Nikkei Chicago / 日系シカゴ

Documenting the untold stories of Nikkei (Japanese American) Chicago シカゴにおける日系人に関する記事のサイト

The Chicago Nisei Before World War II

Chicago Nisei at Chicago World Fair 1933 (Courtesy of Rick Ohi)


In Japanese American history, Chicago is known as one of the primary urban relocation areas for those who were incarcerated in American concentration camps during World War II. The earliest wave of resettlement, composed mostly of Nisei, arrived in Chicago in June of 1942, although some “voluntary resettlers” were said to have arrived as early as March of that year.1 Since then, the relocation and resettlement history of Japanese Americans has been carefully recorded and researched by scholars, writers, and journalists. However, their discussion of the last 75 years makes it seem as if the history of the Chicago Japanese started in 1942, not many decades earlier in the late 1800s, when Japanese immigrants first came to this city.

Who Were the Chicago Nisei?

Little is known about the Nisei who were born in Chicago, particularly in the prewar years. In 1877, the first Japanese baby (i.e. the first Nisei in Chicago) was reported to have been born to two acrobats, Yae and “Professor Ganjiro.”2 Although the Illinois Censuses of 1880 and 1890 showed only Japanese who were presumably Issei sojourners3 (except for Michitaro Ongawa, who spent his whole life in the Midwest from 1871 to 1938), I found another Nisei, George Kaneko, a Chicago native born on August 2, 1886. His father was Asajiro Kaneko, and his mother was Sada, but they were not recorded in the Census as residents of Chicago.4

Lured by the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 (also known as the Chicago World’s Fair), many Japanese came to Chicago to look for new business opportunities. Some Issei chose to remain after the exposition and start families—as a result, more Nisei were born. In an article titled “Chicago has a Japanese New Woman,” the Chicago Tribune reported with surprise about a seven-month-old baby, Maude Seid, born to Issei parents Ding and Mandi Seid.5 Maude’s father was a tea merchant in Chicago and the article described the baby’s “very un-American appearance,” although she was “’merican” to her father. The Seids had another older Nisei boy, Richard, a nine-year-old Illinois native.6

We know quite a bit about the experiences of the West Coast Nisei: constant exposure to racial discrimination, living segregated lives in Japanese enclaves, the efforts of Issei parents to instill cultural pride in their children through Japanese language lessons. Did the Chicago Nisei have similar experiences?

Not Like West Coast Nisei

Using, I have been researching the Illinois Japanese population by collecting information about individuals and families from census data released between 1900 and 1940. Although few accounts of the lives of Chicago Nisei have surfaced to date, I have discovered, through my census research, several characteristics unique to the prewar Chicago Nisei—characteristics not commonly seen in Japanese communities on the West Coast. One of the most interesting was the presence of mixed-blood Nisei during the first 30 years of this period. Another was the role the Nisei played in creating a sense of ethnic community in Chicago, where the Japanese population was too small to create a significant enclave like Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo or San Francisco’s Japantown.

I attribute the presence of mixed-blood Nisei to two factors. First, single Japanese women were very scarce in Chicago in those days.7 Second, Illinois did not have miscegenation laws that prevented marriages between whites and Japanese—unlike California, which banned interracial marriages until 1948. Therefore, the early Chicago Japanese, who were not bound by the “peer pressure” of their ethnic community, were free to enter into interracial relationships.

In 1886, a newspaper article reported on interracial marriages involving Japanese. “In a year, during which the Mikado was made so popular in Chicago, it would be considered improper to avoid mention of a veritable Japanese who took out a license to wed a lady with a white skin.”8 Although we do not know who the first Japanese man to marry “a lady with a white skin” in Chicago was, we do know that adventuresome Japanese men could be found among the ranks of the travelling actors/acrobats who had been appearing in Chicago since the 1860s. Acrobat Joseph Tanaka married a white woman from Canada named Catherine around 1890 9 and was naturalized in Chicago on November 20, 1902.10 Ichiske Oshikawa, a 23-year-old performer, married a 21-year-old Austrian named Kathrine some time after 1894.11 Keneko Kinzo, an actor, married an Illinois native named Lilian around 1897.12

Mixed-blood Nisei children were born from marriages such as these. Acrobat Joseph Yoshimote was born in Chicago to acrobat parents: Japanese father Joseph and Irish mother Sadie.13 Three-year-old Elvira, a native of Illinois, was reported to be the offspring of foot jugglers George Okura and Meta (a German woman).14

