Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium / University of Washington

Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) History and Geography 1929-1970

by Cameron Molyneaux

see interactive map below

Launched in 1929, the Japanese American Citizens League is one the nation's oldest surviving civil rights organizations. Its founders were Nisei, young Japanese Americans born into US citizenship at a time when their parents and other Asian immigrants were banned from citizenship and deprived of the right to own property in many states. In its first decade, the JACL concentrated on demonstrating that Japanese Americans were genuine Americans while gently protesting discriminatory laws and practices that targeted Asian Americans.

Starting with 10 pioneer chapters, the organization grew steadily in the 1930s, claiming 53 units in 1940, including many in farming areas up and down the West Coast, representing 3,000 to 5,000 Nisei households. Even before the Japanese navy attacked Pearl Harbor, the JACL found itself in the impossible position of trying to defend a community under siege. When President Roosevelt ordered the relocation and internment of nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans, including citizens, the organization decided to cooperate and spent the war years attempting to demonstrate Japanese American loyalty and patriotism. Most JACL chapters collapsed as members were shipped to concentration camps, but members from the coastal units began to form ad-hoc chapters in the camps where they were imprisoned. Importantly, JACL headquarters had been relocated to Salt Lake City where the monthly newsletter The Pacific Citizen resumed publication. During this period, the JACL helped families relocate to the Midwest and East Coast as they were released from internment.

After the war, the JACL painstakingly reorganized many of its original chapters while continuing to open new chapters in other states. By 1950, the League claimed 80 units and there would be further growth in the two decades following, with membership surging past 20,000. Despite the expanding geography, California accounted for the majority of chapters through the postwar period. Notably, Hawaiian Japanese Americans remained unrepresented in the JACL until a Honolulu chapter was finally launched in 1980.

The JACL also changed its tone and tactics in the postwar era, joining with other civil rights organizations to assert rights and demand equality, using lawsuits, lobbying, and, in some cases, protest tactics. The League was instrumental in helping strike down alien land laws in various states and in securing the Walter-McCarran Act which finally allowed Asian immigrants to apply for citizenship. JACL won another landmark victory in the 1980s when it successfully lobbied the federal government to redress the crime of wartime internment, culminating in the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which officially apologized to Japanese Americans and authorized limited financial reparations. The JACL remains vitally active in the 21st century. Now a multi-generational (and also multi-ethnic/racial) organization, it fights for human rights on a broad front. The maps are hosted by Tableau Public and may take a few seconds to respond. If slow, refresh the page. 

Move between three maps and charts

Sources: The data for maps and tables have been compiled from articles in The Pacific Citizen, the JACL’s national newspaper, especially two Holiday Editions: December 23rd, 1955 and December 18th, 1970. The Pacific Citizen has not published the same kind of detailed information about chapters since 1970. Archived copies of the newspaper can be read in digital form at