August 25, 2021

Reclaiming a Space to Reclaim a Place: San Francisco’s Japanese YWCA

Writing for The Japanese Student in 1916, Miss Helen F. Topping, the special secretary for Japanese Women Pacific Coast Field Committee, YWCA, described San Francisco’s branch as “a connecting link between the women of the Japanese community and the organized helpfulness as well as personal friends [of the YWCA] whose gifts and fellowship can aid them in establishing their new life in America.” For the women of the Japanese YWCA, their organization aimed to encourage “relationships of mutual giving and receiving not only between Japanese and American women, but also of Japanese women with each other.”

Established in 1912 by Japanese American women, San Francisco’s Japanese YWCA quickly emerged as a communal and cultural center for the immigrant community. Its home at 1830 Sutter St.—the Issei Women’s Building, where Issei refers to first-generation Japanese immigrants–was completed in 1932 and was designed by the trailblazing female architect Julia Morgan. Founded by, funded by, operated by, and built by women, the Issei Women’s Building underscores how historic spaces bring to bear women’s central places in a dynamic and diverse American story.

The nearly century-long history of 1830 Sutter St. traces the complexities of the Japanese American immigrant experience and the pivotal role of women in that under-told story. At the same time, and part-and-parcel of that narrative, it also reveals the ways in which historic sites are not only built by communities but continue to build and rebuild those communities across generations.

Japanese Immigration in Early 20th Century America

In the early period of Japanese immigration, the vast majority of Japanese immigrants arriving in the United States were men. In 1900 San Francisco, as historian Evelyn Nakano Glenn notes, Japanese men outnumbered Japanese women 25 to 1. Economic opportunities in West Coast agriculture and the region’s rapidly growing cities fueled Issei immigration.

And yet, the prospect of taking part in America’s economic growth was not matched by a promise to take part in the rights of American citizenship. Racist naturalization laws that specifically targeted Asian immigrants excluded Japanese immigrants from becoming American citizens. As a result, Japanese immigrants had limited power to push back against the mounting anti-Japanese sentiment that led to Increasingly discriminatory policies in California and elsewhere.


Black and white image of the Japanese YWCA building in San Francisco. There are two windows on the upper floor and a much larger one with immediately in front of a set of stairs. Four people stand on the front stairs, two women and two young girls.

photo by: Ninhonmachi Little Friends

Historic image of the exterior of the Japanese YWCA.

By 1906, nativist calls to restrict Japanese immigration rose to a fever pitch, culminating in a San Francisco government mandate for Japanese students to attend segregated public schools. To quell tensions, President Theodore Roosevelt brokered a diplomatic agreement with the Japanese government—“The Gentlemen’s Agreement”—by which San Francisco abandoned its segregated school policy in return for the Japanese government’s promise to curtail migration by restricting passports.

So it happened, that though this “Agreement” closed America’s door to many Japanese men, it paved the way for the migration of Japanese women. In allowing for the reunion of wives and children with husbands and fathers already in the United States, the gender ratio in the Japanese American community soon balanced out.

Picture brides arriving at Angel Island, California, c. 1910. Image shows a group of women clustered together in what appears to be a fenced off area.

photo by: California State Parks, Number 090-706/Densho Encyclopedia CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Picture brides arriving at Angel Island, California, c. 1910.

For these newly arriving immigrant women—many of whom were “picture brides” who had never met their new husbands before entering into arranged marriages based on the exchange of photos and letters–adapting to American life would prove a difficult transition. Elite, established members of the Japanese American Issei community, such as YWCA leading founder Yonako (Yona) Abiko, directed their new organizations towards providing community, stability, and job training for immigrant women, but with an eye towards their assimilation as well.

Balancing the dual desires for cultural continuity and acculturation to American life has almost always been the work of immigrant women in America. And so it was for Abiko and the women of the Japanese YWCA. As Nakano Glenn argued in Issei, Nisei, War Bride: Three Generations of Japanese Women in Domestic Service, “Educated women were often transmitters of formal Japanese culture, including language, literature, and art..., [A]ll women, irrespective of education, preserved and passed on everyday aspects of Japanese culture, such as food, folk medicine, peasant lore, and customs.” Taking on this role, the women of the Japanese YWCA hosted classes in traditional flower arrangement and tea ceremonies, organizing musical performances and cultural events, and planning social activities for women in the community.

At the same time, the staff of the Japanese YWCA encouraged Issei women to adopt “American” styles of dress, learn American customs for housekeeping and child-rearing, and offered English language courses. This practical education was often meant as training for employment in domestic service, but it was also fueled by a desire to push back against the nativist, anti-Japanese biases used to justify exclusion by claiming that Japanese immigrants did not “assimilate” to American culture.

Building a Home, Losing a Home

In the almost two decades since it's founding, the Japanese YWCA’s programs had grown exponentially, prompting Abiko to launch a fundraising campaign in 1928—and continuing in the midst of the Great Depression—to secure a new organizational home at 1826 (now 1830) Sutter St. The community once again came together to fund the construction for a new structure, the Julia Morgan-designed building that opened in November 1932, and still stands today.

Raising the funds for the purchase and construction did not, however, secure actual ownership of the building for the Japanese YWCA. The anti-Japanese racism that had led to the “Gentleman’s Agreement” years earlier continued to plague California politics. In 1913 and again in 1920, the state passed the derisively named “Alien Land Laws,” which effectively barred Japanese immigrants from purchasing and owning land.

