Early Philadelphia Issei

Engraving of the Japanese Bazaar
in Fairmount Park, 1876.
Frank Leslie's Illustrated Register of the Centennial

Tadafumi Mikuriya, c. 1926.

Philadelphia's earliest significant contacts with the Japanese occurred in the second half of the 19th century. The first was with the Japanese Embassy to the United States in 1860 and the next was with the Iwakura mission in 1872. The greatest, long-lasting impact came in 1876 at the Centennial Exposition. The Japanese art objects and trade items, dwelling, bazaar and garden were major forces in introducing Japanese art, architecture, interior decoration, and landscape design to the United States.

The Fairmount Park location of the bazaar and garden has retained Japanese artistic associations almost continuously since the Centennial. A Japanese temple gate, previously at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, St. Louis, 1904, stood in that area from 1905 until a fire in 1955. By 1958, the Japanese Exhibition House, shown at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, had been given to Philadelphia and installed at the site, together with an appropriate garden. The house and garden remain today.

The effects of early Japanese participation on Philadelphia landscaping can also be seen today in the flowering cherry trees in Fairmount Park. To commemorate the American Sesquicentennial in 1926, Japan gave 1,600 such trees. In 1933, Japanese residents of the Philadelphia area gave 500 more for the John B. Kelly (formerly East River) Drive section of the park.

Since the last part of the 19th century, Japanese have been coming to Philadelphia, especially to study and observe. Of those who came by the turn of the century, some like Inazo Nitobe, Hideyo Noguchi, and Ume Tsuda achieved international fame as a scholar, scientist, and educator, respectively. Their contacts with Philadelphia remained, though their major permanent residences were elsewhere.

The relationships they established with Quakers, in science and medicine, or with Bryn Mawr College exemplify the important part the early immigrants had in developing attitudes and programs affecting the Japanese. Philadelphia was the exile home of Tatsui Baba (1850-1888), who was one of the founders of the Oriental Club of Philadelphia, a learned organization devoted to Oriental studies, still active today. Baba died in November 1888 and is buried in Woodlands cemetery in West Philadelphia.

After 1900, Philadelphia continued to attract students of Japanese ancestry. One who stayed and had a distinguished career was Yosuke W. Nakano (1887-1961). He was born in Yamaguchi Prefecture and emigrated in 1906. He graduated from the University of California in 1915 and received a master of architecture degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1916. He became chief engineer of Wark and Company in 1918 and remained with that firm until his death. An authority on concrete and concrete and steel structures, he played a major role in the construction of many Philadelphia buildings, including the Architects' Building, the Gulf Building, and Jefferson Hospital. Because Japanese were barred from American citizenship by a discriminatory law, Nakano's firm never made him an officer. There were demands, increasing after Pearl Harbor, that Nakano be removed from jobs his firm had undertaken or had bid on. Wark executives resisted such demands by countering that without Nakano's services, the firm would have to withdraw. In December 1953, Nakano was honored by the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce and 50 industry leaders for his exceptional contributions to his adopted country. Earlier that year, Nakano and his wife Teru were among the first Issei in the area to become United States citizens, after the passage of the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952. He was then able to obtain a fishing license and enjoy one of his favorite pastimes.

Teru Nakano, a graduate of Tsuda College in Japan before she came to the United States, was active on a Bryn Mawr scholarship committee which brought students from Tsuda college to Bryn Mawr. Because Tsuda College was founded by a former Bryn Mawr student, the two colleges long enjoyed a special relationship.

Tadafumi Mikuriya is another early Issei who became a prominent engineer in this area. Born in 1899 in Kumamoto Prefecture, he studied at Kumamoto Engineering College before coming to the United States in 1923. He enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania and received his B.S. in 1926, M.S. in 1927, and his civil engineering degree in 1935. He worked for Baldwin Locomotive Works, American Bridge Company, and Keystone Structural Steel Company, before starting his own firm, Tada Engineering Company, in 1948. His firm, located in Trenton, specialized in structural engineering. He retired in 1975.

In the years before World War II the resident Japanese included at least two doctors, two dentists, a photographer, a sculptor, some merchants, and a number in domestic service. The work of sculptor Yoshimatsu Onaga (1890-1955) can be seen in the court in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Mitsuo Saburo Hirata (1886-1971), one of the doctors, came to Philadelphia in 1917 to attend the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, but for financial reasons, he changed to Temple University, where he earned his M.D. in 1924. With the help of prominent medical leaders, he secured appropriate employment and hospital affiliations, even though he did not have the requisite medical association membership. Such membership was closed to aliens and the law prevented his becoming a citizen until late in his career. He continued to practice through World War II until his retirement in 1964. In 1957, the Japanese government cited him for his 50 years of contributing to United States-Japan friendship.

Dr. Jyuji Kitajima, a graduate of a dental school in Japan, came to the United States in 1917, obtained a D.D.S. from the University of Pennsylvania, and was in practice in South Philadelphia from the 1920's to the 1960's. He adopted the family name of his wife, the Brooklyn-born, only child of Magoyata Kitajima, who left Japan soon after the Meiji Restoration. After some years in the New York area, he came to Philadelphia. He worked for the United States Navy for 30 years and served with Admiral Dewey in the Spanish American War. The Kitajima residence in South Philadelphia was home for numerous Japanese, including many who were or had been navy employees.

City directories show that Shingo Shimamura and Tamekichi Takagi had stores selling Japanese goods by 1890 and 1897, respectively. A better-known, early shopowner was Morizo Seno, who arrived in New York in 1897 and was with the Shimamura firm in Atlantic City. He moved to Philadelphia in 1912 and until his retirement in 1963, he operated stores specializing in Japanese articles, in Germantown, then Center City, Philadelphia, and in Wildwood, New Jersey. Other early businessmen were Yosaburo Okamoto, his brother Tokizo Okamoto, and Hisaki Higuchi. The firms of Okamoto Brothers and later of Yamamoto and Okamoto sold Japanese art goods, silks, and other Oriental items at various locations in Philadelphia from about 1915 to World War II. Yosaburo Okamoto also operated game and food concessions at amusement parks in Willow Grove and elsewhere. Hisaki Higuchi sold Japanese items at several places in West Philadelphia from 1920 to 1938 and he also ran summer businesses in Wildwood from 1921 to 1966.

With the outbreak of World War II the lives of Philadelphia Issei changed. Although to a lesser degree than Japanese Americans who were uprooted from their homes on the West Coast, those on the East Coast suffered the suspicions of their fellow Americans during the war. Those who were not American citizens were subject to a curfew, experienced unannounced visits from the FBI and needed permission to travel more than five miles from home without permission, and hardest of all, had their assets frozen and were allowed only a minimal amount for subsistence. Some businessmen who had profitable gift shops selling art objects and novelties from Japan suddenly found themselves without a means of livelihood and were forced to work as bakers' helpers or domestic servants.

In 1944 Naomi Nakano, daughter of Yosuke and Teru Nakano, was president of her class and a Phi Beta Kappa honor student at the University of Pennsylvania. She was born in Pennsylvania, educated locally, and did not speak the Japanese language. Yet when she wished to do graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania she was advised by University officials not to accept a scholarship there because of her Japanese ancestry. She pursued her graduate studies at Bryn Mawr College.

The sons of the early East Coast immigrants who grew up seldom seeing other Japanese Americans volunteered for military service and found common bonds in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team with other Nisei from Hawaii and the desert camps.

Mary I. Watanabe

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