The Torrey pine as seen from the house recently vacated by the Yuge family. (Rafu Shimpo photo)
The Torrey pine as seen from the house recently vacated by the Yuge family. (Rafu Shimpo photo)

Rafu Staff Report

A local JACL chapter is taking issue with remarks made about the Yuge family by the head of Altadena Heritage, a preservation group.

The Yuges lived in a cottage on the former Scripps/Kellogg estate in Altadena. Takeo Yuge was the estate’s gardener. After he and his family were interned during World War II, the Kellogg family asked them to return. Takeo and Fumiko Yuge raised four daughters and turned the land around the house into an azalea farm.

The Yuges had a handshake agreement with property owner William Scripps Kellogg that the family could remain on the land as long as Takeo and Fumiko were alive. When the Pasadena Waldorf School acquired the property, it honored that agreement. Mr. Yuge died in 1989 and Mrs. Yuge last December.

The school, which plans to develop the property, asked the daughters to vacate the house in six months, with a June 1 deadline. However, the family sought assurances that the house, which dates back to the 1920s, would not be demolished. Under an agreement reached in mid-June, the school agreed not to seek a demolition permit and the family agreed to move out by June 19.

Waldorf representatives said they will assess the property and decide what to do with it, and that preservation options, such as relocating the cottage, will be discussed with the family. The Yuges said they have offered to purchase the land where the cottage is located and keep it separate from the school.

An online petition is asking that the Yuges’ house and gardens be preserved along with a 120-foot-tall, 86-year-old Torrey pine planted by the family. Waldorf committed to preserving the tree in May when it accepted a Big Tree award from Altadena Heritage.

Michele Zack, board chair of Altadena Heritage, said in a May 25 message to Bronwyn Dawson of Altadena, a supporter of the Yuges: “My, you are generous with other people’s property. Yes, the Yuges lived there because of the generosity of the school, but they never owned it or paid for it. Is your position that the school is obliged to bear the burden of expiating U.S. guilt over the internment of Japanese in WWII? And if we apply enough pressure and call them selfish loudly enough, we can pat ourselves on the back as if we have ourselves unburdened some of our collective guilt?

“My moral compass doesn’t allow me to analyze the situation this way.

“Just about everyone I know struggles to pay off a mortgage or pays rent to keep a roof over our heads. Poor families often work three or four low-wage jobs in order to do this. I’ve had jobs that provided housing as part of my remuneration, with the understanding that when I leave the job, I lose the housing.

“The elder Yuges enjoyed something like a very generous private pension benefit of free housing for almost 30 years, paid for not by their employer — but by a nonprofit educational institution that bought the property subsequently, and chose to honor an unwritten agreement they themselves had not made. If it was unwritten, how do we know it even existed?

“Regardless, the school did what they thought was right, and are now being demonized for not extending it to the next generation of Yuges, who have no doubt grown used to not paying housing expenses, though they are middle-class and not impoverished. What about the guys who bought the property 28 years ago for the purpose of using it for a school, and have waited 28 years to take possession of it?

“The Yuges owe Waldorf School a thank you for giving them free use of an acre of property, housing, and a place to run their business for 28 years. They were not legally obliged to do this. We are a country ruled by laws meant to be evenly and fairly applied.

“If everyone shouting about the villainy of the Waldorf School personally provided hundreds of thousands of dollars to an old folks home for survivors of Japanese internment, you would be on firmer moral ground. Or perhaps you have a nice cottage on your property you’d like to offer the next generation of Yuges? Don’t forget to pay tax and cover insurance for them it as well. Apparently, they just don’t think they should have to do that.”

Zack expressed similar sentiments in a response to a news story on the Yuges that aired on ABC 7.

A June 10 letter to Zack from Robert Uchida, president of the Greater Pasadena Area JACL, reads: “On behalf of the Greater Pasadena Area Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), I am writing to strongly urge that Altadena Heritage, for which you serve as board chair, join the effort to preserve the cottage (residence) in which the Yuge family has resided since the 1920s except when they were forcibly removed from their home …

“The JACL is a national civil and human rights organization founded in 1929, which includes members residing in the Pasadena area, including Altadena.

