George Katsumi Yuzawa (1915-2011) was born on February 21, 1915, in Los Angeles, California. A Nisei (second-generation Japanese American), George’s Issei (immigrant) parents named their son after the first president of their adopted country, George Washington, whose birthday was a day later on February 22nd. His parents, Tamasaburo “James” and Bun “Mary” Yuzawa, emigrated to the United States from Nagano, Japan. In 1917, James Yuzawa established the Vermont Flower Shop located in downtown Los Angeles and near the campus of the University of Southern California. He served a term as president of the Southern California Floral Association.
As a young man, George was a founding member of Boy Scout Troop 64 in Los Angeles and achieved the rank of Life Scout. In 1932, he and other young Nisei helped Mas Satow, of the YMCA, establish the Japanese Athletic Union (JAU) to coordinate Nisei high school baseball, basketball, football, and track competitions in southern California. Yuzawa served as president of the JAU from 1935-1938. (There was a parallel organizing body for northern California. That organization became known as the Nisei Athletic Union during the 1950s and still exists today.) George graduated from Manual Arts High School in 1933 and attended Los Angeles City College where he earned an associate’s degree in Business. Discrimination against persons of Japanese ancestry limited job opportunities, even for educated Nisei. The prevailing employment climate led George to work with his father.
In 1940, George married Kimiko Hattori (1917-2011). She was the 23-year-old Nisei daughter of Tora and Seikichi “Walter” Hattori. Walter was the proprietor of Nippon Produce Market in Los Angeles. He was also an official in a local southern California produce union.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. The law required all Japanese and Japanese-Americans on the west coast to relocate to internment camps under the direction of the Wartime Civilian Control Agency (WCCA). The Yuzawa and Hattori families were forced to evacuate their homes, abandon their prosperous businesses, leave their many non-Asian friends and acquaintances, and dispose of whatever property they could not carry with them. They were among the 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry who were sent to ten relocation centers in the western and south central United States.
The Yuzawas and Hattoris lived for several months with approximately 20,000 other Japanese Americans at the Santa Anita racetrack in temporary barracks and converted stables. George served as the assistant director of men’s athletics at Santa Anita. In September 1942, they were transported under armed guard to the Amache Internment Camp in the desolate southeastern region of Colorado, near the small town of Granada. Amache housed over 7,000 persons of Japanese ancestry, the majority of whom were American citizens or longtime permanent U.S. residents who were ineligible for citizenship under American immigration laws. Barbed wire fences surrounded the internment center and armed U.S. Army soldiers monitored the internees from guard towers. At Amache, George’s father served as a block manager and George worked as the purchasing officer for the camp school system.
George’s younger sister, Chieko “Patricia,” 19 years old at the time of the evacuation, was not permitted to join her family at Santa Anita or Amache for health reasons. Shortly before the evacuation, Chieko contracted tuberculosis. The U.S. government moved her to Hillcrest Sanitarium located in the mountains of northwest Los Angeles. She died there in 1942, never having seen her parents again. During her stay, George was given permission to leave the camp (with an army escort) only once to visit her. The second and final time he went was to claim her body.
Internees were allowed to leave the camps if they had someone to sponsor them. In September 1943, the Wartime Relocation Authority (WRA) released George from Amache because he had the promise of employment from the Annenberg and Erickson Florist Shop in New York City. Once in New York, he arranged for his wife and their parents to join him. In 1944, shortly after the family was reunited, George volunteered for the U.S. Army. He did this despite the fact that he was 29 years old, no longer subject to the military draft, and not required to serve. He completed his basic training at Fort McClellan in Alabama and was then attached to an Army Intelligence unit. George was stationed in Tokyo as part of the American Occupation of Japan where he served as a special officer for entertainment for enlisted U.S. military servicemen. He received an honorable discharge in 1946 and returned to New York City.
George attended City College of New York from 1946 to 1947 on the G.I. Bill, earning a certificate in foreign trade. After forming and operating a modest import-export business named HATCO Trading Company, Inc., George put aside his career ambitions in commercial trading to assist in his father’s floral business. Named Park Central Florist for its proximity to Central Park, the shop, located at 532 Columbus Avenue, became very successful. Loyal clientele included actors, musicians, and Japanese businesses and corporations.
George’s father retired in the late 1950s due to ill health. George continued operating the shop, working long hours, seven days a week, until his own retirement in 1982.
