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For a Nisei sisterhood, it's yesterday once more

The ladies gathered in Rose Honda's West Los Angeles home, faded mementos of their lives laid out on the teak dining table.

There are photos of outings in pin curls, saddle shoes and white gloves. A 1951 United Airlines ticket from Los Angeles to Catalina Island for $4.60. An invitation, in careful cursive, for a progressive Christmas dinner of ham and candied yams listing when each course would be served at whose home.

Over a lunch of somen noodle salad and blueberry cheesecake, the women giggled and reminisced.

Remember baking cookies for Korean War vets — and one of them proposed?

Piling into Honda's 1940 Chevy coupe, nicknamed "Clarence," for adventures beyond the confines of their Japanese American community?

Performing outlandish community skits in sailor suits, fox fur stoles and fluorescent bras?

"We were terrible — we had no talent whatsoever," said Taye Inadomi, setting her friends into another round of laughter.

The Atomettes are meeting again — as they have for 65 years.

What began in 1949 as a social club of seven young Japanese American girls finding refuge from exclusion and racism is still going strong today — a bond of friendship that has endured through college and careers, marriage and motherhood, surgeries and deaths.

Inadomi is the brainy one. Susan Uemura, happy and generous. Sadie Hifumi, the talented writer and leader. Kathi Yamazaki, the creative only child. Frances Yonemori, the funny one. Karlene Koketsu, the artist. Michi Yamaji, reserved but lighthearted, died several years ago.

"When we get together, it's always like yesterday," said Honda, 87, who has been their nurturing advisor from the beginning. "We talk and talk and talk and don't want to say goodbye."

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The Atomettes were one of more than 200 clubs of second-generation Japanese Americans, known as Nisei, that proliferated in Southern California after World War II.

The clubs provided a way to make friends, meet potential spouses, hold social events and build leadership skills at a time when harsh discrimination shut many of them out of mainstream organizations, said Valerie J. Matsumoto, a UCLA Asian American studies professor.

"These clubs were very important to Nisei youth because they were a bulwark against racial prejudice and exclusion and offered them a place of belonging and camaraderie," said Matsumoto, who has chronicled their little-known history in a new book, "City Girls."

Before the war, there were as many as 400 clubs, Matsumoto said. But after Japan's 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the federal government incarcerated Japanese Americans from the West Coast in desolate rural internment camps with armed guards and barbed wire.

Some clubs formed in the camps. Just Us Girls, for instance, started in Manzanar with girls who wanted to play sports but became known for their dancing skills and flirty ways, said Sumi Hughes, one of the surviving members. Three of them — Hughes, her sister Yuri Long and Sumiko Davis — still meet every few months to play all-night poker in Pasadena with another childhood friend, Teresa Montelongo.

At a recent gathering, they shared a meal of sushi and steak, watched USC football and chattered about old friends and club adventures.

Hughes told the others that another club member had begged off, saying the drive to Pasadena was too much.

"That's what happens when you get old," Hughes said.

"We're all in the same boat," Montelongo said, wrapping her arm around Hughes' shoulder.

In West L.A., the Atomettes formed a few years after the war, when local community leaders promoted youth organizations to stem what they feared was rising delinquency among Nisei back from the camps. Christian and Buddhist organizations sponsored many of the clubs; the Atomettes were formed out of the West Los Angeles United Methodist Church by Honda and Mary Ishizuka, then Sunday school teachers.

Despite their rich history, the clubs have nearly disappeared. Inadomi and Uemura tried to start a similar youth club some years ago but found a lack of interest amid a plethora of opportunities for social and athletic involvement.

The clubs' decline reflect the typical evolution of most immigrant groups, with successive generations weakening their ethnic-specific ties amid assimilation. The Atomettes say that most of their children haven't married other Japanese Americans, attended Japanese-language school or supported community institutions.

"I'm glad that my children are comfortable with who they are, interacting with people of different ethnicities," Hifumi said. "But at the same time, I'm a little sad that they and their children are losing the qualities that make them unique as Japanese Americans."

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Four of the Atomettes recently gathered at Honda's home to work on their latest project, a book to document their friendship. As they laughed over old photos, they swapped news about their children, their latest aches and pains, and their community work. Some of the women are aiding efforts to preserve the historic Japanese American neighborhood along Sawtelle Avenue, a few blocks from their church, from encroaching commercial development.

Honda reported on her visit with Yonemori, who attends fewer of the gatherings since moving to an assisted-living facility in Torrance.

"She looks very good, very relaxed," Honda said.

Invariably, talk returned to their past.

When the Atomettes first began in the late 1940s, Harry S. Truman was president. Hollywood celebrities were being blacklisted under the anti-Communist Red scare. California laws barred Japanese immigrants from owning land or marrying whites.

And the United States had launched the atomic age — which inspired the club name as a reflection of the girls' "energy and explosiveness," Honda said.

"We didn't think of the tragedy," she said of the attacks on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Racism was still rife in West L.A. Hifumi recalled that someone threw a rock through her family home window, and a white classmate banged her head against a friend's, calling them Japs. Inadomi remembers being spit on.

But within the Japanese American church congregation, the girls found comfort and safety. There, Honda and Ishizuka offered the girls all-American experiences that their immigrant parents, overwhelmed with pressures to restart their lives, could not easily provide.

They visited Ghost Town at Knott's Berry Farm and sampled its Southern fried chicken dinner — just $2 at the time. They saw the famed Pinkie and Blue Boy paintings at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens. They took a train north and gaped at the Golden Gate Bridge.

After college, the club meetings segued into social gatherings: weddings, birthdays, baby showers. A highlight was Honda's 1989 surprise retirement party, where the women presented a handmade quilt featuring squares symbolizing her life's milestones.

The friends were there for the tough times too. When Inadomi suffered a brain injury, the others sent prayers and plants. They helped Honda recover from breast cancer surgery with deliveries of rice cakes, teriyaki chicken and other favorite foods. More recently, they have gathered for funerals.

How did they avoid girl-group drama and sustain such close friendships all these years? Hifumi ventured that Japanese cultural values of consensus and group harmony may have helped. Others credit chemistry, saying that they simply clicked from the start. Inadomi said Honda's leadership has helped keep them together.

"It's a sisterhood," Inadomi said. "When we get back together, it's like we're young again."

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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