At the time of the Columbian Exposition in 1893, there were already some persons of Japanese ancestry in Chicago, but their numbers were very small. The community began to grow noticeably after the close of the St. Louis Exposition in 1904 when many of the workers came to Chicago. By 1933, the population had grown to about 300, most of whom were restaurant workers, domestics, and small gift and art repair shop owners.
As their numbers grew, there were more and more cases of single persons, particularly among the many cooks and dishwashers, who died without relatives or funds. Concerned Japanese restaurant owners began a movement to raise funds among all Japanese in Chicago to pay for the final expenses and dignified burials of those in this situation.
In 1934, when a certain Mr. Utsu passed on, Mr. Yasunori Maruyama, Mr. Katsumori Takada, Mr. Motoko and Mr. Ikeda got together to discuss a better and more unified way of raising funds, an event which gave birth to the idea of establishing a formal organization. Mr. Charlie Yasuma Yamasaki, Mr. Shoji Osato and Mr. Maruyama were appointed to confer with the then Japanese Consul Kenji Nakauchi, about the feasibility of such a formal group. Mr. Nakauchi gave his whole-hearted encouragement to the idea.
Mr. Takada was assigned to write a prospectus and by-laws which were subsequently discussed at a preparatory community meeting in December 1934. The prospectus brought out the fact that during the past 14 or 15 years, 50 people had passed away, about 40 of whom were without family or means, and needed the assistance of others for their final expenses and burials. Graves were scattered in various cemeteries throughout the city and some could no longer be traced.
The group rallied with great concern for this situation and decided to appeal to all members of the Japanese community to become paid members of the new organization, aptly named the Japanese Mutual Aid Society of Chicago. The purpose of the society was to be three-fold:
- Purchase centrally located cemetery lots.
- Help pay for final expenses of all who died without family or funds.
- Provide necessary social services to the Japanese community in Chicago.
As a fortunate coincidence, Japanese Ambassador to the United States, Hiroshi Saito, came to Chicago at this time and heard of the new organization. He donated $50 on the spot and ignited the fuse for the successful fund raising and membership drive which followed. Mr. Saito later wrote the inscription now seen on the Mausoleum at Montrose Cemetery designating it as the Japanese Mausoleum. The Society continued to maintain close working relations with the Japanese Consulate during the ensuing years as there were no other organizations in the Japanese community which could help the people with their various problems.
The work of the organization was formally launched in January 1935 with the election of official board members and the purchase of four cemetery lots in Montrose Cemetery at a cost of $600. These lots formed the nucleus of the Japanese section of the cemetery, located in the triangular piece of land on which the Mausoleum now stands. The first board members were Charlie Y. Yamasaki, Yasunori Maruyama and Masuto Kono, and the first office for the Society was located at 816 North Clark Street. Monthly meetings of the board were held, frequently in Japanese restaurants.
Plans for the Japanese Mausoleum in Montrose Cemetery were begun in 1936. With the accumulation of $2400 in donations by May 1937, the Mausoleum was completed that year and an unveiling ceremony was held on Memorial Day 1938, the first of the annual community Memorial Day services which continue to this day.
The Mutual Aid Society became the focal point of activity in the Japanese community, performing social services of various kinds as well as arranging funeral services. The Society made visitations to the sick, arranged for and frequently paid for medical and legal aid, and even was responsible for the beginnings of a Japanese language school on the near north side. It continued its work until the outbreak of World War II when the Police Department ordered the Society to cease all activities, not to collect dues, and not to congregate in groups of any more than three persons. The Society complied with these orders. However, in 1943 members of the Society opened a hostel where many evacuees relocating in the Chicago area were able to stay until they found permanent places to live. For this project there was no objection from the Police.
The following story illustrates the kind of self sacrificing dedication with which Society members worked to help the community in its time of greatest need. At the time the decision was made to pursue the hostel project it was determined that $1,000 would be needed to bring the quarters up to livable standards. Since there was only $500 in the treasury, the determined committee and members borrowed the needed funds from members who also volunteered to clean up and paint the roach-infested rooms. This project was headed by Mr. Charlie Yamasaki, Mr. Yasunori Maruyama, Mr. Masuto Kono, Mr. Hidefumi Mukoyama and others. The rooms were rented at cost and meals were even served at a very nominal fee of around 50 cents. These meals were prepared by Mr. Togawa, the founder of Azuma Sukiyaki, who also managed the building. This hostel was located at 537 North Wells Street.