Despite his intense work schedule, George made the time to volunteer for social, religious, political, and other charitable work. He even maintained a separate telephone line for these non-florist-related pursuits. A devout Methodist, Yuzawa negotiated the sale of the Japanese Methodist-Episcopal Church building at 323 West 108th Street following the church’s merger with two other congregations. In 1969 and 1970, he helped design the interior of the then-new Japanese American United Church building at 255 Seventh Avenue in Manhattan. He also provided leadership as a longtime chair and member of the church’s board of directors.
George became actively involved in social and political causes. In the early 1970s, he worked with other Nisei and Sansei (third-generation Japanese American) civil rights activists to combat racial discrimination against Asians. These activists included future academic historian and author Mitziko Sawada, Kazu Iijima and Min Matsuda, the founders of Asian Americans for Action, human rights activist Yuri (“Mary”) Kochiyama, future AIDS advocate Suki Terada Ports, Princeton University theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, and Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, the individual who later discovered “the smoking gun” that demonstrated the Roosevelt Administration knew, back in 1942, that there was no military necessity for the Japanese American evacuation and internment.
This same core group of Nisei activists banded together to confront Paris clothing designer, Kenzo Takada, a Japanese national. Kenzo owned several worldwide boutiques, named “Société Jungle Jap,” and used the trademarks “Kenzo of J.A.P.” and “JAP” on his clothing. Infuriated by the use of historically derogatory terminology, the group initiated a vigorous writing campaign to educate advertisers and department stores across the nation. They demanded that newspapers like the New York Times stop accepting and printing Kenzo’s advertisements and insisted that stores immediately stop selling his clothing. Despite this effort, some stores continued to carry Kenzo’s line. In response, the activists organized a demonstration in front of the Bonwit Teller flagship store on Fifth Avenue at 56th Street and Macy’s main department store at 34th Street near Herald Square. The New York City Commission on Human Rights assisted in this effort.
George then asked Ruby Schaar, the president of the New York chapter of the Japanese American Citizens’ League (JACL) — a national civil rights organization composed primarily of Japanese Americans — for assistance. At the time, George was a board member of the New York chapter (he had been an active member since 1965). The chapter board contacted New York Nisei attorney Moonray Kojima who filed a lawsuit against Kenzo’s Paris firm as well as its American distributor, Mallory Outerwear. The lawsuit sought to enjoin Kenzo from using either “JAP” or “J.A.P.” on his labels and trademarks. On July 13, 1972, while the legal case was under appeal, Kenzo agreed to cease using both “JAP” and “J.A.P.” An entire Butterick Patterns shipment with the word JAP was recalled in 1972. The Butterick Fashion Marketing Company also agreed to remove “J.A.P.” from its Kenzo-designed patterns and from their catalog.
George and this same group protested the ILGWU’s (International Ladies Garment Workers Union) implied anti-Japanese racism in its “Buy American” campaign. During the late summer and early autumn of 1972, the ILGWU produced a series of subway posters that contained anti-Japanese themes. One of the more provocative posters depicted a U.S. flag with the caption, “Made in Japan.” Underneath the “Made in Japan” caption in smaller lettering was the question: “Has your job been exported to Japan yet?” The outraged activists physically removed the posters from subway trains. In October 1972, about 100 people of various races and ethnicities, including the Japanese American activists, participated in a rally in front of ILGWU headquarters. Professor Michio Kaku was the rally spokesperson. Later that autumn, George met with ILGWU officials and they negotiated an agreement to remove the posters.
The Kenzo and ILGWU incidents prompted George and others to organize Asian Americans for Fair Media, Inc. (AAFM) in 1973. This group of Nisei volunteers monitored the local and national broadcast and print media for negative Asian stereotypes and racial slurs. In 1973, the AAFM published a booklet entitledStereotypes and Realities: The Asian Image in the United States. In 1974, in recognition of George’s work, the Eastern Regional Office of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights asked him to serve as a consultant.
George also devoted much of his time between 1965 and the early 2000s attending to the needs of senior citizens. In 1965, he organized the Ad Hoc Committee of Concerned Asians in New York City to develop a strategy for addressing the housing needs of Issei and Nisei senior citizens. During the early 1970s, with a grant from the New York Community Trust (NYCT), Concerned Asians conducted a survey to assess the needs of Issei and Nisei senior citizens living in New York City. The findings convinced George and other committee members that a permanent organization was necessary to support the aging Nisei community.
