San Jose’s Japantown is not just a neighborhood, but a community with a strong history. Only three Japantowns still exist in the US, and San Jose’s Japantown is the only one that remains in its original location. Issei (first generation immigrants) were drawn to the Santa Clara Valley in the late 1800s for agriculture, and somewhere between 1890 and 1900 they founded Japantown, also called Nihonmachi, next to the site of San Jose’s second Chinatown, known as Heinlenville, which no longer stands. It became a cultural center, safe from the hostile anti-immigrant attitudes of the time. Stores sold familiar products, there were restaurants, boarding houses, social clubs and sports, a bath house, and work and recreation for the Japanese pioneers. As with other groups, the first immigrants from Japan were mostly male, so this “bachelor society” also entertained in gambling houses and brothels.
The Gentlemens Agreement of 1907 halted immigration of Japanese men, limiting it to wives of American citizens. Brides began to arrive in California and the community began to settle and grow with new, family-friendly industry and recreation as the second generation of Japanese Americans (Nisei) were born. This period saw the construction of the Kuwabara Hospital (now the Issei Memorial Building), the Taihei Hotel, and Okida Hall. Clubs called kenjinkai formed strong bonds within the community, uniting people based on which prefecture they had come from. Although female immigration was also halted by 1921, the 1920s and the Great Depression saw slow, steady growth in Japantown, plus the construction of a new temple for the San Jose Buddhist Church, and the downfall of its neighbor Heinlenville. When Filipino immigrants arrived, the primary area most welcoming to Asian people was Nihonmachi, or Japantown.
May of 1942 – anti-Japanese war hysteria brought about the forcible internment of anyone of Japanese ancestry. About 3,000 Santa Clara residents were relocated, mostly to the Heart Mountain internment camp in Wyoming. Families about to be relocated sought to store their belongings at the local Buddhist and Methodist Churches. About 50 businesses in Japantown were closed. Nihonmachi became nearly a ghost town. In December of 1944 internees were released with nothing more than they had left with and once again Japantown became a safe haven for the stranded. The Betsuin temple became a shelter for Japanese Americans as they returned and found places to live.
By the year 1947, 100 families and 40 businesses had relocated back to this area. Nihonmachi was once again a thriving community. The population doubled by the 1950s, and throughout the 1950s and 1960s it was a bustling center for three generations of Japanese Americans.
Sports were and still are key to Japantowns community. The San Jose Buddhist Judo Club, established in 1947 and still going strong with practice twice a week at the Buddhist Church Betsuin of San Jose Gymnasium. Baseball was popular beginning in the early 1900s, with the Asahi (“Morning Sun”) being the most premier team. The Asahi competed, and beat, the Tokyo Giants in 1935, and lost in a rematch in 1936, at Asahi Field at North 7th and Younger St. During internment, Asahi changed their name to Zebras, taking the name from Japantowns basketball team, Zebras, and the team continued until 1963. The basketball team continues to play to this day.
The aging Issei generation and a greater acceptance of Japanese Americans into mainstream culture saw some decline in the community in the 1970s. Countercultural and anti-war movements in the late 1960s struck a chord with the Sansei (third generation) and awoke a cultural awareness and efforts to renew the cultural integrity of Japantown. A group of San Jose State Sansei began the activist group Asians for Community Action (ACA), serving Issei seniors where they needed it, such as with translation services. The ACA has now become Yu-Ai Kai Japanese American Community Senior Service of San Jose (YAK) which provides classes and activities serving thousands of seniors within the community. 1973 also saw the formation of the temple’s ever popular San Jose Taiko, whose music and identity modeled a strong, confident, and proud community.
The 1980s saw upgrades and redevelopment. New housing developments were planned and constructed, old buildings were updated, historic plaques and markers were installed to preserve Japantowns heritage. Shops, restaurants, clubs, churches – all of these communities took an effort in the restoration and upkeep of Japantown. In 1990 Japantown celebrated its Centennial, and after 120 some years it’s still going strong today.
The face of Japantown has changed drastically since its foundation. The community has moved from Issei to Yonsei, Gosei, and is more culturally diverse than ever. Japantown, maintains a fresh active community celebrating its heritage though its clubs, sports, shopping, dining, and festivities.
Want to visit? Drop by for the restaurants and shopping, the Sunday morning Farmers Market, or check out one of the many festivals, such as the weekend-long Obon celebrations held by the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin every summer. Walk through the shopping strips to see public art, historic architecture, and historic plaques and monuments, such as the bronze landmark in front of the historic Issei Memorial Building which unites the three Japantowns in San Jose, LA, and San Francisco.
Still curious? There’s much more to learn. For an in-depth look at San Jose’s historic Japantown, visit the Japanese American Museum of San Jose to see the exhibits, or schedule a Historic Walking Tour, available by request. You can also purchase the recently published San Jose Japantown: A Journey at the museum or by mail order form.
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(all data current as of 1/17/2022)
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