“I also am writing to voice our strong objections and concerns about the contents of the attached messages you sent about the Yuges. The messages are offensive, insulting, and hurtful to the family and the broader Japanese American community. I trust that they do not represent the views of Altadena Heritage.

“In these messages, you erroneously characterize the housing of Takeo and Fumiko Yuge in the cottage as a generous ‘retirement benefit’ provided to them by the Waldorf School, which has owned the Scripps estate property since 1986. In the May 25, 2015 email message from Altadena Heritage, you asked whether ‘the school is obliged to bear the burden of expiating U.S. guilt over the internment of Japanese in WWII.’ In the other message, you write how their ‘retirement plan, living on there with no expenses in the family home, suited them’ and ‘I know several people who lost their homes, but the elder Yuges never experienced that.’

“The fact of the matter is that the elder Yuges were just two of the more than 100,000 Japanese Americans who lost their homes in 1942 when the United States government forcibly sent them to concentration camps. Takeo Yuge worked for the Kellogg family as a caretaker and gardener and lived in the cottage on their estate since 1927. Fumiko lived there after marrying Takeo in 1939. How did the Yuges not experience the loss of their home?

“Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during World War II lost their employment as well as their homes, so most initially resettled in other communities. The Yuges relocated in Harbor City. What makes their story — and the Kelloggs’ story — special is that the Kelloggs looked for the Yuges, and after finding them in 1948, invited them back to work for them and live in their old home — the cottage. Moreover, William Scripps Kellogg later told Takeo and Fumiko Yuge that they could live in the cottage for the rest of their lives.

“The ‘retirement benefit,’ which you attribute to the Waldorf School, was, in reality, the gift of housing and compassion that the Kelloggs showed far earlier in 1948 when such acts of kindness towards Japanese Americans were far from common. When the Waldorf School bought the property in 1986, they signed a legally binding agreement with the Yuges and Scripps Home, the property owner at the time, to allow Takeo and Fumiko Yuge to live in the cottage for the rest of their lives.

“In your messages, you depict the Yuges as freeloaders who lived in the cottage ‘they never owned or paid for …’ They didn’t because that was the understanding between the Yuge and Kellogg families.

“Moreover, you fail to acknowledge that, on three occasions, the Yuges offered to buy the section of the Scripps/Kellogg estate from the Waldorf School, but the school refused their offers — offers which would allow the cottage and Torrey pine tree to be preserved.

“We believe that the cottage is culturally and historically significant as a physical symbol of compassion and kindness shown by some Americans, including the Kelloggs, to Japanese Americans during the 1940s — a time when they were facing racial discrimination and prejudice.

“It also is worthy of preservation because they lived in that residence before World War II and in 1948 when racial segregation, including racially restrictive covenants, prevented other Japanese Americans from living in Altadena. Moreover, its rare Torrey Pine tree was planted by Takeo Yuge, who was a gardener — an occupation shared by an estimated 40 percent of all Japanese Americans in the labor force in the Pasadena area in 1940.

“In closing, we hope that Altadena Heritage will join the Altadena’s Japanese American community and over 4,300 individuals, to date, who have signed a petition to preserve the cottage and Torrey Pine tree …

“We expect that an organization named ‘Altadena Heritage’ will respect and advocate for the heritage of all Altadenans and Americans, including Japanese Americans and other racial or ethnic minorities.”

In her response, dated June 16, Zack wrote: “Since the Yuges and Waldorf School have come to a mutually agreeable resolution, there is no need for Altadena Heritage or others to take positions any more. We are happy to see that Waldorf School not only honored its contract with the family — but went beyond its legal obligation to honor the family’s legacy and also committed to saving the tree.

“It is regrettable that you have misinterpreted and/or taken offense at some of my correspondence on this issue, which is obviously highly emotionally charged. Even the straightforward, factual statement that the Yuges ‘neither owned nor paid’ for the property has been taken to imply something sinister on my part, which certainly wasn’t intended.