Japanese American Help for the Aging, Inc. (JAHFA) was formed in 1974. JAHFA was a grassroots, non-profit effort to help elderly Issei and Nisei in New York with various concerns such as bilingual assistance, access to medical care, information and referral, food delivery for shut-ins, group activities such as luncheons and field trips, and housing. JAHFA located senior residential housing at the Methodist Home in Riverdale and began placing Issei and Nisei seniors there in 1974. In the early 1980s, JAHFA became a standing committee of the Japanese American Association of New York (JAA), to secure additional financial and manpower resources.
In the mid-1980s, George established an affiliation with the Isabella Geriatric Center in upper Manhattan. Isabella offered both a nursing home and resident apartments for seniors. He formed an exchange program between eldercare professionals from Japan and the staff at Isabella.
With a large population of Issei and Nisei residing on the West Side between 59th Street and 120th Street, George helped establish the West Side Federation for Senior Housing, Inc., (WSFSH) and served on this organization’s board of directors. Founded in 1977, the WSFSH facilitated the allocation of funds from federal and private sources to local residential construction projects on the Upper West Side.
In 1981, George served as a member of the East Coast Japanese Americans for Redress organization that advised the federal Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians and helped organize the November 1981 commission hearings in New York City. The hearings in turn helped shape the 1988 Civil Liberties Act in which President Ronald Reagan and the U.S. Congress apologized for the WWII evacuation and internment of Japanese American citizens and permanent residents, authorized the payment of $20,000 to each evacuee who was still alive, and allocated $50 million for a public education fund.
As a vice president, board member, and committee chair of the Japanese American Association of New York (JAA), George organized various Japanese cultural, educational, and preservation activities in New York City. Between 1968 and 2001, George helped plan cultural celebrations such as Nipponanza at the Beacon Theater in 1979. Nipponanza was part of a nationwide festival featuring Japanese arts and culture. In 1980, George coordinated the renovation of a Japanese burial plot at Willow Grove Cemetery in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Established in 1870, the plot contains the remains of eight Japanese — seven students and one infant — who died during the 1870s and 1880s and who were among the earliest Japanese settlers in the tristate region.
In 1982, George and the JAA helped establish the annual spring Sakura Matsuri Cherry Blossom Festival at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. This festival continues to the present day. During the summer of 1985, George also served on the New York-Tokyo Sister City Committee, helping to plan various events that celebrated the 25th anniversary of the New York-Tokyo sister city relationship. He and then JAA president, Shigeru Inagaki, helped raise 168 Japanese cherry trees between 1992 and 2001 in Van Cortlandt Park. In April 2001, the trees were donated to New York City and transplanted to Cherry Hill Slope, near the World’s Fair Unisphere in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, Queens, where they constitute the George Yuzawa Grove.
George was a charter member of the Japanese American Lions Club of New York, a member and president of the Nisei Investors of New York, and a Day of Remembrance Committee member. He worked with the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles to develop an Ellis Island exhibit called America’s Concentration Camps. He was also a founding member (1987) of Asian & Pacific Islander Coalition on HIV/AIDS (APICHA), a member of the National Parks Conservation Association, and an advisor to Harmonia Opera.
George has received numerous commendations for his years of service, including an invitation to the White House from President Jimmy Carter and the Governor’s Award for Excellence from New York Governor George Pataki. In 1983, the Emperor of Japan awarded George the prestigious Order of the Sacred Treasure, 5th Class, for his service on behalf of both Japanese and non-Japanese people.
Many of George’s acts of kindness went unnoticed, but a blind young Japanese woman will never forget the trips he made to obtain health and legal services for her. The families of many who died alone in their apartments will remember the efforts he made to insure that their loved ones received proper funerals and that next-of-kin were located and notified. George was always there for those in need, always willing to help solve problems, to enter into late-night conversations with anyone who needed support or advice, to assist with out-of-pocket donations and expenses.
George and Kimi, married for 71 years and separated in death by only 49 days, are survived by their two married children, Gene Yuzawa and Pat Yuzawa-Rubin; and three grandchildren.
To learn more about the contents of the George Yuzawa Papers, located at the NYU Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, view the collection’s finding aid and see images from the collection on Flickr.