History of the Japanese Benevolent Society of California
San Francisco is the birthplace of Nikkeijin (Japanese American) in mainland America. In the early days of the Meiji-era (1868-1912), Japanese people having big dreams came across the Pacific Ocean and took off their traveling clothes in San Francisco.
At the end of the 1880s, the number of Japanese people began to increase. Those Japanese who had already settled in San Francisco, concerned newcomer’s living conditions and organized a benevolent group to help the sick and disabled people. In those days, some Kenjinkai and Dokyojinkai (group of people from the same province) were organized and they helped each other within people of their groups.
In 1900, Rev. Gennosuke Honkawa of the San Francisco Presbyterian Church talked to the then acting Japanese consul, Saburo Yokota, and planned to expand the existing benevolent group to a nonprofit organization regardless of their job, status (until 1947, there was a status system in Japan and they were the aristocracy, former Samurais and the common people.), birthplace and religion. They first explained their plan to the branch manager of Yokohama Specie Bank (now Union Bank of California), Mr. Kanae Tozawa and his wife, San Francisco branch manager of Mitsui & Company, Mr. Sutejiro Odagiri and his wife, San Francisco branch manager of Toyo Steamship Company, Mr. Genjiro Shiraishi and his wife, the staff of the consulate and the leading merchants, and received their approval. They also negotiated with Rev. Hisagoro Obata of the Methodist Church, Rev. Daijiro Yoshimura of the Episcopal Church, the owner of the Shinsekai (New World) Newspaper, Hachiro Soejima and so on, and prepared for a group as a project of Japanese women and religious organizations. They established the Japanese Benevolent Society of California (Jikeikai in abbreviation) with a $10,000 (20,000 yen) grant from Emperor Meiji of Japan on Feb. 1, 1901. The first president was Kanae Tozawa’s wife, Takeko Tozawa. On Aug. 2, 1901, Jikeikai became the first Japanese organization to obtain California State authorization as a nonprofit, mutual benefit and benevolent organization and they went into action. Their purposes were as follows.
Organization shall provide emergency care to the Japanese and Japanese American people who are sick or suffered a mishap and can’t get any help from others.
Organization shall create and administrate a suitable burial ground for deceased Japanese.
For the emergency care, board members went around the state, sent letters and collected $2,400 by the end of the year. They also raised about $5,500 to buy a cemetery ground.
The next year, Jikeikai purchased a 2 acre site in Colma, CA and held an opening ceremony at the Japanese Cemetery on Mar. 17,1903.
Even before the last war, Jikeikai was a large group with over 1,000 members, and after shifting circumstances for many years and the war, Jikeikai changed its membership to the permanent membership system formed with owners of graves or niches. Now it has more than 1,000 members.
Since 1951 Jikeikai has been holding annual Community Memorial Service on Memorial Day in May under the joint sponsorship of the Japanese American Religious Federation.
Jikeikai purchased an additional 1.5 acre of land located adjacent to the original cemetery site in 1995, but the Japanese Cemetery is still the smallest cemetery in Colma. There are more than 2,000 small and large graves and over 1,000 niches in the Columbarium, and total of more than 5,000 souls are resting.
Jikeikai strives to cooperate with religious groups overcoming denominational difference and tries to carry on the Nikkei history, tradition and culture through cultural events in Nikkei community. It works together with the volunteers of the third, fourth and fifth generation of Nikkeijin and Shin-Issei who came to the U.S. after the last war and their children called Shin-Nisei has continued providing emergency care for Nikkei and Japanese people, and whenever a training ship of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force and the Japan Coast Guard stops at San Francisco, Jikeikai board members welcome and send off her crew at the port and holds a welcome party for friendship between U.S. and Japan with other Nikkei organizations. Jikeikai also wants sincerely to preserve the Japanese Cemetery in Colma that is the oldest Japanese cemetery in the U.S. and itself can be called the history of Japanese immigrants.