(From the Sonoma County JACL 50th Anniversary booklet, compiled by Mei Nakano.)
The Sonoma County Chapter of the Japanese American Citizen’s League was organized in August of 1934. Twenty-five people signed on as charter members of the fledgling organization. Henry Shimuzu recalled taking many trips to San Francisco and Fresno to seek help from the National JACL organization to establish a chapter in rural Sonoma County. The early years were hard-going with little funds, few members and undependable support.
From those shaky beginnings, the chapter has developed into what is today one of the larger chapters. Its program is diverse, robust, relevant, serving both the members of the Japanese community from young children to the aging and society in general.
Sonoma County JACL through the years
Pre-war years – During the years before World War II, the majority of chapter members were engaged in agriculture, run as family operations. According to George Hamamoto, twice the chapter president in the 1960’s, apple ranching, the poultry business and truck farming were the chief occupations.
1940s – Soon after the outbreak of the war, all Japanese were forcibly removed from their homes by order of the government and put into camps in 1942. Issei and Nissei alike were crowded into hastily built barracks, surrounded by barbed wire fences and guard towers, under the guise of “military necessity”. Far from home, men were drafted out of camp. Some would not return to Sonoma County, having been killed in combat.
With the ending of the war in 1945, members and their families returned to Sonoma County one by one and struggled to pick up the pieces. Many families did not return to farming, and the industry never quite regained its former vigor in the JA community.
1950s-1960s – In the beginning half of the chapter’s history, its activities tended to center chiefly around social functions. Gradually, as the chapter began to grow, carving out its identity, feeling its muscle, it began to reach out into the community and beyond.
During these decades, the chapter began to extend itself out into the community, though activities remained geared mainly toward member social interaction. Most Nisei were still unsettled during the 1950’s, still struggling to find a niche for themselves in society, and were more or less socially isolated from the outside community. The JACL fulfilled a vital need for its members, strengthening and deepening social bonds.
1960s-1970s – The chapter began to turn its attention to issue-oriented activities during the late ’60s and ’70s, particularly in the area of civil rights. Educating the public about the internment camps to prevent such a disaster from happening again, took top priority.
1980s-1990s – During these last few decades, the organization has also been involved in a wide variety of activities: seeking redress for those incarcerated during the war, disseminating information about the camp experience; working toward nuclear disarmament; publicly repudiating racist statements and acts; sponsoring a summer enrichment program for children; initiating a program for the aged jointly with the Enmanji; providing support to worthwhile community projects and, generally, seeking greater understanding between the Japanese community and the society-at-large.
2000-2010 – In the 1990’s, the “younger” members of the community realized many of the Issei (those who first came to America before the war) were in their 80’s and 90’s, and with their passing their stories would also be lost. The Sonoma County JACL formed an Oral History Project to record as many of the local stories as possible. From the compilation of oral histories came a book of the interviews, an education curriculum guide, and a DVD. The project continues stronger than ever with the addition of a Speakers Bureau which sends volunteers out to classrooms and organizations to talk about the Japanese American experience.
Today – The Sonoma County JACL continues to expand its involvement in cultural, civil rights, and community activities, hosting a wide range of activities and collaborating with other ethnic and civil and human rights organizations. In addition to monthly and annual activities, including a senior citizen drop-in, the Keiro Kai luncheon to honor the senior members in the Japanese American community, and dinner with the Redwood Empire Chinese Association and Filipino communities, other events have included Japanese food workshops, recognition of the Congressional Medal of Honor awardees, and the Day of Remembrance workshop.