According to my research, there were 74 (59 male and 15 female) Japanese living in Chicago in 1900.15 Living outside of Chicago were 11 single men, none of them engaged in agriculture, unlike in California. Out of 14 married men, four of them had white wives. Charles Bane, a 36-year-old Japanese storekeeper in Chicago, had married a German immigrant woman named Christin in Kankakee in 189416 and had two mixed-blood sons, Fred and Charles, both born in Illinois.17 In total, there were eight Nisei (five boys and three girls) under the age of 18 in 1900; three of the boys and all the girls were born in Illinois.

Attitudes Toward Interracial Marriage

Chicago Evening Post photojournalist, Jun Fujita and his partner, Florence Carr (Courtesy of the Pam and Graham Lee private collection)

How did Chicagoans look at interracial marriages between Japanese men and white women before the turn of the century? Some newspaper articles hinted at a positive attitude. For example, a Chicago Daily News reporter interviewed two white women who had Japanese husbands.18 The interviewees were Caroline, a Southern belle who was married to the famous chemist Jokichi Takamine, and Illinois native Dora, wife to Harry Kenichi Tetsuka. The Takamines and their two mixed-blood sons came to Chicago from Japan in 1890 to start a distilling business. Tetsuka, who came to the United States in 1885, was listed as having an import business, Tetsuka H.K. & Co. (185 State),19 in Chicago after the 1893 Exposition.

In the article “Love Ways of Japanese,” Caroline Takamine boasted about her husband, who she said worked hard to please her, and claimed: “Much has been written of the tyrannical husband and submissive wives of Japan, but I assure you that a Japanese wife is a very happy woman… I think Japanese make the best husbands in the world.” Chicago native Dora Tetsuka, who met her husband at the World’s Columbian Exposition and married him on January 1, 1894, was also proud of being “the first Chicago girl who ever married a Japanese,” claiming: “I know lots more (girls) who would like to (marry Japanese men) since they have known my husband.”

In a newspaper article published in Indiana, Clara Ongawa, an Iowa native who married her husband Michitaro in Austin, Illinois, in 1891, also confirmed Takamine’s claim that Japanese men make excellent husbands for American girls.20 In such an open-minded atmosphere, interracial marriages involving Japanese men, as well as births of mixed-blood children, increased steadily until the 1920s.

There were 247 Japanese (209 male and 38 female) living in Chicago in 1910, while the total number of Japanese in Illinois was 288 (249 males and 39 females).21 Exactly half of the 54 married Japanese men in the state chose wives of a different race: two had black/mulatto wives and 25 had white wives. As a consequence, out of 24 Nisei under 18 (10 boys and 14 girls),22 11 (six boys and five girls) were of mixed blood.

Mr. and Mrs. K.K. Kawakami and their child (Photo: Nichibei Shuho, 1909)

Among the mixed-blood Nisei were Clarke and Yuri Kawakami of Momence, Illinois. Their father was the renowned journalist, Kiyoshi Karl Kawakami, who represented the Japanese government’s views in various American newspapers and magazines after Japan’s victory over Russia in 1905. Kawakami married Mildred Clarke of Momence in 1907. Their marriage was called “a romantic wedding of international interest.”23

Sidney Tokichi Ohi, who was sent to Chicago from Japan in 1906 as a trainee to study overseas industries24 and worked for the Pullman Palace Car Company as a draftsman, married Katie Hicks, a white woman from Missouri, in 1910. One of their mixed-blood daughters, Kuma Elizabeth, born in Chicago in 1911, later became the first female Japanese American lawyer in the country. One of Kuma’s cousins, Kiyoshi Franklin Chino, was also born in Chicago in 1911 to Japanese father Haruka Frank Chino and Katie Ohi’s sister, Mercelia. Kuma and Kiyoshi were the only Japanese American students at Chicago’s John Marshall Law School in the 1930s; they went on to become two of the three Nisei lawyers working in Chicago in the prewar years. By comparison, there was only one Nisei lawyer in San Francisco, where the Japanese population was 20 times that of Chicago.25

Sidney Ohi’s family (Courtesy of Rick Ohi)

Changing Demographics

As a result of escalating anti-Japanese discrimination on the West Coast in the early 20th century, Chicago saw a new influx of young adult Nisei who had been born in other areas such as Hawaii, Utah, California, and Arkansas. The demographics of Japanese Chicago began to change as a result of social and generational shifts.