Though the laws primarily motivated by agricultural property, for the women of the Japanese YWCA, the broad scope of the law cast uncertainty over their legal right to ownership of 1830 Sutter Street prompted its leaders to ask the San Francisco YWCA to be named on the deed in their stead. For the next several decades, the predominantly white organization held the building in a trust for the Japanese women.

The Issei Women’s Building would be home to the Japanese YWCA until 1942 when President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066. This order led to the forced removal—by the federal government—of 120,000 Japanese Americans—including Issei who had been barred from becoming naturalized United States citizens, and their American-born citizen children, the Nisei—from their homes and into internment camps. San Francisco’s Japantown, and with it the Issei Women’s Building, lost its thriving Japanese community.

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After the War

Though no longer a hub where Japanese immigrant women found community and support, 1830 Sutter St. remained a space for those who were too often and unjustly excluded from America’s promise of equality.

At the end of World War II, the site did once again—though temporarily—provide shelter to the Issei and Nisei women and men who had been unjustly interned during the war. Ironically, upon their return, the Japanese women were told that because of a new YWCA “integration policy” enacted during the war which banned the creation of new single-race chapters, they were not permitted to reorganize as a Japanese association.

The YWCA leased the site to the American Friends Service Committee from 1943 to1959, and the newly named “Friends Center” offered aid to war refugees and conscientious objectors while the San Francisco chapter of CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality) was based onsite. Over the course of the next several years, the Friend’s Center welcomed the trailblazing Civil Rights and LGBTQ+ activist, Bayard Rustin, while it also opened its doors for the inaugural convention of the nation’s first Gay and Lesbian rights organization, the Mattachine Society, in 1954.

After the Friends departure, the San Francisco YWCA used the building for a variety of its own programs. In 1985, 1830 Sutter St. became the home to Nihonmachi Little Friends childcare center. Little Friends is “a bilingual and multicultural childcare organization,” which served, and continues to serve, an ethnically, racially, and economically diverse population while celebrating Japanese language and culture in historic Japantown.

View of the exterior of the Japanese YWCA building. There are two windows at the top with a larger central window in the center. The building is tan with darker brown detailing and dark brown terracotta tiles for the roof. The front of the building also sports a panel describing the buildings history.

photo by: San Francisco Heritage

Exterior of the Japanese YWCA building, one of many YWCA buildings designed by architect Julia Morgan.

A view of the new Little Friends building next to the historic Japanese YWCA structure. It is a little more modern looking while the historic building has a tan exterior with a darker brown detailing with some terra cotta tile roofing. Stairs lead up to the entrance.

photo by: San Francisco Heritage

A view of 1830 Sutter St. from the far side of the structure, including the newer Little Friends building.

Though the Japanese American population had dispersed throughout the city and the greater Bay Area due to internment and neighborhood redevelopment, Japantown remained a center of Japanese American culture. But just 11 years after Nihonmachi Little Friends took up residence at 1830 Sutter St., the building’s future once again became uncertain when the San Francisco YWCA announced plans to sell, jeopardizing its continued use as a community building.

The local Japanese American community, led by the Soko Bukai—a consortium of Japanese Christian churches—stepped in to reclaim ownership of the space nearly eight decades after the “Alien Land Laws” were first passed. A protracted legal battle ensued—Soko Bukai v. Y.W.C.A. of San Francisco—based in large part on San Francisco YWCA board meeting minutes from 1920-1922 which clearly memorialize its decision to establish the building’s Trust for the Japanese YWCA. Soko Bukai lawyers also discovered explicit language of intention to create a trust benefitting the Japanese YWCA and an agreement between the two organizations stating that "If this property is sold or any income derived from it other than Japanese YWCA uses, the funds shall be applied to Christian work for Japanese women and girls in San Francisco after consultation with the Japanese YWCA Board or their successors."

Righting a decades-long injustice, the court case was settled in 2002 and the Issei Women’s Building was returned to the Japanese American community that had built it through new ownership by Nihonmachi Little Friends.

In 2020, 1830 Sutter St. was granted landmark status—an achievement made possible by the activism of members of Little Friends’ Issei Women’s Legacy Project with support from the San Francisco Historic Preservation and Planning Commissions, and preservations groups such as Asian and Pacific Islander Americans in Historic Preservation and San Francisco Heritage. In 2006 the building received a grant as part of the American Express and National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2006 Partners in Preservation program.

San Francisco Heritage Interim President Woody LaBounty heralded the designation, declaring that “Heritage was very enthusiastic to support designation of the Japantown YWCA for the National Register and as a San Francisco City Landmark. It is perhaps the most compelling site for historic designation in the city with both architectural merit (designed by Julia Morgan) and a myriad of truly significant cultural connections. I am very happy it will be getting more attention!”

Rather than viewing landmark status as a culmination of years of hard work, preservation activists celebrate this seminal achievement as an exciting new beginning. As the lawyer for Soko Bukai, longtime member of the Issei Women’s Legacy Project, and proud mother of a Nihonmachi Little Friends alum, Karen Kai explained, landmark designation has paved the way for research, development, and storytelling that not only uncovers the extraordinary history of the building but also “brings the Sansei (third generation) into direct connection with the Issei and Nisei and allows us to pass that heritage on to future generations.”

For Kai, the past, present, and future of the Issei Women’s Building reveals “how important historic sites are for people to have a really personal relationship to their communities.”

Tamar Rabinowitz, Ph.D, is the former ACLS/Mellon public fellow at the National Trust for Historic Preservation and is a museum and public history professional

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By: Tamar Rabinowitz

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