“That the Yuges offered to buy the property has no bearing on that particular fact: more than once I have been asked to sell my property in Altadena, but my answer has been ‘No thanks, I don’t wish to sell.’ This is every owner’s prerogative.

“I assure you I bear no ill intent to the Yuges nor the Japanese community. I voiced an informed, but alternate view to the one on the petition you referenced that left out key facts and elicited a huge emotional response. I’d already researched the Waldorf property when I wrote ‘Altadena: Between Wilderness and City,’ and again as chair of Altadena Heritage, which helped save the Scripps estate from the wrecking ball in the mid-1980s.

“I knew that had the Waldorf School not purchased, restored, and adaptively reused Scripps Hall, that it and its surrounding five acres most likely would have been subdivided for housing, as happened next store at the Kellogg’s Highview. This historic resource and land (not to mention the Yuges themselves) would have been long gone and lost to our community. William Scripps made no promise to the Yuges in writing, nor any provision for them when he deeded the property, without restriction, to the Scripps Home. Those are facts. I am an historian.

“I didn’t make them up. What happened doesn’t make me happy, or less ashamed of how Japanese Americans were treated in WWII (although I was not yet born). My heritage is Jewish, so I do know about persecution. I believe your anger toward me is misplaced.

“I would like to donate a copy of my book “Southern California Story: Seeking the Better Life in Sierra Madre’ to the Greater Pasadena Area Japanese American Citizens League in the spirit of friendship. I write extensively about the Japanese American story in it. I think it’s time to put this episode aside, work together in our community, and be happy that a fair resolution has been reached in this particular case.”

In a June 24 letter to the board of Altadena Heritage, Mark Tajima of Greater Pasadena Area JACL wrote, “I am writing to strongly urge that Altadena Heritage support the preservation of a cottage (residence) on the former Scripps estate where a Japanese American family has lived since the 1920s except for a six-year period after they were forcibly removed from their home …

“I have attached correspondence between our Chapter President Robert Uchida and Altadena Heritage’s Board Chair Michele Zack … We are especially offended by your board chair’s use of a ‘straw man’ argument to make the issue of preserving the cottage and nearby Torrey pine tree an issue of whether the Yuge family should be allowed to live on property owned by the Waldorf School and whether they received a ‘generous retirement’ of free housing.

“The petition, which over 4,400 persons have signed, calls for preserving the cottage and tree on the former Scripps estate. It is not an anti-eviction petition, which asks that the Yuge family be allowed to continue to live in the cottage. Is this representative of how Altadena Heritage approaches preservation issues and depicts persons, such as the Yuges, with whom it disagrees? Does Altadena Heritage routinely conduct opposition research, such as Ms. Zack, when she writes that ‘all four daughters went to college, and three of them moved on to have families and become property owners’ in alleging that ‘they were not an impoverished family’? …

“For our JACL chapter and others who signed the petition, this is a preservation issue, not a personal issue between the Yuge family and Waldorf School. To the best of our knowledge, Waldorf School has not made a lasting commitment to preserve the cottage …. Most notably, the school has not yet accepted the Yuge family’s latest – and fourth — offer to buy the portion of the former Scripps estate on which the cottage and Torrey pine tree is located – a purchase which would ensure that they are preserved.

“We ask whether Altadena Heritage would support the sale of that property to the Yuge family with conditions that they preserve the cottage and tree. Is not the purchase of historic or culturally significant property a common tool used by preservationists? …

“The Greater Pasadena Area Chapter of the JACL, which includes residents of Altadena, trusts that Altadena Heritage will ‘work together in our community’ to reach a ‘fair resolution’ of this issue. As Mr. Uchida wrote, we also expect that an organization named Altadena Heritage will respect and advocate for the heritage of all Altadenans and Americans …

“We, as Japanese Americans, know about our heritage and know that the cottage of the former Scripps estate is part of our heritage. We, therefore, request that Altadena Heritage, which is ‘dedicated to protecting, preserving, and raising awareness of the rich architectural, environmental, and cultural heritage of our foothills community,’ protect the heritage of Japanese Americans by working to preserve that cottage.”

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