Among the newcomers, the Hawaii Nisei were the biggest group, totaling seven people according to the 1920 Census. One of them was Isamu Tashiro, a dentist, who was born in Hawaii in 1895, came to Chicago at age 16, and graduated in 1918 from the Chicago College of Dental Surgery. He practiced dentistry for more than 60 years in Chicago, and served as a local contact for dental students from Hawaii and Japan.26 In the 1920s, Hawaiian Nisei began to appear among the graduates of the University of Chicago. In May 1922, Japanese students from Hawaii formed two clubs: the Hawaiian Students Club and the Aloha baseball team.27

Nisei women also came to Chicago. In the 1920s, a single Hawaiian Nisei woman came to study at the Moody Bible Institute28 and an Arkansan Nisei woman settled in Chicago with her black husband.29

The Japanese population in Illinois grew to 471 (368 males, 103 females) in 1920.30 There were 422 Japanese (330 males, 92 females) living in Chicago, and there appeared to be some single women working outside Chicago. The percentage of interracial marriages decreased somewhat: out of 92 married Japanese men, 29 had white wives and one had a black wife. The percentage of mixed-blood Nisei, on the other hand, increased: they numbered 40 (13 boys and 27 girls), making up nearly 49 percent of the 82 Nisei under age 18.

The Japanese population in Chicago reached 515 (369 males, 146 females) in 1930.31 The 1930 Census saw the first appearance of “intra-racial” marriages between Japanese Issei and Nisei from other areas, and the number has steadily increased since then. Out of 584 Japanese residents in Illinois, the biggest group was children under 18, who numbered 149 (65 boys and 84 girls); 37 percent of these (19 boys and 37 girls) were of mixed blood. The number of mixed-blood Nisei started to decline while the number of “pure Japanese” children rose with the number of Nisei marriages.

The children’s birthplaces varied. They came from not only Illinois and Japan, but all regions of the country. Apparently, Japanese immigrants were on the move throughout the US to seek better lives for their families, especially after 1924. The 1930 Census for the first time showed Japanese children in orphanages and in white families, likely as adoptees. In 1931, a two-year-old, mixed-blood boy named Alexander Hayes was adopted by Japanese movie stars Sesshu and Tsuru Hayakawa. Among local Japanese, he was rumored to have been born to a Japanese student and the daughter of a well-known Chicago businessman.32

Growing Community Consciousness

With more young adult Nisei in Chicago, a new sense of community consciousness seemed to emerge. One indicator of this was the opening of Japanese language schools, with the goal of fostering a lasting sense of Japanese ethnic identity over generations.

Japanese YMCI at Calumet. (Photo: The Japanese Student, February 1917)

A Japanese language school was opened in 1931 at the Japanese Young Men’s Christian Institute of Chicago (JYMCI, 747 East 36th Street). The JYMCI was originally a boarding and meeting facility founded in 1911 at 3219 Groveland Ave by the Reverend Misaki Shimadzu, who served as executive secretary. Classes were held on Saturdays, with day classes from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. and night classes from 7:30 p.m to 10 p.m. Launched with 13 pupils,33 the school grew to accommodate six classes, 35 students, and three teachers by 1934.34 The school celebrated New Year’s35 and the Emperor’s birthday.36

With the departure of Reverend Shimadzu for Shanghai in 1934, the management and future of the school was in trouble, although the JYMCI as an organization stayed open until September 1937.37 In 1935, however, a new organization called the Japanese Mutual Aid Society of Chicago (816 N. Clark Street) was formed and under their leadership, the Japanese language school was able to reopen on the Near North side of Chicago38 in 1936 with a new management plan.39

Japanese YMCI (Photo: The Japanese Student, January 1919)

In May 1938, the Chicago Nisei community formed the Nisei Club with advice from Mr. Mori, assistant to the Japanese consul. The purposes of the club were to improve communication among Nisei, promote Nisei activities, and promote an amicable relationship between the US and Japan. The first president was mixed-blood Nisei Kiyoshi Franklin Chino and the first meeting was held at the University of Chicago’s International House.40 The club held a “Japan night” at the Germania Club and proceeds from the event were donated to the Japanese language school.41 In spring 1940, a Chicago radio station broadcast a chorus of Japanese songs sung by students at the school and club president Chino answered questions on the situation of Japanese people in Chicago and the US.42

