Pacific Citizens: Larry and Guyo Tajiri and Japanese American Journalism in the World War II Era

Pacific Citizens: Larry and Guyo Tajiri and Japanese American Journalism in the World War II Era

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Pacific Citizens: Larry and Guyo Tajiri and Japanese American Journalism in the World War II Era by Greg Robinson, Guyo Tajiri

Offering a window into a critical era in Japanese American life, Pacific Citizens collects key writings of Larry S. Tajiri, a multitalented journalist, essayist, and popular culture maven. He and his wife, Guyo, who worked by his side, became leading figures in Nisei political life as the central purveyors of news for and about Japanese Americans during World War II, both those confined in government camps and others outside.   The Tajiris made the community newspaper the Pacific Citizen a forum for liberal and progressive views on politics, civil rights, and democracy, insightfully addressing issues of assimilation, multiracialism, and U.S. foreign relations. Through his editorship of the Pacific Citizen as well as in articles and columns in outside media, Larry Tajiri became the Japanese American community's most visible spokesperson, articulating a broad vision of Nisei identity to a varied audience.   In this thoughtfully framed and annotated volume, Greg Robinson interprets and examines the contributions of the Tajiris through a selection of writings, columns, editorials, and correspondence from before, during, and after the war. Pacific Citizens contextualizes the Tajiris' output, providing a telling portrait of these two dedicated journalists and serving as a reminder of the public value of the ethnic community press.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252093838
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 03/15/2012
Series: Asian American Experience
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 344
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

  Greg Robinson is an associate professor of history at the University of Quebec, Montreal, and the author of several books, including A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America and By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans.

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Larry and Guyo Tajiri and Japanese American Journalism in the World War II Era


Copyright © 2012 Greg Robinson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-03672-9


Larry and Guyo Tajiri and the Pacific Citizen

As I see it, whether they settle permanently away from their former areas of residence on the West Coast or return eventually to the farms and homes they left behind, they [Nisei] will have to become assimilated or become virtual pariahs. For the Little Tokyos have been shattered and—I hope—will not be put together again ... To bring about assimilation, I believe it is both a necessity and an obligation for the evacuees to align themselves, wherever they go in their post-evacuation world, with the progressive forces within American society and with the mass movement of all marginal groups toward the full realization of the American dream ... [T]he racial nature of evacuation developed a recognition among many Japanese Americans that they were inescapably relegated to a place on the color wheel of America, that their problem was basically one of color and part of the unfinished racial business of democracy. With this realization came a corresponding awareness of the urgent and demanding color problem of the American Negro. —Larry Tajiri, "Farewell to Little Tokyo," 1944

PACIFIC CITIZENS EXAMINES AND INTERPRETS the contributions of Larry S. Tajiri, a multitalented newspaperman, essayist, and political thinker, and his wife, Guyo. In the decade beginning in 1942, the Tajiris served as editors and sole full-time employees of the newspaper the Pacific Citizen, organ of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL). During the years of World War II they were central purveyors of news to and about Japanese Americans, both those who were confined by official order in government camps and others outside, and in the postwar resettlement era the Tajiris made their newspaper a forum for progressive views on politics, civil rights and democracy. Meanwhile, by means of his writings in the Pacific Citizen, plus articles in non-Japanese media, Larry Tajiri established himself as a spokesperson for the Nisei (American-born citizens of Japanese ancestry) at a nationwide level. Indeed, it is not too much to say that Larry was the principal advocate and cheerleader for the "New Nisei" of the postwar years. Curiously, the Tajiris and their contributions have received almost no attention in studies of Asian American history, apart from a chapter in David Yoo's book Growing Up Nisei. Yet the themes they addressed—including popular culture, assimilation, interracialism, and U.S. foreign relations—remain relevant and bear examining today, not only by those of Japanese ancestry but by all Americans.


