Shofuso’s Nisei Legacy

Okaeri (Welcome Home): The Nisei Legacy at Shofuso explores the unique connection and contributions that Philadelphia’s second-generation Japanese American, or Nisei, community has given to Shofuso. Despite being birthright citizens, the American government incarcerated the Nisei as “enemy aliens” during WWII, alongside their immigrant parents. After the war, Philadelphia’s Nisei formed the Friends of the Japanese House and Garden (FJHG), which oversaw the restoration and maintenance of Shofuso as part of a broader movement of Japanese American cultural reclamation in the late 20th century.

Visitors to Shofuso celebrate Obon by floating paper lanterns in the pond, 1999

Under the Friends’ leadership beginning in the early 1980s, Shofuso became a convening space for the Japanese American community. These Friends were activists. They participated in the Redress Movement, which advocated for a formal apology and reparations for their forced removal and mass incarceration during World War II. Through the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), they also combated anti-Japanese hate spurred by the U.S.-Japan Trade War and participated in multiracial coalition-building within the larger civil rights movement.

Their labor to re-contextualize this site established the Japanese American community as an integral part of Philadelphia’s cultural landscape. Though the Nisei generation was deeply stigmatized by their ethnic identity, at Shofuso they embraced and celebrated their Japanese cultural heritage, and collectively healed from the trauma of wartime incarceration.

L to R: Louise Maehara, Don McPhail, Ann McPhail, Mary Watanabe, and Mary Lou Fleisher at Fairmount Park's Horticulture Center, 1988

As the current stewards of Shofuso, we are grateful for the Nisei who worked tirelessly to establish Shofuso as a safe and welcoming space for people of all backgrounds. Through the Okaeri exhibition, we welcome these Nisei back home as we share their stories in this space that would not exist without their groundbreaking work. In doing so we recognize their efforts as we continue the work that they started.