As the Nisei Club grew, the community recognized the need to procure a physical space for the club that could also house the Japanese language school, the Boy Scout troop,43 the camera club, and various sports clubs. The decision was made to rent a building at 214 West Oak Street.44 Two months of fundraising and the donation of room furnishings such as tables, lamps, carpets, books, and other items from the community led to the establishment of a “home” for the Nisei Club in June 1941.45 The following month, the club held a sports day at which they enjoyed wrestling, boxing, kendo, judo, and other activities.46

The building on West Oak Street also housed the Japanese Mutual Aid Society of Chicago, JYMCI, Japanese Christian Church, Japanese Ladies’ Association, and the branch office of the San Francisco Nichibei (Japanese American News).47 The birth and growth of the Nisei Club with Nisei leadership had finally enabled the creation of a kind of “Little Tokyo” for Japanese residents of Chicago.

World War II and Its Aftermath

After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Chicago Police Department ordered the Japanese Mutual Aid Society to cease all activities and stop collecting dues. Members were also prohibited from congregating in groups of more than three persons.48 Then, beginning in 1942, Japanese Americans from camps began to resettle in Chicago, thus beginning a new phase of Chicago’s Japanese American history. In 1943 and the early part of 1944, almost all resettlers coming to Chicago—nearly 5,000 people—were Nisei49 and 50 percent of them were under the age of 24. Only one third of them were married.50

To the young resettlers, who had been raised in the more “ingrown than expanding” West Coast Japanese communities, where collectivity was prioritized,51; the Chicago Issei appeared to be “extreme individualists.”52 The Chicago Nisei who were “never a part of the Japanese community and whose ideas [were] so different from those of most resettlers that they [did] not have following” among the new settlers, were said to be “extremely unpopular or thoroughly disliked by the others.”53

The prewar Chicago Japanese might be a good example of how the size of a population, in tandem with its social distance from mainstream society, can inform the character of a minority community, which in this case deviated from what we might expect of typical, traditional Japanese communities in the US. As such, this community should be noted and remembered as a unique, atypical group of Japanese Americans who had the wisdom to survive in the particular atmosphere of Chicago, an atmosphere in which, according to resettler Setsuko Nishi, “negligent indifference and ignorance, if not acceptance, not prejudice and discrimination”54 prevailed.


1. Encyclopedia of Japanese American History, updated edition, page 62.

2. Chicago Tribune, May 16, 1877.

3. The 1880 Illinois Census recorded three Japanese (two in Chicago). The 1890 Census reported 14 Japanese (none in Chicago).

4. George Kaneko birth certificate, via

5. Chicago Tribune, June 7, 1896.

6. 1900 Illinois Census.

7. The 1900 Illinois Census recorded 15 females in Chicago: two married and 13 single. Eight single women were suspected to be prostitutes as they lived at 2026 Armour Avenue in the “red light” district. In July 1908, five Japanese prostitutes were arrested in this house (Chicago Tribune, July 17, 1908).

8. Chicago Tribune, January 1, 1887.

9. 1930 New York Census.

10. Certificate No. R-80 P125 Alien, Japanese American Commercial Weekly, December 6, 1902.

11. 1910 Illinois Census.

12. 1900 Illinois Census.

13. 1920 New York Census.

14. 1910 and 1920 Illinois Censuses.

15. The 1910 Illinois Census recorded 80 in total and 68 in Chicago. Author’s research found 85 Japanese in Illinois.

16. Chicago Tribune, October 11, 1894.

17. 1900 Illinois Census.

18. Chicago Daily News, November 27, 1895.

19. 1895 Chicago City Directory.

20. The Star Press, June 2, 1911.

21. The 1910 Illinois Census recorded 285 Japanese in total, with 233 living in Chicago.

22. The Chicago Tribune dated July 25, 1912, reported the results of a city school census and that “the Japanese have the smallest representation of children of any nationality in Chicago and there are only 30 children of Japanese parentage.”

23. Evansville Press, June 13, 1907.

24. Ohi was sent first to New York City in 1906 to study the iron industry but requested that the Japanese government transfer him to Chicago. 6-1-7-18 Diplomatic Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, Tokyo.

