Yoshiko proudly holds her certificate of U.S. citizenship, which she was granted on Feb. 27 of this year after being in this country since 1971. (Photos by Ellie Seif)

by Len Lear

In last year’s presidential campaign and ever since, one of the main issues facing Americans has been that of immigration. One Mt. Airy resident for whom immigration is not just a coffee shop debate is Yoshiko Kendall, 69, a native of Japan who became an official U.S. citizen on Feb. 27 of this year.

Yoshiko studied English Literature at a junior college in Hiroshima, after which she sold Seiko watches to tourists in a hotel store in Hiroshima and at the Osaka World’s Fair. She learned English because after WWII, English was taught from 7th grade through high school in Japan. (Today, native English speakers teach conversational classes beginning in the earlier grades.)

“I also took a Western philosophy class that made me curious to know my own value system and my Japanese culture,” Yoshiko said last week. “In order to know it better, I thought it was a good idea to go overseas and get a better perspective. A U.S. church organization opened the door for me to be a volunteer for a year in 1971. I came to Pottstown, PA, and spent four weeks being trained as a volunteer, after which I was sent to a poor section of St. Louis, MO. There, I learned a lot about one sub-culture of American society. After one year, with my father’s support, I enrolled in a college in a suburb of St. Louis and graduated there after two years.”

Yoshiko, who has lived in Mt. Airy since July of 2014, moved here with her husband, Stephen, after his retirement from a teaching job at Ball State University in Indiana. They chose Philly because their daughter is the assistant principal cellist in the Philadelphia Orchestra, and their son lives in Washington, D.C., and visits Philly often.

As an immigrant herself, how does Yoshiko feel about President Trump’s plan to bar refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries? “His administration is very short-sighted and does not seem to understand that immigrants make this country unique and strong. And as the NY Times stated in its March 17 opinion page, the president and lots of his cabinet members are from Irish immigrants who were considered an unfit class in the 1840s when they came here to escape the famine in Ireland.

“I remember reading about Americans’ concern for President Kennedy being Irish and Catholic when he was running for President. In the early 1900s, Chinese were discriminated against as well as Japanese during World War ll. And African Americans are still largely suffering, as well as Native Americans. I am glad that the separation of the powers is so strong and clear that federal judges in Hawaii and Maryland could stop the President’s immigration order!”

How would Yoshiko compare living in the U.S. to living in Japan? “Japan is and has been a one-race society for thousands of years, and the social fabric is very tightly knit. People have to behave according to unspoken social rules. Otherwise, one would be scorned. The positive side is that it is very safe to live there. On the other hand, Japanese society is old and steady and does not have much vitality at present.

My first impression of the U.S. was that this society was very young and open. Anyone could fit in. The immigrant social fabric is still very loose because its history is short (except for Native Americans). The different people, religions, cultures, languages, food and races are mixed together, and that makes this society very lively and alive, but it also causes frictions and problems … By constantly moving and swinging from the right to the left and by discussing and demonstrating if needed, the society is being viable, not static.”

Yoshiko started the process of becoming a U.S. citizen last May. It involved an application, fingerprints, a photo and an interview by a FBI agent. “Since I was older than 65, I did not have to take the long test on American history but a very simplified one; hooray!” Unlike many cases that take years, Yoshiko became a citizen after just nine months. “I guess the government must have figured that a 69-year-old lady who has lived here for more than 40 years is not a threat!” she explained.

“I had been a green-card holder for over 40 years and gradually became educated with the political/social/environmental issues through reading newspapers/magazines and listening to NPR Radio and Public TV, but I never voted. I always felt something was missing because I could not express my opinions through voting. So in 2018, I can cast my first vote.”

Yoshiko’s father, the last member of her immediate family, died two years ago, and she dispersed his properties to her late sister’s children. Until her father died, she was visiting Japan three times a year, staying one month each time, for 10 years. Since last April, though, she has not gone back.

Yoshiko is one of a group of eight women in Mt. Airy who meet every Monday to talk about current issues and make calls to their elected officials in D.C. and Harrisburg. “By participating in political movements such as this,” Yoshiko explained, “I feel more and more that I am an American and am exercising my rights to the full extent. Before obtaining the citizenship, I had tried to read and talk about what I learned to my close friends, but I felt that I was a guest in this country. Now my feet are solidly on this nation’s ground, and I want to exercise my rights!”

What does Yoshiko like and dislike, if anything, about living in Mt. Airy? “I like that the neighbors on our streets are very friendly, that we have a neighborhood potluck picnic in the summer, that when it snows, people come out to the streets and clear the snow for everyone’s cars and clear sidewalks and shared alleys and that we can discuss and be openly active about political issues, unlike in Indiana, where there were lots of Republicans. And I like the fact that the gym, the Co-op, grocery stores, restaurants, coffee/bakeries, theaters and hardware store (which makes my husband happy) are close by.

“I dislike the fact that before we moved from Indiana we downsized, but since we now live in a townhouse, we can hear the neighbor’s TV and loud voices sometimes … And the traffic can be hectic, as I also experienced in D.C. and Boston.”

Yoshiko’s major heroes in real life are President Obama and her grandmother, but her biggest pet peeves are: “The health care in this country is for profit; The ownership of guns is not regulated; Climate change is real, but there is no will power to confront it by the Trump administration and other Republicans; and political campaigns should be financed by public funds, so that anyone could try to run for public office.”