A successor organization to the American Loyalty League formed in 1923, the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) began in 1930 to promote the rights of Japanese American citizens by stressing assimilation and Americanization. As its creed declares, “I am proud that I am an American citizen of Japanese ancestry, for my very background makes me appreciate more fully the wonderful advantages of this nation.”
Like other Asian American groups, Japanese Americans faced racism expressed in peoples' attitudes and behaviors and codified in laws and statutes that discriminated against them. To counter those institutionalized forms of racism such as school segregation, alien land laws, and restrictive immigration acts, Asian Americans formed various organizations to defend them in courts and in the political arena. Issei or first generation Japanese Americans formed the Japanese Association to promote their interests, and they urged their children, the nisei, to establish the American Loyalty League and the JACL.
Leaders of the JACL drew from the educated, middle class, and their politics were conservative and accordingly drew criticism from liberals and Japanese Americans of the working class. Civil rights, JACL leaders believed, were earned from 100 percent Americanism and patriotism, and thus any taint of attachment to Japan was harmful to the status of Japanese Americans in the United States. In their lobbying efforts, for instance, the JACL emphasized loyalty and patriotism to gain citizenship for World War I Japanese American veterans. Also in the 1930s, JACL lobbyists won repeal of the Cable Act, which revoked the citizenship of anyone married to an “alien ineligible to citizenship” or Asian migrant.
World War II tested the JACL leadership on that very point of loyalty and patriotism. How could they explain the government's actions against Japanese Americans as an entire group? many in the Japanese American community asked. Government agencies pressured the JACL and nisei to cooperate with their forced removal and detention, and tried to recruit informants, which the JACL endorsed, to spy on their parents and others for any “pro-Japan” sentiments. By doing that, the government maintained, Japanese Americans were performing their duty as citizens and demonstrating their loyalty to the United States. JACL leaders defended the government's program of mass removal, and argued that Japanese Americans could prove their loyalty by going quietly into the concentration camps.
Of course, those contentions drew fire from many in the Japanese American community who believed the mass removal and detention derived from racism and violated their constitutional rights. JACL leaders became the targets for threats
and beatings in the camps, such as Fred Tayama in Manzanar concentration camp. Tayama and other JACL leaders had to be removed from the camp for their personal safety. Indicative of the unpopularity of the JACL position on the concentration camps, membership dropped to a low of about 1,700 members. Even its wartime president admitted membership in the JACL was “a thing to be shunned” (Kitayama, 220).
After the war, the JACL recovered some of its diminished standing in the Japanese American community by lobbying successfully for the Japanese American Claims Act (1948) that enabled financial redress for a few and the McCarranWalter Act (1952) that allowed issei naturalization and citizenship. With the civil rights movement led by African Americans and the coming of age of the sansei or third generation, the JACL moved toward a greater emphasis on civil liberties for all and away from assimilation and Americanization. An important move was the JACL's alliance with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the California state supreme court case, Méndez v. Westminster (1946–47), involving the segregation of Mexican American children in the public schools. The JACL and NAACP contended in their support of Méndez's challenge that racial discrimination violated the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution's equal protection clause.
At its 1970 national convention, Edison Uno proposed that the JACL begin a movement for redress and reparations. A year later, Uno joined in the JACL's successful campaign to repeal Title II of the Internal Security Act (1950), which directed the Justice Department to establish concentration camps for persons suspected of engaging in “or probably will conspire with others to engage in, acts of espionage or sabotage.” After Uno's untimely death, Clifford Uyeda chaired the JACL national committee on redress, and at the JACL national convention in 1978, the committee proposed a plan for redress or monetary compensation for the wartime losses and Uyeda was elected JACL national president.
John Tateishi headed the JACL's redress committee, and the JACL supported the establishment of a commission to investigate whether the U.S. government had committed a wrong against Japanese Americans during World War II. The Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians began its work in 1980 and filed its report three years later. The Civil Liberties Act (1988), which provided redress and reparations to Japanese Americans, was a consequence of the commission's report and recommendations.
The JACL maintains its headquarters in San Francisco, and publishes its newspaper, the Pacific Citizen. The JACL creed, written by Mike Masaoka in 1940, declares: “Because I believe in America, and I trust she believes in me, and because I have received innumerable benefits from her, I pledge myself to do honor to her at all times and in all places, to support her Constitution; to obey her laws; to respect her flag; to defend her against all enemies, foreign or domestic; to actively assume my duties and obligations as a citizen, cheerfully and without reservation whatsoever, in the hope that I may become a better American in a greater America.”
Gary Y. Okihiro