When the late Mr. Jun Toguri relocated to Chicago he was very impressed with the services being given to the evacuees by the Society and asked that this good cause be continued. In the summer of 1946 this service was no longer needed by the evacuees and the hostel was closed. The committee and members were pleased that the Society was able to assist the evacuees.
On January 28, 1946 the Mutual Aid Society held a ‘Welcome Home’ party for returning Nisei veterans at Delaware Gardens, a sukiyaki restaurant. This event sparked the reactivation of the Society. With the formal resignations of the three original board members, new officers were elected in 1946. At an official reactivation meeting in March 1947, Jisei Fukuda was elected as Board chairman.
The widening relations of the Society with other Japanese American organizations which were flourishing after the war in Chicago were demonstrated by its participation in the community-wide testimonial banquet honoring returning Nisei veterans and other leaders helpful in the relocation program held at the then Stevens Hotel (Conrad Hilton) in cooperation with 14 other groups.
Substantial activity began on April 1, 1948 after another revitalization meeting, at which time the following were elected to the Board:
Jisei Fukuda, chairman
In 1948 the Society aided in 15 funerals. By this time the membership had increased considerably due to the influx of about 20,000 Japanese Americans into Chicago after the closing of the relocation camps.
In 1949, at another general meeting, Jisei Fukuda and Ryoichi Fujii of the Chicago Shimpo emphasized the pressing need for more lots. A fund raising proposal with a goal of $3500 was passed unanimously with the stipulation that there would be only one appeal letter and no individual solicitations. The Society was greatly encouraged by the response to the single appeal letter which brought in $5,416. This unified community effort greatly impressed officials at Montrose Cemetery whose goodwill during difficult times was sincerely appreciated by the Japanese community. Three hundred fifty additional lots were purchased in Montrose Cemetery with the money.
Nineteen fifty-four was another turning point in the history of the Society. Taisuke Takashashi was elected as chairman of the Board. Prior to this administration only so-called ‘old-timers’ or original residents of Chicago were officers. Beginning in 1954 relocated persons began to take active part in the society.
In April 1956 Tokuyoshi (Corky) Kawasaki became chairman with a cabinet consisting of Kohachiro Sugimoto, Thomas Masuda, Harry Y. Tanaka and Kenzo Kunimatsu. Tanaka and Kunimatsu became executive secretary and treasurer respectively.
In April 1957 the 25th anniversary of the Society was celebrated at Olivet Institute. On this occasion, nine people who had rendered meritorious services and 96 who were 77 years of age or older were honored.
With the increase of the Japanese population in Chicago it was natural that there would be more deaths and the need for more space in the Mausoleum became urgent. In February 1958 construction began on the additional wings to the present Mausoleum at an estimated cost of $6,000. Executive Secretary Harry Y. Tanaka and Special Treasurer Teiichi Yamamoto had a fund drive which netted $5,000.
Today the Society is the oldest Japanese organization in the Chicago area. Although most of the social services first performed by the Society have been taken over by the Japanese American Service Committee, activities of the Society are not limited to the care of persons who die without relatives.
Current services include:
- Provision of favorable lots at the most economical prices to the Japanese community on a non-profit basis.
- Co-sponsorship with other organizations of the annual Memorial Day services at Montrose Cemetery.
- Communication with relatives of the deceased in Japan for final disposition of any assets or personal effects of value.
- Acting as liaison agents with governmental and other institutions for any final legal arrangements.
Grave plots have been timely purchased in anticipation of future needs. All of the work of the Japanese Mutual Aid Society of Chicago is performed as a community service without compensation by the officers and Board members of the Society.
The History Book Committee
Rev. Andrew Y. Oyama
ADDENDUM, June 1, 1988: In the above narration prepared in 1977 the historical fact of prevalent racial discrimination practices of cemeteries, until recent times, is not mentioned. This, however, was one of the principal incentives for the origin of the Society beginning in the 1920’s and formal establishment in 1934.