25. Greg Robinson, The Great Unknown, page 31.

26. Chicago Tribune, December 21, 1983.

27. Nichibei Jiho, May 27, 1922.

28. Nishimura, 1920 Illinois Census.

29. Barrett, 1920 Illinois Census.

30. The 1920 Illinois Census recorded 472 Japanese in total.

31. The 1930 Illinois Census recorded 564 Japanese in total. According to the author’s research, 584 Japanese lived in Illinois—419 male and 165 female. Japanese living outside Chicago totaled 69: 50 male and 19 female.

32. Nichibei Jiho, September 2, 1931.

33. Nichibei Jiho, October 17, 1931.

34. Survey on Japanese language schools, December 1934, from Kenji Nakauchi, consul in Chicago to Japanese foreign ministry.

35. Nichibei Jiho, January 6, 1932.

36. Nichibei Jiho, April 24, 1937.

37. Yamagata’s letter to Cashman, June 30, 1937, YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago Collection, Chicago History Museum.

38. Japanese Mutual Aid of Chicago 1934–1977, leaflet from the collection of the Japanese American Service Committee Legacy Center, Chicago, page 3.

39. Nichibei Jiho, March 21, 1936.

40. Nichibei Jiho, May 21, 1938.

41. Nichibei Jiho, December 10, 1938.

42. Nichibei Jiho, April 27, 1940.

43. A Nisei lawyer from Oregon, Minoru Yasui, who came to Chicago in 1939, was the scoutmaster. Robinson, The Great Unknown, page 32.

44. Nichibei Jiho, March 22, 1941.

45. Nichibei Jiho, April 26, May 3, May 24, June 7, 1941.

46. Nichibei Jiho, July 5, 1941.

47. The Japanese American Directory 1941, page 659.

48. Japanese Mutual Aid of Chicago 1934–1977, leaflet from the collection of the Japanese American Service Committee Legacy Center, Chicago, page 3.

49. Indefinite Leaves-Departures by Center, Monthly Report/1 No.47, May 31, 1944, War Relocation Authority, Japanese American Relocation Collection, Box 5, Brethren Historical Library and Archives.

50. Relocation of Japanese Americans in Chicago, Chicago War Relocation Authority, 1945, page 1, Japanese American Relocation Collection, Box 5, Brethren Historical Library and Archives.

51. Setsuko Matsunaga Nishi, Japanese American Achievement in Chicago: A Cultural Response to Degradation, PhD dissertation, University of Chicago, 1963, page 73.

52. Ibid, page 305.

53. Ibid, pages 158–59.

54. Ibid, pages 215–16.

This story was published online at the Discover Nikkei website on March 22st and 22nd, 2018. is a project of the Japanese American National Museum.  The website links are at: and

2 comments on “The Chicago Nisei Before World War II

  1. don watanabe
    December 12, 2020

    Today, 12/12/2020, I found this website thanks to a lead provided to me by a fellow Chicagoan of Chinese-Indonesian descent. He’s age,87 yrs. and immigrated to the USA in 1947. I’m 84 and was born in a doctor’s office on the west side of Chicago.
    My birth mother moved to Chgo. at age 21yrs. from Seattle where she was purportedly, born in 1909. I don’t know who my father was and she wouldn’t tell me. She may not have known because she, reportedly, slept around in her childbearing years. The doctor who delivered me in his office in 1936 told me that all he knew was that my father was definitely of Japanese descent whereas, my brother’s father was white and Jewish. This doctor delivered both of us. My brother lived between 1932 and 1959. Neither of us ever lived with our mother (or, father). We were both raised by separate white families in Chicago and neither of us had any contact with any other people of Japanese descent until we were in our 20’s or 30’s in my case).
    Anyhow, thought I’d pass along this personal information because the article above said that little is known about Nikkei in Chgo. before WW2 and I offer this as a little more info.

  2. don watanabe
    December 12, 2020

    PS: My mother was involved with the Al Capone gang in the ’30’s, according to the FBI’s report which I received in answer to my FOIA request on her close to 10 yrs. ago.
    I’m sure that she–Faye Fuji Watanabe was one of kind–in her peer group and beyond. The FBI related more supporting information to the latter statement. She died in 1971.I still live in Chicago.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: