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Longtime Japantown activist Karen Kai sits near an Origami Fountain designed by Ruth Asawa at the Nihomachi Pedestrian Mall on March 28, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

It was the 50th anniversary of the Peace Plaza in Japantown and, unusually, San Franciscan Karen Kai donned a kimono, the traditional Japanese garment reserved for formal and ceremonial occasions.

“Today is also Minoru Yasui Day,” she said as she smiled widely and pointed to Yasui’s picture on the badge rather untraditionally adorning her kimono lapel.

Yasui, along with Fred Korematsu and Gordon Hirabayashi, was among the Americans who challenged the constitutionality of internment, deportation and other exclusionary laws aimed at people of Japanese ancestry during World War II. March 28 was the 76th anniversary of the day when, as a young man, Yasui intentionally violated curfew orders in Portland, Ore., in his search for justice.

As a young attorney fresh out of the University of San Francisco School of Law, Kai became well-acquainted with Yasui’s history when she was assigned to the reopened Korematsu v. The United States case in the early 1980s. Little did she know then that she would be associated with one of the country’s most famous civil rights cases and appeals.

Though not formally overturned, the importance of the Korematsu case is widely acknowledged; he remains a towering figure in civil rights history for insisting on the wrongness of internment without due process.

“At the time of the Korematsu case, there was only a handful of books out about Japanese Americans and the camps,” said Kai, who pored over boxes of government documents and legal briefs regarding the orders. “It was a real eye-opener, to get a sense of how much more history is out there than what you might read in books. The Korematsu case is very much about history and seeing the bigger picture.”

Kai was also part of the legal team that helped the Japantown neighborhood gain the Nihonmachi Little Friends House, a bilingual childcare center originally funded by Issei (first-generation immigrant) women, which occupies a historic building on Sutter Street.

“That nexus between history, place and bringing about justice for a whole community is an unusual thing to be able to do,” she said. “It was an opportunity to learn and to do something that could restore rightness to the world.”

Seated in the atrium-like environs of the airy Japan Center Mall, surrounded by shops selling beautiful textiles, cute manga and delicious sweets, the subjects of racial profiling, detention camps and displacement would seem to be a world away. And yet, Kai and I are seated among some old friends of hers, elders for whom the horror of war was real.

“Karen comes back to check on the survivors,” said Jack Dairiki, 87.

Dairiki miraculously escaped death and illness resulting from the atomic bomb blast in Hiroshima, where he was exiled during the war. Here at home, his family was interred at Tulelake Relocation Center. He and his wife Judy, who survived assembly at Tanforan and camp at Topaz, were in Japantown to attend the Peace Plaza commemoration.

“The survivor events have dropped off since, these days, there are fewer of them,” explained Kai of the Northern California gatherings for the purpose of medical exams and fellowship, though she deftly shifted the conversation back to the Dairikis, who recalled the war with us over tea and coffee.

Karen Kai stands on one of the pedestrian bridges above Geary Boulevard that she has fought to preserve for Japantown residents. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Kai’s Japantown connection dates back to her childhood, growing up in the Willow Glen neighborhood of San Jose. “I can remember my mom getting us dressed up to come to Japan Center,” she said. “It was the big deal thing to do … a chance to touch bigger culture.” She recalled the cooking classes, flower-arranging demonstrations and, of course, the Kinokuniya bookstore.

“My mom was born in the Territory of Hawaii, in the area around Pearl Harbor,” Kai said. Around 1930, the family moved to Japan, where her mother studied in Tokyo. She met Kai’s father during the Occupation. They returned to the United States, first to Los Angeles, then settling in San Jose.

“My father died when I was about 3 months old, so I never knew him,” she said, but learned his family had been interred at Heart Mountain in Wyoming. Her mother remarried in 1962, and her stepfather’s family had also been sent away, to Poston, Ariz.

“None of the kids I went to school with were Japanese. We lived in a white community,” Kai said. “When the Japan Center opened, for the first time, it was out in the open and OK, a good thing to be Japanese, after all those years of keeping your head low and trying to assimilate.”

Kai followed her sister to San Francisco State University, though by the time she got there, the campus history of radical activism had quieted down. “That energy had dispersed. … It had become a commuter school,” she said. She did, however, take a class by civil rights leader Edison Uno. “I think it was called Evacuation and Relocation, on the Japanese camp experience, my first opportunity to learn about that,” she said.
During a presentation on Earth Day from Ralph Nader’s action group, Nader’s Raiders, “One of the attorneys asked if I ever considered being a lawyer, and I hadn’t because that isn’t what good Japanese girls did, but she said, ‘You should think about it’ and it planted a seed.”

Soon after, she met a speaker from Common Cause who described the work they were doing on political reform. “I asked about internships. It was a remarkable place. I never felt like a student doing menial work. They had me doing substantive things,” she said.

In her law school years, Kai became connected with the strong and active Asian student alliance, which put her back into contact with Japantown. “My friends from Japantown started to get involved here,” she said, “and I started to learn more about what was going on.”

She also met her husband Robert Rusky; together they would go on to work on the Korematsu and Nihonmachi Friends House cases. Though Kai is retired from the legal profession, Rusky still practices, calling on his experience with the Korematsu case in light of the recent travel ban. He and Kai also collaborated on achieving historic preservation status for the family-owned, black culture specialists, Marcus Bookstore, a fixture in the neighborhood for more than 50 years until it was forcibly closed in 2014.

While her efforts have often been concentrated in Japantown — she worked to restore the Buchanan Street fountains created by world-renowned artist Ruth Asawa (they were successfully recast in bronze) and headed the research and writing of the Japantown walking tour — her sense of purpose extends beyond the boundaries of O’Farrell and California, Fillmore and Laguna Streets. Kai’s striving for legal protections for buildings, sculptures and caring for people is the kind of behind-the-scenes work that keeps communities and cities whole and intact.

She’s presently organizing trips to Cuba and Guatemala with the LGBT humanitarian aid group Rainbow World Fund. She works with the Anthony Brown Asian-American Orchestra to promote intercultural musical education rooted in jazz. Leading students from the Rosa Parks Elementary school on walks through the neighborhood, toward the tiny park on Octavia and Bush streets, named for abolitionist Mary Ellen Pleasant, Kai pauses with the children on the Geary pedestrian bridge: It’s a unique vantage point of a neighborhood now shared by African-American, Japanese and Russian families, despite repeated attempts to displace them.

She is inspired by the actions taken by the students of Parkland. “I think the demonstrations that have come out of are so good to see,” she said. “One of the biggest enemies of social justice is silence. It’s not just individual reticence, but there are whole segments of society, even in our social justice communities, invested in keeping others quiet so their voices can be predominant and that’s a real harm. I hope people keep encouraging the students and giving them opportunities to speak up.”

Kai is particularly proud of her and Rusky’s own grown son.

“Quillan has found his own way into being active in Japantown, working on the logistics of the Cherry Blossom Festival and working on the Nihonmachi Street Festival,” she said.

The Cherry Blossom Festival is the annual occasion to experience Japantown in full bloom; demonstrations of taiko drumming, tea ceremony and martial arts hearken back to the original era of the culture and trade center’s founding.

“Quillan’s one of the younger folks keeping the traditions going,” said Kai, and he needn’t have looked far to find the perfect guide to the festivities. “He and his co-chair recruited their moms to work in the information booth.”

IF YOU GO: Cherry Blossom Festival at Japantown
When: Today and April 21-22,11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Where: Post Street between Laguna and Fillmore streets
Info: www.sfcherryblossom.org

Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.

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