This story appears in the January-March 2021 issue of Heritage News.
By Karen Kai
Karen Kai is a member of the Issei Women’s Legacy Project, working to create an enduring recognition and understanding of the first-generation Japanese women who created the Japanese YWCA building in San Francisco. Karen has participated in community planning and historic preservation efforts since the mid-1990s and is a co-author of the groundbreaking JCHESS (Japantown Cultural Heritage and Economic Sustainability Strategy) that inspired the city’s Cultural Districts Program and forms the basis for the Japantown Cultural Heritage District. She is currently vice chair of the board of Asian and Pacific Islanders in Historic Preservation (APIAHiP).
Some places have a special connection and meaning in peoples’ lives that are both enduring and ephemeral. Preserving them becomes a journey that leads to deeper and more satisfying understanding of ourselves, our communities, and our society. For me, a third-generation Japanese American, such a journey began and continues at 1830 Sutter Street in San Francisco’s Japantown.
Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and soon to become a San Francisco city landmark, the Japanese YWCA/Issei Women’s Building was first known to me as a site of the Nihonmachi Little Friends (NLF) Preschool. The building on Sutter Street is flanked by the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California (JCCNC) on the west and the Buchanan Hotel on the east, and across the street stands a mix of original 19th-century Victorian homes and redevelopment-era buildings.
Completed in 1932, the Japanese YWCA/Issei Women’s Building at 1830 Sutter Street was designed by master architect Julia Morgan and was originally built as the Japanese Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), the first independent Japanese YWCA founded by Japanese American (Nikkei) women in the US. Photo courtesy of Karen Kai.
With its modest front entry and enveloping walls, 1830 Sutter is easily overlooked as a Japanese community building. I had never particularly noticed it nor visited it until 1994, when my husband and I went to enroll our son at the NLF preschool. As the teacher explained the program to us, my eyes kept wandering around the interior of the large room that housed the preschool. Dark beams, decorative inserts, cutout ranma (transoms) sitting above a raised stage with a moon window — all conveyed the Japanese heritage of the space. Despite being well aware of NLF’s outstanding reputation, my visit left me with more questions about the building than the program. There was little information about the structure on hand and I told myself that someday I’d have to look into its history. Years passed, and as my son entered elementary school I continued working with NLF as a board member.
Interior of the NLF preschool in December 2020. Photo by Karen Kai.
Then in 1996, the San Francisco YWCA announced that it was selling the building to raise money for its operations, thrusting an urgent need upon the Japantown community to safeguard one of the few Issei-generated buildings that remained intact and in public service. None of the tenants nor organizations in the Japanese or African American communities (the latter also had significant history at the site) had the capital to make the purchase. Our last hope of keeping the building in community hands rested with Japantown seniors, with some vaguely recalling a right of first refusal or promise to credit the Issei (first-generation Japanese) for their original contributions if the building were to be sold. We were taken aback when further research revealed YWCA’s promise, recorded in their own board minutes, to purchase and hold 1830 Sutter in trust for its Issei women founders. Although these women had actually paid for the building, they could not hold title to the property due to the notorious Alien Land Law, which prohibited Japanese immigrants from owning property in their own names. The YMCA promise gave the Japanese community a tangible legal argument for community ownership of the building!
Through the upheavals and diasporas of World War II-era internment and redevelopment, the Japanese American community had forgotten that the Issei women had established a legal land trust. More research uncovered the role of Japanese YWCA leader Yona Abiko, whose husband, Kyutaro, had used similar trusts to evade the Alien Land Laws. Clearly the San Francisco YWCA carried a remarkable legacy. Their predecessors had acted courageously, at risk of legal penalties including imprisonment and loss of the property, to enable the Issei women to fulfill their dreams despite the racist laws that stood in their way.
The YWCA refused to acknowledge the trust, dismissing the language of their minutes as merely indicating that the groups “trusted” one another. Their stance led to a community lawsuit sustained by pro-bono lawyers and their Japantown community supporters until its settlement in 2002.
NLF’s friends and families protesting the YWCA’s plan to evict their program and sell the building, c.1997. Karen Kai was a member of the legal team that supported community efforts to regain title to the building. Photo courtesy of Karen Kai.
Ultimately, the YWCA received a substantial sum of money in the settlement, but at the steep cost of abandoning the legacy of their predecessor’s courageous stand against racism in the 1920s.
For the Japanese American community, the settlement was a multi-faceted victory. NLF was permitted to purchase 1830 Sutter, and we regained a priceless part of our community history that would have been lost. Building-ownership has protected and supported NLF’s program of cultural education and engagement of new generations in community life. And NLF’s voluntary agreement to serve as the steward of both the building and the Issei women’s legacy stands as a bold model for the creation of lasting benefits through historic and cultural preservation.
For myself, I visited a preschool and in the end felt myself engaged in graduate-level study. I was introduced to historic preservation’s importance in bridging generations and cultures, which gives meaning to the guidance of Pericles: “What we leave behind is not what is engraved on stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.” I am grateful to my teachers and companions who inspired me along this journey and in my future involvements in community, cultural, and historic preservation.