In order to understand how Larry Tajiri, in particular, arrived at and expressed his exceptional vision, it is useful to explore his life and career. He was born Taneyoshi Tajiri in Los Angeles on May 7, 1914, the son of Ryukichi and Fuyo Tajiri. Ryukichi, who came from an aristocratic Japanese family, immigrated to the United States in 1906. After studying at a business school, he worked for some years as a bicycle repairman before becoming successively a wholesale produce salesman and representative of a farmer's organization (interestingly enough, according to the 1920 census, he also labored for a time as a clerk at a Japanese newspaper). Once in California, Ryukichi met a visiting Japanese businessman named Ikuta, who agreed to send over his daughter Fuyo, who was studying at a Baptist missionary college in Japan, to be Ryukichi's bride. Fuyo, some twenty years younger than Ryukichi, was soon united in a proxy marriage to a man she knew only from a photograph and letters, and arrived in California as a "picture bride" in 1913. The Tajiris moved to a largely African American street in an ethnically mixed enclave in south central Los Angeles, and in 1925 they bought a house there.

Taneyoshi was the first of seven Tajiri children (one of whom died young) and the oldest by several years. He attended Maryknoll Catholic School, where he took the English name Lawrence Stephen Tajiri after a pair of Catholic saints. He soon became known as Niisan (big brother) to family and Larry or "Peanuts" to friends and thereafter never used his Japanese name. He was evidently not very close to his father, who often worked nights and slept during the day, and who communicated in broken English when he spoke at all—while his son spoke little Japanese. Nonetheless, Larry absorbed his father's respect for education. He did have a warm relationship with his mother, however. Fuyo Tajiri, who had written Japanese poetry in her early years and who loved to read Japanese books whenever she could take time away from raising her large family, encouraged all of her children to take up literature. From an early age, Larry's cultural background was decidedly mixed: he learned some Japanese culture, but he preferred jazz, card games, and Hollywood movies. He also adored reading, whether among the family's collection of bound volumes of Harvard Classics or popular magazines such as College Humor, Liberty, and Cosmopolitan.

Larry attended Los Angeles Polytechnic High. Encouraged by a sympathetic journalism teacher, Frances Hov, he joined the school paper, the Poly Optimist, and by his senior year had risen to the position of editor. In tribute to his ability, in April 1931 he was selected editor of a special "boy's week" edition of the Los Angeles Times (a newspaper that at the time had no regular Asian American staffers). A month later the Poly Optimist was awarded the prize for the nation's best high school publication by the group Quill and Scroll and was further honored as the best Southern California high school newspaper by the Gamma Kappa Psi journalism fraternity at the University of California, Los Angeles. There was an awards ceremony and a photo shoot at the UCLA campus, but although he was editor in chief, Tajiri did not attend the ceremony, an absence that may suggest he was excluded on racial grounds.

At the end of spring 1931, in the middle of the Great Depression, Larry Tajiri finished high school. He dreamed of attending Columbia University's prestigious journalism school, but it was not economically possible. Instead, he started attending Los Angeles Junior College (now Los Angeles Community College), but was forced to drop out after a single term for financial reasons. In March 1932, at the age of seventeen, he was hired for full-time work as a writer and assistant English editor by Kashu Mainichi, a new Japanese community newspaper founded by a crusading Issei (Japanese immigrant), Sei Fujii. Within a few months Tajiri became chief English editor, a job that also entailed the laborious process of setting all the English-language type by hand! He persuaded Fujii to expand the English section to a full page, with three pages on Sundays. Tajiri began a regular sports page, all of which he wrote himself, including a weekly roundup called "The Graveyard Shift." He added a literary page featuring poetry and fiction (some of which was his own and was published under the name Lawrence Tajiri or the pseudonym "Steve Taneyoshi"), accompanied by line drawings, woodcuts, and other art. For numerous young Nisei writers and artists who contributed works, Larry Tajiri's page represented their first public exposure. Tajiri remained active himself as a reporter and writer of features, especially in New Year's issues. (These expanded editions, designed to generate extra revenue by featuring holiday greetings from small businesses or individuals, provided Nisei writers rare opportunities for extended essays or creative writing.) In 1933 he began a daily column called "Village Vagaries." The name of the column would shift over the years to "Nisei Parade," "Nisei USA," and finally to "Vagaries," but its format remained largely consistent: a grab bag of squibs combining gossip, Nisei news, and social/political commentary.

