A salmon steamer plate at J-Town's Minato Restaurant. Photo: Julie L Kessler
A salmon steamer plate at J-Town's Minato Restaurant. Photo: Julie L Kessler

“A journey detained, interned by injustice. What lies before us?” are the words inscribed on one of the panels of the bronze sculpture by artists Eugene Daub and Louis Quaintance standing in the heart of San Jose’s Japantown. A sobering reminder of how things can go so terribly wrong when fear overtakes rational constitutional construct.

San Jose’s Jtown as the locals call it, is 126-years-old and one of only three historically authentic Japantowns remaining in the US, compared to over 40 prior to World War II. The other remaining two are in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Internationally, there are two others, one in Sao Paolo, Brazil – not surprising as Brazil has the largest Japanese population outside Japan – and the other in Dusseldorf, Germany.

Jtown comprises several streets of the northeastern part of San Jose. Originally called Heinlenville, Japanese migrants initially came to the region in the late 1800s seeking agricultural sector employment and settled in the area that was then also home to the region’s Chinatown.

A charming place to stroll, dine and spend time, it is easy to overlook the greater historical context of Jtown and the role it plays in the collective consciousness. To preserve that context, at various intersections around Jtown there are several pieces of impressive dedicated public art with internment camp names, street placards describing various citizens and events and sign posts with the May 23, 1942 Evacuation Notice resulting from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s February 19, 1942 Executive Order 9066 – forcing “all persons of Japanese ancestry, including aliens and non-aliens” from the west coast to be interred in the US interior until the war’s end. One of the most interesting art pieces, on the corner of Jackson and 5th Streets, is the bent pillar Nikkei Lantern signifying the local Japanese successes, WWII, the internment camps and onward to eternal hope.

At Jtown’s Japanese American Museum, in addition to well-curated, informative displays of local history, civic contributions, an internment camp barrack reproduction and a 1941 Model T, there is an excellent section on the highly decorated 442nd Regimental Combat Team, comprised entirely of American soldiers of Japanese ancestry, most of whom hailed from the Hawaiian islands.

The May 23, 1942 Evacuation Notice resulting from FDR's Executive Order 9066 ordering the forced internment of Japanese Americans. Photo: Julie L. Kessler
The May 23, 1942 Evacuation Notice resulting from FDR’s Executive Order 9066 ordering the forced internment of Japanese Americans. Photo: Julie L. Kessler

One of those young servicemen would be shot in the chest by Germans while serving in France, then shot again in the stomach when serving in Italy. When the young American raised his arm to throw his last grenade, a German soldier fired severing most of the young man’s right arm. This American soldier served another two years following his arm’s amputation and was awarded a Bronze Star, Purple Heart and Medal of Honor. Daniel K. Inouye also served 50 years in the US Senate chairing the powerful Intelligence Committee, the Appropriations Committee, and ultimately became Senate President Pro Tempore. Posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama, Honolulu International Airport now bears Inouye’s name.

Many of the Japanese American Museum’s docents were interred following Pearl Harbor’s aftermath and give museum tours. Some also give Jtown walking tours. My museum guide, the charming 83-years-young Roy Matsuzaki, was interred in Arkansas with his family when he was just seven, first at Jerome War Relocation Center, then at Rohwer. Matsuzaki generously shared his families’ unjust and sobering experiences during those long years, remarkably without even a scintilla of resentment.

Jtown is also home to San Jose’s Buddhist Church Betsuin, the local community’s focal point. The Hondo, or main chapel, was completed in 1937 and has been lovingly restored. Its interior is a fascinating combination of western-style church pews and beautiful eastern gold-plated altars with intricately carved art from Japan. One of its leaders, Reverend Gerald Sakamoto, originally from Hawaii, is a brilliant and guiding force with a calm serenity few mortals possess. 

The interior of San Jose's Buddhist Church Betsuin. Photo: Julie L. Kessler
The interior of San Jose’s Buddhist Church Betsuin. Photo: Julie L. Kessler

There are several interesting shops in Jtown selling all manner of Japanese goods – kimonos, obis, geta, porcelain and lacquer ware. One such store, 110-year-old Nichi Bei Bussan has in the rear a fine repository of old photographs, newspaper clippings and a copy of the US Congressional Record honoring original owner Shojiro Tatsuno’s son Dave Tatsuno for his courageous documentation of internment camp life.

While the Tatsuno family was interred at Arizona’s Topaz Relocation Center with nearly 8,000 others, Dave Tatsuno surreptitiously filmed life inside the camp with a borrowed – and contraband – 8-millimeter camera. The result was a 48-minute haunting film entitled “Topaz.” In 1996 Topaz was lodged in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry along with classics such as Casablanca.

Jtown also has shops like Nikkei Traditions that sells items appealing to Millennials, such as colored socks brightly embellished with sushi depictions or adorable baby bibs with phrases such as “Miso Pretty.” 219 Jackson St.  For those seeking more permanent adornments, State of Grace owner Takahiro (Taki) Kitamura or one of his staff can provide traditional Japanese block print inspired tattoos

Tom and Judy Kumamaru have been making manju at the same Jtown location for 30 years. Photo: Julie L. Kessler
Tom and Judy Kumamaru have been making manju at the same Jtown location for 30 years. Photo: Julie L. Kessler

When hunger strikes, a delectable choice is Minato Restaurant serving traditional Japanese cuisine. The chicken teriyaki, salmon steamer plates and uber spicy ahi sushi were delicious and reasonably priced. It is such a local favorite for both lunch and dinner, that in 2015 CNN’s Anthony Bourdain enjoyed a meal here and filmed an episode.

Another fun spot is Roy’s Station Coffee & Tea. Here you can fuel up on your favorite caffeinated fix inside and check out the gleaming classic cherry-red 1957 Coke machine. Or people watch outside on the umbrella-laden patio. This filling station pumped Mobil gas from 1946 to 1990 until its current conversion to all things caffeine and is now run by the granddaughter of the original gas station owner, Roy Murotsune.

No trip to Jtown would be complete without a stop at Shuei-Do Manju Shop. At Shuei-Do, owners Tom and Judy Kumamaru have been seated together in the rear of the shop for 30 years stirring, kneading, filling and folding to produce scrumptious adzuki bean delicacies sold in front. Though I admittedly ate far more Manju than should be legal, clearly I am not alone in my Shuei-Do adoration. When Emperor Akihito was in the bay area for a banquet in 2002, he sent an assistant directly to Shuei-Do to retrieve a box of his own. 

San Jose’s Jtown has been re-gentrified, revitalized and reborn, but what it has maintained in its traditions, spirit and resolve are perhaps even more important than its remodeled bricks and mortar. When one spends time here it is evident the past is never very far away. However what Jtown best reflects is that it serves to remind us all of what is most important about America: the ability of a people not just to survive in the face of their own nation’s injustice toward them, but to thrive onward and upward in spite of it.

Julie L. Kessler is an attorney, legal columnist and travel writer based in Los Angeles and the author of the award-winning book “Fifty-Fifty: The Clarity of Hindsight.” She can be reached at www.vagabondlawyer.com

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