The Japanese YWCA/Issei Women’s Building in Japantown could soon be designated a historic landmark after San Francisco’s Historic Preservation Commission voted to initiate the process on Oct. 21.
The two-story building at 1830 Sutter St. is being recognized for its association to the history of Japanese American Issei (first generation) women, the African American civil rights movement, and the advancement of LGBTQ+ rights movement.
Cathy Inamasu, executive director of of Nihonmachi Little Friends— a private, nonprofit, childcare organization that purchased the building in 2002— said her organization was proud to be the caretaker of property that “serves to teach others about the proud history of Japanese Americans in the U.S., facing racism and discrimination which unfortunately continues today toward other targeted groups.”
“[This] SF designation would be an added honor and will hopefully draw more interest and attention to this little known history of these Japanese women of the YWCA,” said Inamasu.
Along with its history of housing social services to women and children of the Japanese community, the Japanese YWCA building served as a home to the San Francisco chapter of the Committee on Racial Equality for its meetings, trainings and events organized to further the civil rights movement during the 1942-1959 tenancy of the American Friends Service Committee. In the 1950s, the building was a “center of [LGBTQ+] civil rights leader Bayard Rustin’s organizing work early in his career” and site of the Mattachine Society’s first convention in 1954—one of the earliest gay activist groups in U.S. history.
“To us this landmarking is truly a recognition of our Issei women; the first generation who came, who faced incredible racism, who raised funds at the height of the Great Depression in order to build this building and who then faced internment and diaspora,” said Karen Kai, a representative of NLF.
The Issei women who founded San Francisco’s Japanese YWCA in 1912—which was the first of its kind in the U.S.— sought to establish a home in the early 1920s to address the needs of women and children in their community. In 1932, the Japanese-style building designed by architect Julia Morgan was completed after the Issei women raised funds with the help of the Japanese community and the San Francisco YWCA.
However, due to the California Alien Land Law of 1913—a law targeted at Japanese individuals that barred “aliens ineligible for citizenship” from owning agricultural land—the women were prohibited from their building. This forced the Japanese YWCA to ask the San Francisco YWCA to hold title to the property in trust of the Japanese YWCA, which they obliged. Subsequently, the Issei women and others of Japanese ancestry in California were forcefully removed and placed in Japanese internment camps during World War II, turning the property over to the San Francisco YWCA.
“I think there is something to be said here about the continuation of organizations that are able to maintain their legacies and what happens when those organizations fade. The building remained, but we in the Japanese American community have forgotten so much of the struggle and how that building came to be,” said Kai. “Because of that [continuation], we now know a great deal more about the strength, courage and determination of our Issei women. We know how this building became a center for people when we were gone, during those difficult years of internment. And now we’re seeing it be a centerpiece for the community; a way to tie us back together and unite us in this cause of preserving our history and our heritage.”