Grayce Uyehara was a social worker and pivotal Redress Movement activist who helped lead the reparations campaign for the wrongful incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. Uyehara was born Ritsuko Kaneda on July 4th, 1919, in Stockton, California. Her parents named her Ritsu, which roughly translates to notions of law and independence, informed by their understanding of the significance of Independence Day. Her father, Tsuyanoshi Kaneda, worked in agriculture and business and performed domestic tasks. Through this, he developed a reliable business working for lawyers, doctors, and school administrators. Her mother, Tome Kaneda, raised their children. Her mother was strict but also encouraged her children to excel at whatever they did. She enrolled them in Japanese and music classes and expected them to help out at church and in the community. Uyehara was the second of seven children, and as the eldest daughter was expected to be a role model for her younger siblings.
In high school, Uyehara belonged to a Japanese student club, excelled in her schoolwork, and was part of the marching band, playing the bassoon. She also played piano for Sunday school at church, which had both English and Japanese services. She became involved in the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), participating in its oratorical contests. Because of her community service, the elders and her peers in the Japanese American community respected Uyehara.
Uyehara majored in music at the University of the Pacific. She believed music would allow her to start a career as a local Japanese American piano teacher and church organist. She worked many jobs to pay for tuition while her parents helped cover her costs. While in college, she became involved in the Japanese American Young People's Christian Conference (YPCC) in Northern California. Uyehara continued to be recognized for her leadership and competence by becoming the chairperson of the Sacramento YPCC as a college senior.
In January 1942, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Uyehara was asked by the university president to become an instructor to teach Japanese to young men in military service at the local army base. Citing her patriotic duty, she accepted the position. She was able to finish school before being incarcerated, partly because her mother pushed her to do well and to stay in school. When the Uyehara family prepared to leave their home in April, one of her professors offered to hold their household belongings. Although she satisfied her graduation requirements, she received her degree in absentia. Two of her siblings were also in college when their academic careers were interrupted. She was very upset that her parents did not get to see her graduate because they had sacrificed so much.
The Kaneda family was forcibly relocated to the Stockton Temporary Detention Center in May 1942. At the Stockton Center, she put her service skills to work and assisted other Nisei inmates in organizing a makeshift school for Japanese American youth. Located on the site of the county fairgrounds, the school was forced to hold classes in the grandstands. Through one of her father's contacts, she was able to secure a donation of books, and she became the supervisor in charge of elementary education. Some of the young soldiers that she taught at the base also came to visit her. She spent four months there, and in September of 1942, her family was notified that they would be forcibly moved to Rohwer, Arkansas. While her family traveled ahead, she stayed behind to help close the Stockton Temporary Detention Center.
At Rohwer, Uyehara remained active and continued to hone her leadership and organizational skills. She helped create church services for young people, played the piano at various events, and taught music in junior high-level classes. During this time, she realized that her previous career path as a piano teacher was not realistic. She discovered that the Minnesota State Teachers College was offering scholarships to eligible camp inmates and decided to pursue the opportunity. She left the camp in January 1943 with three other young Nisei. She lived at a boarding house with another Nisei student from the Tule Lake incarceration camp. She had an active social life but found the classes to be unchallenging. During the summer in St. Paul, she stayed with a woman who was active with the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, a liberal group who spoke out against war. Unsure of what to do next, she then returned to Rohwer where she worked at the camp hospital, continually checking for jobs. She found a job listing in Virginia where one of her younger sisters was attending school, and she left Rohwer for the last time. In Virginia, she worked as an editorial secretary. She was grateful that it was not a service job, which was the norm for young Japanese American women. Uyehara's brother, Ben, was attending Temple University in Philadelphia during this time. He assured her that the Quakers would help the Kaneda family with moving from the camp. Convinced, she packed up again and moved further north.
In Philadelphia, Uyehara found an apartment in the Fellowship House, an organization providing workshops on race relations in the city. She began working for Family Services, a social service agency in the Germantown area of Philadelphia as a receptionist and typist, but she also conducted intake interviews with the clients of the agency. She further continued her role as a community leader by becoming involved with the International Institute which assisted immigrants settling in Philadelphia, and became concerned with the needs of the Japanese American population moving in. Working closely with the Institute, she helped form the Philadelphia Nisei Council, which coordinated with the War Relocation Authority. She was the Nikkei representative of the Philadelphia Committee of Social Service Agencies whose role was to assist with relocation problems. Uyehara developed a handbook that detailed practical issues such as the cost of living in the city, how to rent an apartment, and where to find jobs. The Council began a newsletter, so the community could be aware of new people moving in to the area and of community events. She also started youth groups to provide activities and social interaction for high school and college-age youth coming out of the camp experience.
In Philadelphia, Uyehara became re-acquainted with Hiroshi Uyehara, whose mother knew Grayce's mother. They briefly met in Rohwer. He worked at a nearby Westinghouse factory as a draftsman. He had to receive an Army and Navy clearance, and during the wait went on strike. He became a volunteer at the International Institute where they reconnected. They married in 1946. Later, she and her husband were among those who formed the Philadelphia Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) to influence more people on social issues affecting Japanese Americans in a national context. Afterwards, the director of the International Institute arranged for the board to pay her graduate school tuition at the University of Pennsylvania while she worked as a social worker for the agency. She graduated in 1947 with a Masters in Social Work. Within two years of working in the community, she was asked to serve on the Philadelphia Fellowship Commission. She used this opportunity to highlight the perspectives of Japanese Americans.
