Grayce Uyehara, fought for interned Japanese-Americans

Activist Grayce Uyehara, of Medford, lobbied Congress for reparations for Japanese Americans placed in internment camps during the second World War
Activist Grayce Uyehara, of Medford, lobbied Congress for reparations for Japanese Americans placed in internment camps during the second World War (.SARAH J. GLOVER / Inquirer File photo)
Posted: June 25, 2014

Grayce Uyehara, 94, who as a retired Philadelphia-area social worker helped lead the national redress movement for Japanese Americans interned during World War II, died Sunday at Virtua Memorial hospital in Mount Holly.

Her calm, persistent presence and truth telling helped push the federal government to formally apologize and to offer a $20,000-per-person reparation. During a decadelong campaign, she insisted that the war-era imprisonment was not only a Japanese issue but an American one, threatening the rights of all.

If Japanese Americans could be summarily jailed during one war - losing their homes, jobs, and savings, she told the senators and representatives she lobbied - it could happen to anyone.

"Grayce was a pivotal figure in that struggle," said Ellen Somekawa, executive director of Asian Americans United (AAU), the Philadelphia advocacy group, whose parents and grandparents were interned.

Some elected officials or policymakers might have been more publicly visible, Somekawa said, but "Grayce was a person who worked on relationships and on getting broad involvement. She was not shy about urging people to change their minds, or act differently."

Others said the same.

"She was not a standard public figure," said Ed Nakawatase, a veteran Philadelphia activist who is president of AAU's directing board. "She didn't run for office, didn't lead marches. . . . She was a very effective person, very focused, and very much to the point in terms of pushing on how to get the [redress] legislation through."

Nakawatase, born in 1943 in a camp in Poston, Ariz., worked directly with Ms. Uyehara when he became president of the local Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) chapter in 1994. Even when they disagreed, he said, Ms. Uyehara's views always came from "a position of principle and thought."

In November, she was honored with the Standing Up for Justice Award from AAU. Ms. Uyehara, of Medford, was too ill to attend.

Her son, Paul, a Justice Department civil-rights lawyer, said his mother never boasted of her work on redress.

"She just kind of thought it was something to be done, and she did it," he said. "She was little, and feisty, and smart in everything."

Ms. Uyehara was a resident of the Medford Leas retirement community since 1988, moving there with her husband after 30 years in West Chester.

She held a master's degree in social work from the University of Pennsylvania, and joined the workforce in the 1960s, a time when it was uncommon for women to take jobs outside the home. She was among the first women to hold a national leadership position in the JACL.

Grayce Kaneda was born on the Fourth of July, 1919, in Stockton, Calif., the second of seven children of immigrant parents. Their lives, like those of other Americans, changed when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, bringing the United States into World War II.

In 1942 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, causing the removal and incarceration of people of Japanese descent. About 120,000 were confined, at least two-thirds of them American-born. None was charged with a crime.

Ms. Uyehara, then a music major at what is now the University of the Pacific in Stockton, was sent with her family to a nearby camp, then to a bigger prison in rural Rohwer, Ark. That camp eventually held nearly 9,000 Japanese Americans.

At the camp, Ms. Uyehara played the piano at church services.

When the federal War Relocation Authority altered its rules, she was able to leave Arkansas to study at Minnesota State Teachers College. After the war she came to Philadelphia, where a brother was studying at Temple University.

She married Hiroshi Uyehara, an engineer who also had been in the Rohwer camp. Together they helped organize the city chapter of the JACL.

Many internees never spoke of their experience. That began to change in the late 1960s. The JACL established a National Redress Committee in 1978, and the effort grew in 1982 when a commission appointed by President Jimmy Carter found that internment was not caused by a threat to national security but by prejudice and hysteria.

Ms. Uyehara, then retired from social-work positions in Delaware County and Lower Merion, volunteered as national director of the Legislative Education Committee, the JACL's lobbying arm.

"She was the mother of us all," redress strategist Grant Ujifusa said last year. "Philadelphia was really the epicenter of redress, and it was the epicenter because Grayce lived there."

On Aug. 10, 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed House Resolution 442, named for the decorated 442d Regimental Combat Team, composed of Japanese Americans. The act provided money for 60,000 survivors and required that the history of internment be told through monuments, museum collections and in classrooms.

Ms. Uyehara solicited people to donate their internment payments to be used to tell the story of the times and of their own experiences in the camps.

In addition to her husband and son, she is survived by sons Christopher and Laurence; daughter Lisa; a brother; a sister; five grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; and nieces and nephews.

Funeral arrangements were pending Monday.


jgammage@phillynews.com

215-854-4906 @JeffGammage

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