In 1928, the Nisei (second generation) in San Francisco, in the midst of racial turmoil directed towards people of Japanese American ancestry, formed the New American Citizens League and encouraged others to form similar organizations.  In Watsonville, the leaders of the Japan Society (Issei who were immigrants) suggested that the younger Nisei form the Watsonville Citizens League.  The first officers in 1934 were Tom Matsuda, President; Bill Shirachi, Treasurer; and Sam Hada, Secretary.  The organization became a member of the National Japanese American Citizens League, which had been organized in 1929.  During the first seven years of its existence, the organization was primarily a social club. It also participated in patriotic events by entering in the Fourth of July parade with colorful floral floats.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and the subsequent declaration of war between the United States and Japan, all persons of Japanese ancestry were evacuated from the West Coast to the country’s interior in accordance with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, issued on February 19, 1942.  The first group of the Watsonville Nikkei community (Japanese and Japanese Americans) were interned at the Salinas Rodeo Grounds on April 27, 1942.  In all, 1,301 Nikkei members of Santa Cruz County were removed, 71% were American citizens.  In early July the Salinas “Assembly Center” was closed and most of the internees were transferred to the Poston “concentration camp” in Arizona.

During the war years, the JACL organization was inactive and relied heavily on the National JACL’s leadership.

Upon returning to the Watsonville area in the spring of 1947, a committee consisting of Kow Wada, James Izumizaki, Charlie Shikuma, Walter Hashimoto, Frank Uyeda, Harry Mayeda, Min Hamada, Hardy Tsuda, George Ura and Shig Hirano issued an invitation to Watsonville’s Nisei to form a “non-religious citizens organization” which would be a Nisei group to “carry on community services.” The Issei organization, the Japan Society, deeded over the property on Union Street to the Watsonville Citizens League (WCL) in April of 1948.In June of 1948, the group formally re-organized the Watsonville Citizens League with William Fukuba as president. The first major decision was a symbolic one — to carry on a tradition begun by the Watsonville Japan Society of entering a decorated car in the Fourth of July parade.

The WCL provided information about the Nikkei community to the general public, assisted Nikkei in filing evacuation claims for losses sustained during the war, provided Blue Cross heath insurance for its members, re-registered its members so they could vote in the 1948 elections, and supported legislation granting naturalization rights to Issei.

In November of 1949 the organization became the Watsonville Japanese American Citizens League (although legally it remained WCL until 1964).  During the 1950’s and 1960’s the JACL was occupied with health insurance plans, citizenship classes for the Issei, and a JACL Issei History Project.  Keiro kai dinners were sponsored to honor the Issei and older Nisei residents for their contributions to the Pajaro Valley.  Membership of the organization included residents of Santa Cruz County, the northern portion of Monterey County and Aromas, a small portion of this community lies in San Benito County.

In 1971 the JACL began to look for a suitable place for Issei and older Nisei to meet and gather socially.  The Hayashi Building at 27 First Street in Watsonville was opened as the first JACL Senior Center in July of 1971 with Mr. Tokushige Kizuka as its first chairman.

When the Assembly of God Church at 150 Blackburn Street in Watsonville was made available in 1977, the JACL sold the property on Union Street and conducted a fund-raising campaign.  The purchase price was set at $55,000. However, the Nikkei community donated over $71,000.  This was remarkable for, only a few years before, the Nikkei community was struggling to recover from their wartime losses.  The building’s official name is the “JACL Tokushige Kizuka Hall.”

Programs of the JACL included contributing to the Watsonville Community Hospital, restoration of the downtown plaza bandstand, conducting health clinic fairs, scholarship programs for high school seniors, and securing redress for the internment.  It has been honored as the Organization of the Year by the Watsonville Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture.  (This is remarkable since in 1945 only one in five in the Pajaro Valley wished for the return of the Nikkei after the war.)

With the cooperation of Watsonville High School staff and Class of 1992, 13 Nisei graduates of the Class of 1942 received their official diplomas with a cap and gown ceremony.  It was held on June 12, 1992 at 2 pm, exactly 50 years later.  The JACL Tokushige Hall facilities are used by Watsonville Taiko, Watsonville Bonsai Club, Kokoro no Gakko (a Japanese Cultural Summer School program), Kawakami Sister City Committee, and the JACL Senior Center.

Today, the Senior Center members meet on Thursday afternoons for a social gathering.  They conduct a full range of interesting programs for their members all year long.

In 2002, the chapter changed its name to “Watsonville-Santa Cruz JACL” in order to better reflect its membership roster.  The chapter draws from all of Santa Cruz County and the northernmost portion of Monterey County (the Pajaro Valley).  The chapter’s varied programs include Senior Center, membership, funeral koden, scholarships, Blue Cross Insurance, long term health care, disaster relief, youth activities, civil rights issues, Day of Remembrance programs, cultural activities, and veterans issues.  The main activities include an Installation/Keiro Kai dinner in January, Day of Remembrance observance in February, Spirit of Watsonville parade on the Fourth of July, and an annual community picnic in August.

On April 27, 2002 (the 60th anniversary of Exclusion order 16), the chapter performed “Liberty Lost…Lessons in Loyalty”—a re-enactment of the unjust evacuation of all persons of Japanese ancestry from Santa Cruz County.  The event called attention to the hardships experienced by the internees in the assembly centers and “relocation centers”,” to the heroics of those who served in the 100th/442nd Regimental Combat Team and the Military Intelligence Service, and to the wonderful, loyalty of those Chinese and Caucasian Americans who supported the Japanese and Japanese Americans during the internment and re-settlement periods.  The event was made possible by the support and cooperation of the entire community of Watsonville, for which we are extremely grateful.

The chapter has also worked closely and in concert with other civil rights and community organizations against racial bigotry and discrimination, hate crimes and social injustice.

Those who are interested in the “Japanese American Experience: The Internment” may contact Mas Hashimoto at hashi79@sbcglobal.net or (831) 722-6859.

As an educational civil rights organization it has a speaker’s bureau for local public and private schools and organizations on the Japanese American experience.  The chapter has a lending library of books, videos, CDs, posters, etc. on the Japanese American experience.

To learn more about our history, please click onto: A Half-Century of Service The Watsonville Japanese-American Citizens League, 1934-1984 An article by Sandy Lydon