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Utah Women Lead: Alice Kasai And Meeting Injustice With Action

This week KUER is exploring the work of Utah women who have helped further the cause of equal rights. In our final conversation, Neylan McBaine, executive director of the nonprofit Better Days 2020, tells KUER’s Caroline Ballard the story of Alice Kasai, who fought for the rights of Japanese-Americans. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Caroline Ballard: Who is Alice Kasai?

Neylan McBaine: Alice Kasai is a representative of another one of these communities that was significantly marginalized in the 20th century. 

We have this story of the Japanese-Americans — in the United States during World War II throughout the nation. But of course, here in Utah, we have a special connection with that history. Alice Kasai is a great representative of somebody who lived through that discrimination and helped her community rise out of it. 

She was born in Washington state in 1916, and she came with her parents to work in mines here in Utah. She graduated from Carbon High School in 1935 and was a very good student; she was called “the star of her school.” Two years after graduating from high school, she married Henry Kasai. They had six children and were the first Japanese-Americans to live in The Avenues of Salt Lake City. 

Unfortunately, during World War II, shortly after her marriage and her move to Salt Lake, Alice’s husband was arrested and placed in one of the Japanese internment camps, specifically one for Japanese community leaders. And he stayed there for 2 ½ years. 

While he was in that internment camp, she took on a leadership role as the first woman president of the Japanese American Citizens League in Salt Lake City, and her home became the de facto lead headquarters. Even at that young age, she became a really powerful advocate for the Japanese community and coordinated help for families that had people in the internment camps. 

There were about 11,000 people in the internment camps here at Topaz, in Utah. So when we talk about her leadership of the Japanese-American community in Utah, that was a significant number of people that she was representing and lobbying for. She represents a dark period in our civil rights history here in the United States. 

After her husband was released, they joined forces to continue to lobby for citizenship and other civil rights for Japanese immigrants. As we’ve been talking about the history of suffrage and specifically the right to vote, it’s important to recognize that it wasn’t until 1952 that Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act, which was a law that finally allowed immigrants of Asian descent to become U.S. citizens and gain their voting rights. Alice was very involved in her position as the Japanese American Citizens League president for the Salt Lake City chapter and having this legislation passed. 

They established the International Peace Garden in Salt Lake, as well as a sister city project between Salt Lake and Matsumoto, Japan. She went on to serve in lots of different other leadership positions, and she passed away in 2007. 

She saw the vast majority of 20th-century history and experienced that progression — you know, positive progression, fortunately — in the way that minority communities in the nation and specifically here in Utah were able to gain increased civil participation. 

CB: Despite the internment policy and being the target of that, Alice still remained positive. What kind of strength of character does that take?

NM: That’s one of the qualities of a leader. They have an unsettled quality that continues to drive them, but at the same time, they haven’t closed off their heart and they’re not propelled by anger only. 

That’s been a really powerful lesson for me as I’ve learned about these advocates — to see that they were treated terribly in many occasions, whether having your husband be put in an internment camp or being barred from a job or being told — as Emmeline Wells [was told] in her plural marriage — that she’s being oppressed and doesn’t have a mind of her own. They always responded with a drive that was forceful, but it was always productive. It was always on the line of promoting dialog and conversation and of organizing their community to a position of strength.

Caroline Ballard hosts All Things Considered at KUER. Follow her on Twitter @cballardnews