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Suma Sugi Yokotake – The Woman Who Became The First Japanese American Lobbyist - Part 1

One of the greatest accomplishments of the Japanese American Citizens League has been its success in lobbying Congress to enact legislation to support Japanese Americans and other Asian American groups. Long before the Redress movement of the 1980s, the JACL recognized the importance of Congressional action as a means of both raising awareness regarding issues affecting Japanese Americans and challenging unjust laws that discriminated against them and other Asian immigrant groups. Although the most famous of the JACL’s lobbyist was Mike Masaoka, several other lobbyists who preceded him, including Toki Slocum and Toro Kanazawa. They established a model for the organization’s lobbying tactics for the rest of the century. 

Suma Sugi, UCLA Yearbook, 1928.

The very first JACL lobbyist was Suma Sugi. Although largely forgotten to history, Suma Sugi played an important role in the early days of the JACL. (One of the neglected but fascinating aspects of the JACL, an organization historically dominated by men, is that many young, talented women played central roles in its history). Sugi became the first lobbyist for the organization in 1931, when she traveled to Washington on behalf of the JACL’s Los Angeles chapter to push for an amendment of the Cable Act, a law that annulled the citizenship of American women who married foreigners. What followed were several campaigns to amend and eventually repeal the Cable Act, thereby saving Nisei women from losing their citizenship upon marriage.

In addition to her successful lobbying campaign, Sugi emerged as a leading voice for Nisei women who, tired of facing racial and gender discrimination, fought for an end to the restrictions facing them in the job market. In Sugi’s case, she became the first Nisei to work for the Los Angeles Board of Education despite being unable to work as a teacher in the Los Angeles school system.

Suma Sugi was born on March 20, 1906 in San Jose, California, the first child of Sadajiro and Haru Sugi, new immigrants from Japan. The family moved to Los Angeles when Suma was a child, and opened a store near Little Tokyo. In 1920, Sugi enrolled in Lincoln High School, where she was one of the few Japanese American students. Even at a young age, Sugi excelled as a writer; in December 1922, at age 14, she submitted an advertisement for handkerchiefs that was printed in the Los Angeles Evening Express.

Upon graduation in 1924. She enrolled in UCLA, where she majored in Commerce. As a graduation gift, Sugi’s parents paid for her to take a three-month trip to Japan. When she returned, she participated in a series of speaking engagements on Japan. In March 1929, the Daughters of the American Revolution’s Riverside chapter invited Sugi to give a speech about her trip to Japan and her views of the country. The Riverside Daily Press described her as “familiar” with Japanese customs and noted her interest in teaching English in Japan.

Over the next months, Sugi searched for work as a teacher. She found that no school districts wanted to hire due to her race. Eventually she became a clerk for the Terminal Island School district, often working with grammar school children. She meanwhile became active in Los Angeles politics. In 1934, Sugi was appointed by the City of Los Angeles to serve on the election board for Precinct 1491.

The Rafu Shimpo, January 1, 1930.

During the 1930s, Sugi remained an outspoken supporter for the Americanization of the Nisei.  In 1930, she told the Rafu Shimpo that the immigrant parents of Nisei should stop “meddling” in the education of their children by enforcing old norms. Rather, Sugi argued that the opportunities offered to the Nisei are being stifled by the traditions enforced by overbearing parents:

“Now, men and women of the Second-Generation Japanese high school students, high school graduates, or college students or college graduates, should have friends among both sexes. When American-born and American-educated, the American-born Japanese knows the best the American ways of doing things. Schools have provided equal opportunities regardless of sex, and boys and girls have studied and learned together.”

Ironically, Sugi’s often lectured on Japanese culture to young students. Often presented as good will talks to listeners, Miss Sugi hoped to educate the public about Japan based on observations from her previous trip. In March 1930, she gave several lectures about Japanese culture to grammar school students at the Hollywood and Sawtelle Friendship Libraries.