The Uyehara's first son, Chris, was born in May of 1948. In 1950, they had a second child, Lisa. The International Institute asked her to return as a volunteer, and she started a program to help American servicemen and Japanese brides returning from Japan to adjust to a new life. She worked directly with Japanese women in teaching American customs, including etiquette and cooking lessons. She also provided individual counseling. She was very active with the local Parent Teacher Association (PTA) and became president, creating parent education programs and raising funds for the local school library. Uyehara was also very active in the National Association of Social Workers, the Cub Scouts, the local Presbyterian church, the West Chester Human Relationships Council, and the League of Women Voters. Later, she had two more children, Larry, in 1952, and Paul, in 1955. During this time, she was asked to help in establishing the first day care center for working mothers in West Chester. Despite the low pay, she was instrumental in establishing the center. In addition, she got involved in civil rights issues for African Americans, especially for school desegregation and upgrading placement rates for African American students.
In 1972, Uyehara served as the governor for the Eastern District Council of the JACL. She was on the National Board, and was the vice-president for General Operations, Chapter President, the National Civil Rights Committee, and the National Scholarship Committee. In 1974, Uyehara was the first woman to hold a JACL elected office. From 1973 to 1974, she was on the National Education Committee. She used her organizational skills to rearrange some existing educational programs so that the history of Japanese Americans could become more well known throughout the country. She also prioritized projects within the committee to make the programs more attractive to potential funders. Her ability to effectively organize with the JACL was influenced by the lessons learned in reading Years of Infamy by Michi Weglyn, and in the organizing lessons within African American communities after Brown v. Board of Education was passed.
In 1978, Uyehara was present at the 1978 Salt Lake City Convention when JACL decided to pursue redress, and was asked to be on the National Committee for Redress. Using her experience in improving school districts for African Americans, she worked hard to generate educational materials, bombard congressional offices and speak at various events and community organizations. She was also effective in gaining support from the Presbyterian Church and Jewish organizations. By 1985 she devised a plan to reach people on the East Coast, since there weren't many JACL chapters in major cities there. She retired from her job as a school social worker in order to help the JACL achieve redress. In the spring, she transferred to the Legislative Education Committee (LEC). Her philosophy was "If you're going to do it, you do it right. You just don't talk about it".
Uyehara did a lot of traveling between Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Her husband was very supportive during this time. The leadership in Washington consisted of JACL officials and four Nikkei congressmen, who recognized Uyehara's work in coalition building and developing political relationships. Whenever a new member of Congress signed on to the Civil Liberties Act, she would send out a press statement, and any significant chapter events would be announced through her "Action Alerts." She also led congressional meetings with people like Senator Inouye, Ralph Neas, and Mike Masaoka because she was very familiar with the legislative process.
Uyehara sent information "vernaculars" to newspapers and newsletter organizations in New York and Los Angeles as well as the Pacific Citizen, so that people could see progress taking place within the redress effort. She urged people to initiate contacts in states like Florida and North Carolina to ensure votes were not lost. If an area had lower numbers of Japanese American constituents, she would ask different contacts to support the redress effort and lobby congress to vote for it. She also used her existing relationships with the American Friends Service Committee, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Jewish war veterans, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) of B'nai B'irth and the American Jewish Committee. Greatly aided by her efforts, the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 was passed. It issued a formal apology from the government and $20,000 to each surviving incarceree. This act also required monuments, museums, and classrooms to teach the history of Japanese American incarceration so similar discrimination would never happen again to others.
After redress was passed, Uyehara was still actively involved in community organizing. She chaired the JACL Legacy Fund campaign, which raised over $5 million to support other JACL programs. She engaged with the Japanese House and Garden in Philadelphia's Fairmount Park, speaking at educational engagements about redress and organizing efforts for residents in her retirement community through the Diversity Committee and the Mental Health Committee. She was a passionate advocate for Japanese Canadian redress. She also helped coordinate the Philadelphia area fundraising effort for the National Japanese American Memorial Foundation. In addition, she enjoyed spending more time with family, gardening, and playing the piano.
In 2014, Uyehara was honored by Asian Americans United with its Standing Up for Justice Award. Uyehara passed away on June 22, 2014, at Virtual Memorial Hospital in Mount Holly, New Jersey. Japanese Americans remember Uyehara for her effectiveness and dedication as an activist, community leader, and the mother of Redress. Her experiences of being discriminated against and having to work to support the family at a young age sensitized her to the plight of working women and the economically disadvantaged. This greatly informed her service not only for Japanese Americans, but for all communities in America.
Susan Nakaoka. "Nisei Political Activists: The Stories of Five Japanese American Women Master of Arts., (University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), 1999) found in Grayce Uyehara Papers, Box 1, Folder N, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.
Gammage, Jeff. "Grayce Uyehara, fought for interned Japanese-Americans." The Philadelphia Inquirer, https://www.inquirer.com/philly/obituaries/20140624_Grayce_Uyehara fought_for_interned_Japanese-Americans.html June 23, 2014. Last Accessed March 18, 2019.