "This type of approach is where a lot of organizations will have to evolve instead of just tolerating it."> In the history of community-based organizations in the Japanese American community, decades of needs were met with action and adaptation. As we look at the next decade, evolving culture, demographics, and interests will continue to present challenges for our nonprofits. Colbert Matsumoto described the same challenge from an identity perspective as he discussed how fewer and fewer people were identifying themselves as Japanese in Hawaii."

How can we appeal to an ethnically broader audience? Is this culture for only Japanese, or can other groups benefit?" he asked, presenting the new challenge of nonprofit relevancy. The list above is an abbreviated list meant to show that each decade will have new organizational hurdles to overcome. While each generation's challenges have been different, and while activities are continually evolving, there is one through-line to the entire history, resilience. The story of nonprofits gives concrete evidence that this community has continuously sought to build a better future while recognizing the legacy of the past. Most importantly, the people involved in this storied history, whether passed on or here working in the present, comprise the continuum of that have and will continue to be the life force of a movement larger than any individual, a movement of a community.‍

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