Within a few years at Kashu Mainichi, Larry had become a seasoned journalist, renowned among his fellow newspapermen for his extraordinarily fast two-finger typing and for his ability to reproduce accurate quotes without taking notes. He also delighted in the company of colleagues and took up the classic journalist's passions for cigarette (later pipe) smoking and poker playing, though his drink of choice remained coffee or Coca-Cola. Meanwhile, he grew active in Nisei literary and dramatic circles, including serving as business manager and president of the Li'l Tokyo Players, a theater troupe. He also joined the Writers, a literary group founded by Mary Oyama. Despite—or because of—his lack of formal education, he was extremely well read, and along with other intellectually minded Nisei he spoke endlessly about who would produce "the Great Nisei Novel." Tajiri's own limited skill as a creative writer, plus lack of leisure to write, was a chronic source of sadness to him. He was especially fond of the works of novelists Nathanael West and John Steinbeck and the recordings of Paul Robeson.

In late 1934 Larry Tajiri made the first of several important shifts in his life. He had continued to live at home during his time editing Kashu Mainichi, using his salary to contribute to household finances. He remained especially close to his mother during these years and would come to her room after returning home in the late evenings and discuss the events of his day. Despite the largish gap in their ages, he also was close to his next oldest siblings, brother Vince and sister Yoshiko, both of whom later took up journalism. However, in October 1934 Larry was recruited by Kyutaro Abiko, the owner of San Francisco's Nichi Bei Shimbun (Japanese American Daily News) for a job as English editor and quickly accepted. Not only was the Nichi Bei the largest and by consensus the best Japanese American newspaper, but also Tajiri was granted as a bonus an expenses-paid reporting trip to Asia. (Tajiri eventually took a five-week tour during summer 1936, in the course of which he stopped in Hawaii, Japan, Korea, and Japanese-occupied Manchuria; however, he returned with troubling stories for family and friends about the Japanese military build-up he had seen.) Larry soon made his mark by expanding the Nichi Bei's coverage of world events and beefing up its Sunday literary page. He also continued his feature writing and editing efforts and wrote his daily column, excerpts from which were ultimately syndicated in Nisei journals such as the Los Angeles–based Japanese American Mirror. In addition, Tajiri's talent led various West Coast Japanese vernaculars, including Rafu Shimpo in Los Angeles and the Seattle-based Japanese American Courier (the first and largest all-Nisei journal in the prewar era), to commission or reprint his articles. His skilled handling of hard news, particularly foreign affairs, plus his columns and articles on literature and popular culture made him an arbiter of taste for a generation of Nisei. He also maintained his family ties: in 1936 Ryukichi Tajiri was offered a job directing an agricultural co-op in San Diego, and the Tajiris decided to move south (where Ryukichi died of a stroke a few years later). Vince Tajiri moved to San Francisco, and Larry hired him as sports editor and feature writer for the Nichi Bei. He hosted Yoshiko on a monthlong visit to the Bay Area in 1939–1940.

After arriving in San Francisco, Tajiri renewed his acquaintance with a fellow journalist, Marion Guyo Okagaki. Born Tsuguyo Okagaki on October 7, 1915, she grew up in a racially integrated neighborhood in San Jose. Her father, Kichitaro Okagaki, helped found the San Francisco–based Japanese newspaper New World Sun (Shin Sekai)—the Nichi Bei's chief rival—for which he reported on local San Jose news. Guyo worked as an unpaid assistant for her father's newspaper during her teen years, doing writing, typesetting, and fact checking—"a bit of everything," she later said—for its English-language section. Attracted by journalism, she decided to make a career of it. Upon completing high school she was accepted by the University of Missouri's prestigious School of Journalism, where in fall 1932 she became, in all likelihood, the first Asian woman student to enroll. Like Larry, Guyo was forced to leave college after only a single semester: the Great Depression no doubt pushed tuition and board beyond the family's means. However, she was able to return home and to transfer, first to nearby San Jose State University, later to the University of California, Berkeley. During her college years, Guyo continued to do summer work at her father's newspaper and also worked for a time under the direction of fledgling newspaperman James Omura, with whom she had a testy relationship. She and Larry first met at the New World Sun's offices in 1934 when he visited San Francisco to attend a JACL convention. (Guyo wrote a piece for New World Sun on a Sayonara Ball that portrayed Larry hurriedly scribbling words for a song to be sung.) After meeting again, the two soon fell in love, and they were married in April 1937. Guyo kept house and contributed an occasional piece to Nichi Bei.

