As pompadoured teenagers, the members of the Japanese-American social club Just Us Girls seized on all the nightlife 1940's Los Angeles had to offer.
They rode the streetcar to the Million Dollar Theater to see big bands. They danced into the night to Louis Armstrong. Sumi Hughes, then known as Sumi Fukushima, was particularly light-footed.
"I always had boyfriends who were good dancers," Hughes, 81, explained. "That was a prerequisite."
From the 1920's through the 1950s, Los Angeles abounded with hundreds of Japanese-American social clubs for second-generation or Nisei young people, especially girls. It was a social phenomenon that allowed the daughters of strict immigrant parents to explore their American identity.
"I’m sure parents thought it was one way to keep an eye on their daughters and know who their friends were," said UCLA historian Valerie Matsumoto, who wrote about these clubs in her book City Girls: The Nisei Social World in Los Angeles.
Matsumoto said at their peak in the late 1930s, social clubs numbered between 400 and 600. Some of these clubs were formed through friendships, others under the auspices of churches, Buddhist temples, or YWCA's. Thousands of nisei girls joined these clubs to play sports, do community service and, unofficially, meet boys. Their monikers ranged from the Biblical — the Queen Esthers — to the Hollywood-inspired, such as the Swansonettes, named after Gloria Swanson.
But the stories of these clubs are quickly fading as members age and die.
"I turned 90 last month," said civil rights activist Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga of Gardena, who belonged to the Junior Misses. "So I can see why our group has been decimated."
Filling a void
Matsumoto's book is the first to look in-depth at social clubs. Matsumoto — who will be giving a talk at the Japanese American National Museum this Saturday— said that the racial climate at the time, and U.S. tensions with Japan, forced young Japanese-Americans to create their own social circles.
"There was a lot of discrimination in public facilities," Matsumoto said. "So sometimes they weren’t able to go to certain restaurants or certain public venues."
Herzig-Yoshinaga remembers school being a tough place to be Japanese-American. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor December 1941, she said her principal at Los Angeles High School called her and other Nisei students into his office and told them they didn’t deserve to graduate "because our people had bombed Pearl Harbor."
"We said, what’s the connection?" Herzig-Yoshinaga said. "We didn’t drop the bomb. We know nothing about it.”
As an adult, Herzig-Yoshinaga would harness her feelings of anger and humiliation to seek reparations for Japanese-Americans forced into government camps during World War II.
But as a teen, she found immediate solace in her social club, the Junior Misses. It was filled with other girls facing similar identity issues.
"Trying to be American at the same time not knowing whether or not we like being Japanese because of the prejudice that existed so strongly," Herzig-Yoshinaga said.
The Junior Misses broke up as Herzig-Yoshinaga and other members were relocated to camps across the country.
But internment didn’t shut down the social clubs. Some, in fact, actually formed in camps, like Just Us Girls.
Sumi Hughes helped to found Just Us Girls with her older sister Yuri Long, when their family was moved more than 200 miles north of Los Angeles to the Manzanar relocation center.
"That was our social life at the time," said Long who was 9 when she first arrived at Manzanar. "You had to be in a club to have a sports team and to have dances.”
Just Us Girls continued to live on after the war ended in 1945, with most of the club members and their families settling in Boyle Heights.
Still other clubs, such as the Atomettes, formed right after the war. Rose Honda was a teenage advisor to the group of middle-schoolers, which emerged from the West Los Angeles United Methodist Church. Honda and her co-advisor acted as surrogate parents of a sort.
"In 1945, we were all returning from the camps," Honda, 87, said. "We gathered the girls to form a club because their parents were busy resettling."
Honda said the group drove all over southern California to learn about different cultures and see a world bigger than their own.
"We could only put seven teenagers into the car and that’s the reason we stayed at seven," Honda said.
About 70 year later, Honda still gets together with the Atomettes. They're now working on a book about their history.
Every waking moment
Just Us Girls is the rare club that also meets regularly. But they no longer go dancing. It's usually Las Vegas once a year, and dinner and poker night every few months at Sumi Hughes' place in Pasadena.
The stakes for the card games are very low.
"Last time, I think I won 60 cents?" Yuri Long said.
The women stay up for 18 hours each of these poker nights, talking about their kids, grandkids.
"I have the most kids, so I have the most stories about the kids," Long said.
Sumi Hughes said friends come and go, but not these girls.
"I know a lot of people but I don’t know anybody I could feel this close to," Hughes said.
She said every moment with them is precious. So they stay up until daybreak, laughing and playing for pennies.