Ellis Community Center

Children in front of the Ellis Community Center, 4436 S. Ellis Ave. 

In 1965, Japan’s Prince Mikasa, the younger brother of Emperor Hirohito, toured the United States along with his wife and eldest daughter. At the University of Chicago, Japanese faculty, students and alumni were eager for a visit from the royal family, but had a slight dilemma: The nature of Mikasa’s trip meant that he couldn’t come to the school on official business, since that would have obligated him to do the same for every other nearby university. 

The U. of C. hit on an ingenious solution — since the prince was a scholar of archaeology and Middle Eastern languages, he was invited to drop in at the Oriental Institute for an informal tour. After he left, the U. of C.’s archives show, the school wrote him a letter inviting him to teach courses on the subject, though he never appears to have taken up the offer. 

The above is just one of many stories on display at “Nikkei South Side,” an exhibition showing through Jan. 28 at the U. of C.’s Regenstein Library. Curated by Japanese Studies librarian Ayako Yoshimura, it explores the history of Japanese and Japanese Americans in Hyde Park–Kenwood from the late 19th century to the present day, mapping out the connections through the World’s Fair, internment and the families that still remain in the area. 

Yoshimura first conceived of the exhibit in 2018, after hearing from a Japanese journalist looking for more information on Heita Okabe, who studied sports management at the U. of C. beginning in 1917. When she dug into the school’s archives, Yoshimura discovered a trove of letters between Okabe and Amos Alonzo Stagg, the famous football coach. 

“I’d never heard of him before, I never even knew he existed,” she said. “Because I’m a librarian, I purchased books that Okabe had written and I got everything — except for one book we couldn’t find on the used market — and added it to the collection.” 

Around the same time, Yoshimura spoke with a woman who had donated her mother’s kimonos to the Japanese Cultural Center in Lake View, and who mentioned that she used to live in Hyde Park, while her friend had owned a gift shop on 53rd Street. 

“At the time, I was living on 53rd Street, and I thought, I’ve never seen an Asian gift shop on 53rd,” she said. “And then she was telling me there used to be many Japanese Americans in the area, but the buildings are gone, the people are gone, and I was like, ‘What? I don’t know anything about this, and I live here and work here.’”

Much of the early Japanese presence in Hyde Park comes from government-sponsored students like Okabe, who were sent over to the United States and other Western countries after the Meiji Restoration, a period of reform marked by greater economic and cultural exchange between Japan and the rest of the world. 

The students stopped coming at some point, but the Garden of the Phoenix in Jackson Park — another legacy of the late 19th century — endures. It was originally built as a temple with a small garden attached for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in the park. In the early 1930s, the Chicago Park District restored the deteriorated temple and expanded the garden in time for the Century of Progress in 1933. 

The city also added a tea house, owned and managed by Shōji Osato, a photographer and early Japanese resident in Chicago. (His daughter was the ballet dancer and Broadway performer Sono Osato.) During World War II, Osato was interned; the pavilion caught fire twice in 1946 and the Japanese Garden fell into disuse. 

The period during and after internment saw a flood of Japanese Americans resettle in Chicago — from a couple of hundred to more than 20,000 by 1947. (Some of them, Yoshimura noted, were also war brides who had married American GIs in Japan.) A significant number of them ended up in the North Kenwood/Oakland area, one of the areas in the middle of a long transition from majority-white to majority-Black: The 1950 census reported 3,021 Japanese residents across the two neighborhoods. 

“Some of the former residents told me that they did meet discrimination. The apartment buildings would say, ‘Oh no, we just got filled, so we can’t let you (in),’” said Yoshimura. “Eventually people either purchased a house together, like three households would buy a house together, or Japanese Americans did manage to buy apartment buildings and then Japanese American families can rent.” 

Perusing old neighborhood newsletters and reports from the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference also gave Yoshimura the opportunity to reflect on the way that Japanese Americans often didn’t fit very neatly into the racial dynamics of the time. 

“I saw statistics, and it said white or non-white — it doesn’t matter what kind of white or non-white you are. There’s only one category,” she said. “I thought it was very interesting to see that, that statistically it doesn’t matter …. Whenever I read some article it’s all about how it’s white or non-white and how Asians were forgotten, because it’s white or Black and Asians and yellow and brown people are in the middle and forgotten.” 

Perhaps in part due to this sort of elision, Yoshimura’s excursions into the archives had to be comprehensive — Japanese American materials usually weren’t tagged as such. She found herself, for instance, digging through the entire Hyde Park Historical Society archives from the forties and fifties. (“It was very good, because that’s what I wanted to do,” she said.) 

Once settled, the Japanese American community built its own institutions, perhaps most notably the Buddhist Temple of Chicago, which Gyomay Kubose founded as the first Buddhist church in Chicago. (A 1954 edition of the Herald lists it at 5487 S. Dorchester Ave., with church school at 10 a.m. and morning worship at 11:15 a.m.) The Ellis Community Center, located at 4436 S. Ellis Avenue, meanwhile, served as a kind of catch-all gathering place — Japanese American residents played bridge, hosted cooking classes and organized Cub Scout troops. 

Japanese Americans began to leave the area during urban renewal in the 1950s — Yoshimura said one dividing line between those who stayed and went was religion. 

“Buddhist churches moved to the North Side, so the people who relied on those churches, they also moved,” said Yoshimura. “One (person) told me that the people who stayed are people who didn’t need that kind of community, that sense of community of Japanese Americans, because they were not necessarily former internees or they had a different religion.” 

Even as the bulk of Japanese Americans moved out of the neighborhood, some remnants of their legacy in Hyde Park and Kenwood remain. The most prominent is the Japanese Garden, which was restored in the 1970s and renamed the Osaka Garden. (Chicago and Osaka are sister cities.) Also known as the Garden of the Phoenix, it remains one of the neighborhood’s most popular tourist destinations. 

But Yoshimura also found a few subtler traces. One is in a mural at the Metra embankment at 56th Street and South Lake Park Avenue painted in the early '90s. The artist, Olivia Gude, stood outside the train station and asked pedestrians where they were coming from and going. Among the interview subjects was a Japanese American woman walking her dog — she had moved to the area alongside her brother, who served in the Army. 

The second is a pair of lion head statues at the front gate of a house on the 5500 block of South Blackstone Avenue, carved by a Japanese American man in the 1950s. “It’s the kind of lions you see in the Art Institute,” said Yoshimura. “And you would never think, you’d never think a Japanese American man made that.” 

Nikkei South Side: Japanese and Japanese Americans in Hyde Park and its Vicinity” is on display until Jan. 28 at the Regenstein Library, Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center, 1100 E. 57th St.


Christian Belanger graduated from the University of Chicago in 2017. He has previously written for South Side Weekly, Chicago magazine and the Chicago Reader.

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