Sugi’s interest in the issues facing second-generation Japanese Americans led her to work with Stanford University psychologist Edward Strong, a specialist in career psychology. After receiving a $40,000 grant from the Carnegie Foundation in 1930, Strong decided to study the problems facing young Japanese Americans in the job market. Strong hired Sugi to work surveying the vocational issues facing Nisei living in Southern California.

Sugi worked on a team of researchers alongside Henry Shimanouchi of Occidental College, Hobart Young of Stanford, and Edward Field, a former Stanford student. Other members of the project included attorney Saburo Kido, the future leader of the JACL, and Yamato Ichihashi, a Stanford history professor and one of the first Japanese American academics.  The group’s results were eventually published in Strong’s 1934 book The Second Generation Japanese Problem.

At some point, Sugi became active in forming a Los Angeles chapter of the new Japanese American Citizens League. In 1930, Sugi travelled to Seattle along with Charles Kamayatsu, to represent the Los Angeles chapter at the group’s first national convention. There the delegates adopted two resolutions to present to Congress. The first called for a bill to revise the Cable Act to extend to “American women citizens of oriental ancestry” who had married noncitizen Issei. The second resolution called for Congress to pass legislation that would correct “the injustice done to the Japanese residents of American who fought in the army and navy of the United States under the inducement of citizenship, which later was denied them.”

Since the newly-formed JACL lacked a unified structure, individual chapters organized their own initiatives. In the case of the Cable Act campaign, the Los Angeles chapter took up the cause. The Los Angeles chapter’s president, Clarence Yamagata, decided that Sugi should lead the lobbying efforts. As a Nisei woman, she could speak most authoritatively on the issues facing Nisei women.

On February 24, 1931, the Los Angeles JACL sent Sugi to be its representative in Washington D.C. for promoting the interests of the Japanese American community during the Cable Act hearings. The LA chapter raised $300 from its membership to pay her—an impressive sum at the depths of the Great Depression—and also garnered support from the Chinese American Alliance League. The meeting with Cable was productive, and further induced his support for the bill.

Upon arriving in Washington, Sugi began to make the rounds among of introductions with various members of Congress, including Representatives John Cable, Joe Crail of Los Angeles, and Florence Kahn of San Francisco. Sugi was an effective lobbyist who made several connections with members of Congress to show that the Cable Act produced more harm than good.

Upon witnessing Cable conferring with Senators Royal Copeland, the sponsor of the corresponding Senate legislation, and Hiram Johnson, she watched with anticipation as the bill passed the Senate. The next day, March 3, Congressman Cable informed Sugi that President Herbert Hoover had signed the new bill, and congratulated Sugi with the successful passage of her amendment.

The Rafu Shimpo, April 27, 1931.

She then ran to the telegraph office to wire the Los Angeles JACL of the good news, reminding them that the bill’s signing coincided with the Japanese holiday Hina Matsuri, or Girls’ Day. The bill saved many Nisei women who, because of their marriage to Issei men who were ineligible to naturalize due to immigration laws, would lose their citizenship. In her trip report for the Rafu Shimpo, Sugi explained to readers the usefulness of working with Congress:

“If approached properly, people are seldom relentless. To Congressmen Crail and Cable, I explained how the existing Act affected me, for instance. They immediately saw the injustice of the Act of 1922. After they realized what should be done, they knew how to do it.”

Even after her initial victory Sugi’s work on the Cable Act did not end in 1931. In 1935, Sugi joined with the League of Women Voters to repeal the Cable Act altogether. On June 25, 1936, the Cable Act was formally repealed. While the repeal did not altogether end the policy of American women losing their citizenship upon marrying noncitizens, it simplified the process by allowing women to regain their citizenship by simply taking a loyalty oath.

To be continued ... >>


© 2024 Jonathan van Harmelen

About the Author

Jonathan van Harmelen is currently a Ph.D student in history at UC Santa Cruz specializing in the history of Japanese-American incarceration. He holds a BA in history and French from Pomona College and an MA from Georgetown University. He can be reached at

Updated February 2020

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