During his time in San Francisco, Tajiri threw himself into political activism. A warm supporter of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, he was an exception among the upwardly mobile professionals who predominated in Nisei groups such as the Japanese American Citizens League, most of whom were Republicans. (For example, attorney Saburo Kido, a future JACL president, served as chair of a local Nisei Republicans club in 1936 and campaigned for presidential candidate Alfred Landon.) To counter the conservative influence of the JACL within Japanese communities, in early 1938 Tajiri became the leading Bay Area organizer of the Nisei Young Democrats (and as a result was dubbed "Boss Tajiri" by Nisei conservatives). These clubs, with local chapters in San Francisco and Oakland, stumped for New Dealers such as Culbert Olsen, who in 1938 became California's first Democratic governor in two generations. They also allied with unions in labor organizing and sponsored civil rights efforts. The Oakland branch, under the leadership of Michio Kunitani and Ernest Satoshi Iiyama, joined with African American lawyer Walter Gordon in court challenges to restrictive covenants against minorities in the East Bay.

On the international scene, however, Tajiri was more circumspect. At first, like virtually the entire Japanese community, he offered warm support to Japan's militaristic policy in Asia. Beyond personal conviction, Larry's support for Japan no doubt reflected the heavy dependence of the Japanese American press on financial support from Tokyo and from Japanese businesses. The reporting trip Tajiri took to Japan and the Far East in mid-1936 led him to privately reconsider his position. Still, unlike his friend Eddie Shimano, the sometime editor of New World Sun who joined the American Friends of the Chinese People in calling for a boycott of Tokyo, he did not openly oppose Japan's 1937 invasion of China. The war in China remained extremely popular within Japanese American communities, in part as a result of dispatches from the front and lectures by Nisei reporter Kazumaro "Buddy" Uno, who helped persuade numerous Nisei of the justice of Tokyo's cause. Fearing that association with Japan would stir prejudice, Tajiri instead counseled his fellow Nisei to remain neutral on the conflict. In one of his few recorded speeches of the period, from a journalists' forum on the Far East, he took a more clearly anti-Japanese, if still equivocal, position: "Larry Tajiri, San Francisco newspaperman, declared that the Nisei were clothed in two attitudes: as a Nisei, neutrality; as part of the American people, economic sanctions. Tajiri stated also that the Nisei, as a group, should remain neutral; and that the Nisei, as individuals, should follow each his own beliefs."

Despite his regard for his employers and for the Nichi Bei newspaper, Larry soon felt limited by the job and preferred to expand beyond the narrow confines of the West Coast Japanese American community. While he declined offers of newspaper work in the Far East, fearing being cut off in case of war, he readily accepted when Japan's Asahi newspaper chain offered him a better-paying job as a foreign correspondent in New York. Tajiri thereby succeeded John Fujii, a Nisei journalist who had relocated to Japanese-occupied Shanghai (there replacing in turn Bill Hosokawa, who had taken a newspaper job in Singapore). Tajiri does not appear to have been bothered over working for a semiofficial Japanese firm; like other talented Nisei excluded by racial discrimination from mainstream employment opportunity, he no doubt found employment by Japanese companies the only decent alternative.


Excerpted from PACIFIC CITIZENS Copyright © 2012 by Greg Robinson. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Series Foreword Roger Daniels....................xiii
Foreword Harry K. Honda....................xv
Introduction: Larry and Guyo Tajiri and the Pacific Citizen....................xix
and the Pacific Citizen....................xix
Chapter One: The Early Years....................1
Chapter Two: Wartime Columns and Editorials....................31
Chapter Three: Writings in Mainstream and Multiracial Publications....................64
Chapter Four: Wartime Correspondence....................128
Chapter Five: Guyo Tajiri: Out from the Shadows....................150
Chapter Six: Larry Tajiri's Postwar Writings....................189
Chapter Seven: The Later Years....................230

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