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THROUGH THE FIRE: JA Activism – Passed to the Present


The 1960s and ’70s were a time of great social change in America and this was also true in the Asian American community (which had just started to identify itself as such). The mantra of “Yellow Power” followed in the footsteps of the Black Power and Brown Power movements. Young people in their twenties and thirties were rejecting many of the accepted practices and values of the older generation and they sought to develop new cultural norms for a better society. There was even a slogan of the day: “Don’t trust anyone over 30.”

I took a trip to the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco around 1965 and saw an amazing social revolution taking place — some of it inspiring and some of it depressing. The area was flooded with young people, milling around and meeting each other and seeking answers to what life should be about. At the same time, the Vietnam War body count was increasing every day, as young draftees were sent overseas to fight a war that many Americans did not support, and anti-war demonstrators were shouting slogans such as “Make love, not war.”

While the stereotype of the “Asian American model minority” was popularized in the media, young JAs in L.A., some still in their teens, were socially conscious about pressing but largely hidden needs in our community. In Little Tokyo, there were poor non-English-speaking Issei elderly barely surviving in tenement hotels and there were single Japanese women called “war brides” with no social support. There were also Asian American ex-cons and parolees who were invisible and persona non grata.

Young Asian Americans and Nikkei were caught up in a conflict where American bombs and soldiers were killing people in places such as Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos and many young JAs worked to oppose this war against Asians.

These young activists gathered in an old building called the Sun Building on Weller Street (where the Doubletree Hotel stands today) on the third floor, where a number of JA nonprofits operated. Many of these groups (mostly volunteer) simply sprang up as needs became identified. They had names like “Asian Sisters” and “Joint Communications,” “Little Tokyo People’s Rights” and “Japanese Welfare Rights,” and the colorful acronym of “Asian Movement for Military Outreach – AMMO.”

Sansei activists offered health services for low-income and non-English-speaking members of the community.

I was introduced to this amazing beehive of activity in 1970 when I started studying community organizing at the UCLA School of Social Welfare and was assigned to John Saito, who was then working for the L.A. County Commission on Human Relations, which had been established some years earlier in the aftermath of the riots of 1965. John was a colorful character, a former probation officer who had black belts in judo, aikido and karate. While John was a very mild-mannered person, he was also a strong and burly all-around athlete who excelled in football, bowling, and even did some boxing as a youth. For sure, he was a man you did not want to mess around with!

Before anyone ever heard of Bruce Lee, John’s reputation in the Probation Department as a martial arts expert was well-known by the youth gangs on the streets and it was enough just to invoke his name and young punks would back off!

John was an important part of the young and growing Asian American movement in Little Tokyo and other parts of L.A. As a human relations consultant, he helped many fledgling groups of mostly idealistic young people (and I use the term “idealistic” in the most positive sense) to organize and implement their efforts for community service.  There were very few role models or examples of how these efforts should be done so most people were flying by the seat of their pants.  It was so impressive to see the spirit, energy, and dedication for social justice exhibited by these young adults and even some teenage youth working to help others.

Perhaps the central group in all of this was the Japanese American Community Services–Asian Involvement or “JACS-AI,” which funded (at ridiculously modest salary levels) some staff to act as community organizers. The history of JACS-AI, which actually begins over a century ago with the Shonien Japanese Children’s Orphanage, is a story of its own but too extensive to share now.

However, the history of Shonien and JACS-AI will be included in a special seminar on Saturday, Sept. 9, from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at the JA National Museum on the topic of: “Asian American Movement – The Struggle Continues,” which will have speakers and panels on the history of the Asian American activist movement in Little Tokyo as well as connecting with the dramatic and pertinent issues of today. The seminar is open and free to the public, but you must register at the JANM website ( and register at the Events Calendar section for September.

I hope you can come and join me – this ain’t no nostalgia trip but a time to “keep on truckin” and “keep up the good fight”!

Bill Watanabe writes from Silverlake near downtown Los Angeles and can be contacted at Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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