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A Matter of Trusts 

A four-year fight between the YWCA and a church group over who owns a Japantown building is now heading to court

Wednesday, Jul 11 2001
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In the heart of Japantown, amid the apartments and stores on Sutter Street, is a salmon-colored building designed by architect Julia Morgan that emulates a traditional Japanese fortress. In the early 1900s, the building was known as the "Japanese YWCA," where services were offered to recently immigrated Japanese women and girls. Today, the aging building is used as administrative offices, a Japanese bilingual day-care center, and an after-school program for African-American girls.

These days, the structure's fortress motif is more appropriate than ever. The building has been the subject of a four-year legal dispute between two groups that both think they own the building.

The battle between Soko Bukai, a Japanese-American Christian organization, and the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), however, is far more complex than a simple property dispute. The organizations have intertwined histories that date back 100 years. As a result, their legal fight has become both historically muddled and racially charged because the case involves segregation and anti-Japanese legislation from the early 1900s, and those policies' modern-day legacies.

In 1997, Soko Bukai filed a lawsuit against the YWCA, and both sides have made race-based allegations in court files. Soko Bukai fears that the Japanese-American and African-American community services now housed in the building will come to an end if the YWCA sells the structure, which it recently tried to do. The YWCA argues that Soko Bukai "wishes to wrest control of the property from the YWCA and return it to the primary use of Japanese-Americans."

Settlement discussions between the two groups broke down in April, and now the case will be heading to court in November to decide who really owns the building.


It's five months until trial, but Soko Bukai supporters have already begun mounting a campaign around the lawsuit. Through a stylish Web site, press releases, and Internet postings, the group has assembled longtime Japantown residents, a representative of the NAACP, and city Poet Laureate Janice Mirikitani to speak at a rally on Thursday.

"This is for the justice of it," says Bob Rusky, a Japantown community activist. "This building carries so much history of the Japanese-American community in San Francisco -- the internment, the Alien Land Law, and the inspirational efforts of a community to make a life for itself despite all that. It's a symbol to that history."

Attorneys for Soko Bukai say the ownership of the building never would have been in question if it weren't for the discriminatory laws of the past. They say historical documents from the YWCA's own administrative vaults prove the building belongs to Soko Bukai, and should be used for community service purposes.

The root of the problem goes back almost to the turn of the last century, when women who belonged to churches that made up Soko Bukai created the Japanese YWCA because the San Francisco YWCA was segregated at the time.

By the early 1920s, the Japanese YWCA had outgrown its small space on Gough Street, and the women decided to raise money to buy a new building. But anti-Japanese laws prevented the women from owning the building outright.

The California Legislature had passed the Alien Land Law in 1913, and until it was deemed unconstitutional in the 1950s, only persons eligible to be U.S. citizens could own property. And because of a congressional act that prohibited Japanese immigrants from becoming citizens, they were barred from buying land.

"This was a huge issue," explains Don Tamaki, an attorney representing Soko Bukai. "As a result, a lot was done under the table to circumvent the law, which was illegal. One of the techniques was to create trusts, find a trusted white person to hold the paper title, and they would agree to hold it in trust for you, and you hoped that it would work out."

The Soko Bukai women asked the San Francisco YWCA to buy land to be put in trust for the Japanese YWCA, the group's attorneys say, citing minutes from S.F. YWCA board meetings, including a Feb. 4, 1921, entry that states: "The Japanese people have $2,000 pledged ... for the property to hold it in trust for the exclusive use of the Japanese YWCA."

But the YWCA contests the legality of these minutes. In court documents, the YWCA argues, "The offhand use of the word "trust' by nonlawyers does not make a legally enforceable trust."

The YWCA also argues that even if there had been such a trust, it was not breached because the Japanese YWCA board was eliminated after the YWCA abandoned its segregation policies in the 1940s.

Indeed, the post-World War II history of the Japanese YWCA has been interpreted in different ways, partially because of the confusion caused by the Japanese-American internment. But what is clear is that the YWCA operated the Japanese YWCA building as its own building for decades, collecting rent checks, performing maintenance, and running some of its own programs from the site. Social service agencies also continued to rent space in the building.

But in 1996, amid financial difficulties, the YWCA decided to sell the Sutter Street building. The tenants in the Japanese YWCA building received eviction notices, which launched a public fight over ownership. "As long as they provide services to the Japanese-American community, and they're keeping with the intent of the issei [first-generation] women, it's never been a problem," says attorney Tamaki. "It became controversial when they said, "This is our building, get out of here so we can sell it.' Then suddenly, all these issues sprang up."

But Charlotte Sloan, the new YWCA board president -- who admits she doesn't know much about the case -- says that the YWCA also wants to dedicate the building to community services. She says the organization doesn't need to sell the building anymore, and if the YWCA won the case, it would "continue to use [the building] for our programs" with "no plans to displace the [tenants]."

Soko Bukai supporters point out, however, that the after-school program that has been in the building for nearly 20 years received an eviction notice a year ago.

In addition to its legal arguments, the YWCA maintains that Soko Bukai is simply trying to be racially exclusive through its lawsuit. "Now, after a half-century of integration, the Soko Bukai attempts to turn back the clock by asserting that one racial group has a special claim on the Sutter Street property," court files say.

Soko Bukai says the upcoming rallies and events are intended to show broad support for a building that includes both ethnic and geographic communities. "I recall the lawyers saying that this was a land-grab by affluent Japanese-Americans," says attorney Tamaki. "They were trying to pit one race against the others, and I thought that that was not only inaccurate and irresponsible, but also unprincipled. The church wants to make clear that it would not give consent to this lawsuit if it were only for the benefit of the Japanese-American community."

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Bernice Yeung

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