Writer, researcher, and social worker, Charles Kikuchi was born in the San Francisco Bay area. His father belonged to Japan's merchant class, but as a 13-year-old ran away from home and left for sea as a cabin boy. After nine years of sailing in 1900, he landed in California where he worked as a migrant laborer in the fields and orchards of the state. With a friend, he joined the U.S. Navy, became a fisher-man, and worked in a lumber camp. In 1913, he returned to Japan to marry, and returned with his bride to San Francisco's East Bay. There they settled, opened a barbershop, and had eight children. Charles Kikuchi, born in 1917, was the couple's second child and first son.
Growing up among other migrant families, Kikuchi's neighbors were Italians, Portuguese, Filipinos, and Mexicans. His family was relatively well off, although
his father frequently lost his earnings drinking and gambling. Kikuchi went to public school knowing little English, so his teacher called on his parents to discuss with them the child's language problem. Without comprehending what the teacher said, Kikuchi's father blamed him for being stupid and beat him, kicking Kikuchi across the floor. Not only was his child a failure, Kikuchi's father shouted, he disgraced the family and Japanese race and was unfit to be his son.
To escape his father's fury, Kikuchi's mother put him in an orphanage. “I do not recall much about the place,” Kikuchi wrote because he was just seven years old at the time. Yet he remembered: “We youngsters worked in the fields in the day-time and slept in the yard under the stars, waking up mornings under blankets heavy with dew. But not long after I got there one of the children died in the solitary-confinement room of what appeared to be mistreatment and lack of food and water” (Adamic, 193). The authorities closed the orphanage because it was a front to exploit children's labor.
Kikuchi was institutionalized again in a place for orphans, delinquents, and castoffs, consisting of African Americans, American Indians, an Egyptian, and several Mexicans. From that home, he attended school, and in 1934 graduated from high school. He moved to San Francisco to work and support himself in college, but he encountered anti-Asian racism that prevented him from getting a haircut, rent a room, or secure a job. He finally found a job as a “houseboy” for a white family, and entered San Francisco State College in the fall of 1935. After graduating in 1939, Kikuchi enrolled in the social welfare program at the University of California, Berkeley, on the eve of Pearl Harbor.
In the weeks following Japan's attack, Kikuchi managed to secure a job as a researcher for the Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study (JERS) headed by University of California social demographer, Dorothy Swaine Thomas. JERS was one of the three major research projects on Japanese Americans during the war, and Kikuchi's collection of 64 nisei life histories remains one of the most important documents of the JERS project and of the wartime experience. Broadly, those thousands of pages of life histories examine how racism affected the lives of the second generation, the process of nisei identity formation, and nisei perspectives on U.S. democracy.
Thomas was impressed with Kikuchi's reports from Gila River concentration camp, and she commissioned him to record nisei life histories in Chicago in March 1943. Those Japanese Americans had left the camps for relocation in Chicago, and JERS followed them to study their reintegration into American society. The work was important as a document of the wartime Japanese American experience, but it also served to stabilize Kikuchi in his struggle over identity. As he recalled decades later, “It never occurred to me that the wartime experience and my activity with JERS were a therapeutic contribution to my process of becoming an emotionally balanced Nisei, capable to coping with occasional, overt racism and the wider social problems of American society” (Kikuchi, 180).
In addition to his life histories, Kikuchi kept a diary starting with the day Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Thomas urged him to continue that practice during his confinement at Tanforan assembly center and Gila River concentration camp. She
told him his diary would be a valuable contribution to the JERS project. Paid $12.50 a week by JERS, Kikuchi continued his diary in Chicago and the postwar period. His diary, Kikuchi explained, helped him sort out his confusion about being Japanese American and the stresses associated with that, and it was useful in evaluating his research techniques while collecting the life histories. A portion of his diary was published as The Kikuchi Diary: Chronicles from an American Concentration Camp (1973).
While at Tanforan, Kikuchi received his master's degree is social work from the University of California, which sent the diploma to him addressed to “Horse Stable #10.” Because of his degree, the camp administrators at Gila appointed Kikuchi to head its social welfare department. In organizing the department, Kikuchi's efforts to train nisei women was met with resistance from Japanese American men who resented women's advancement over men. That experience, Kikuchi noted, alerted him to patriarchy within the Japanese American community, and why nisei women, despite their achievements in education, chose to engage in social activities rather than aspire to professional careers. In addition, Kikuchi wrote, those insights led him to include more nisei women in his Chicago life histories even when men outnumbered women by more than 10 to 1.
After completing his research for JERS, Kikuchi joined the military. He married a world-renowned dancer and had two children while working as a clinical social worker for the Veterans Administration in New York City for 23 years. Upon retirement in 1973, he traveled around the world and participated in social causes for peace and justice. During an International March for Peace in the Soviet Union (Russia), Kikuchi wrote to his friend that he was asking questions of both Russians and Americans about the status of racial minorities in their countries. Walking from Odessa to Kiev, Kikuchi fell ill, returned home to the United States, and passed away on September 25, 1988.
Gary Y. Okihiro
Adamic, Louis. From Many Lands. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1939.
Kikuchi, Charles. “Through the JERS Looking Glass: A Personal View From Within.” In Views from Within: The Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study. Edited by Yuji Ichioka. Los Angeles: UCLA Asian American Studies Center, 1989.